Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 May, 2009, 12:00am

Shantou, just up the Guangdong coast, and the nearby Chaozhou districts, are the ancestral areas of a large proportion of Hongkongers. The Chiu Chow, Hong Kong's largest dialect group after the Cantonese, originally hailed from here.

Picturesquely located on the Hong River, the old city of Swatow - as the name is pronounced in the local dialect - opened to foreign trade as a treaty port in 1858. Over the next 80 years, the city rapidly developed and European-influenced streetscapes and architecture remained largely intact until the early 1990s. A few examples precariously survive, after two decades of extensive demolition and redevelopment.

One of southern China's poorest regions - which, a century ago, implied truly desperate living conditions - Swatow's main export was its people. Emigrants tried their luck all across Southeast Asia. Usually known as the Teochew, Chiu Chow natives are the main ethnic Chinese group in Thailand and have dominated rice milling and export and retail banking industries there for more than a century. Clannish and unashamedly ethnocentric, they also retain close, decades-old links to the international drug trade. With close connections to the Sino-Thai rice importation business, most of Hong Kong's rice and dried-goods shops were once operated by Chiu Chow migrants. A few remain in older areas but most have been superceded by supermarkets.

Embroidery was another export. Attractive Swatow drawnwork and cutwork was exported all over the world from the late 19th century. Swatow table linen can still be found in Hong Kong. Another noted product are Chiu Chau chaang ('Swatow oranges'), which are seasonally available in Hong Kong's wet markets. Known for their distinctive flavour, Swatow oranges provided the original rootstocks for most sweet-orange hybrid varieties produced in the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

Highly stylised and distinctive from Cantonese styles, Chiu Chow opera is widely performed in Hong Kong at temple festivals with elaborate use of fans, clowns and acrobatics.

Shantou experienced considerable investment, mostly from overseas Chiu Chow interests, throughout the 1980s and 90s. Hong Kong's most prominent Chiu Chow tycoon, Li Ka-shing, endowed Shantou University in the early 80s. The institution has since received more than HK$3 billion in funding.

Passenger liners used to travel overnight from Hong Kong but these were discontinued in the mid-90s. Now usually accessed by road, Shantou can be reached in about four hours by express bus from Shenzhen.