Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am

Whatever the city's frequently trumpeted label as 'the world's freest economy' might otherwise suggest, monopolies, duopolies, de facto cartels and other forms of restrictive trade practices are the officially overlooked rules of the game in Hong Kong. And so it has always been.

Perhaps nowhere is this legacy more immediately obvious than along Hong Kong Island's Des Voeux Road West. Perennially colourful and an enduring delight to photographers - primarily for the sheer preponderance of shops selling the same product: dried seafood - this has been known to decades of Cantonese speakers as the haam yue laan. Laan means 'monopoly' and that term succinctly defines the kind of business activity that took place here.

Haam yue, salted fish, has a distinctive, ammonia/sulphurous aroma and is generally used these days for flavouring.

Until the late 1940s, fisheries were Hong Kong's largest industry. For decades, the trade was in the hands of a powerful group of Chinese middlemen who controlled the retail sale of fresh fish. Officially sanctioned monopolistic practices meant the price of fresh fish was kept high, which in turn made it a prohibitively expensive meal for the poorer families who made up most of Hong Kong's population. This, in turn, led to serious malnutrition among the city's poor.

Before local ice supplies were abundant and refrigerators commonplace, most fish and seafood sold in the city was salted to aid preservation. Much of the fish that landed at ports such as Aberdeen, Shau Kei Wan, Tai O, Cheung Chau and elsewhere before the Pacific war ended had to be salted for transportation to villages further inland.

The politically influential laan was only broken in the post-war era with the establishment of the Fish Marketing Organisation, an initiative of the post-war Colonial Development and Welfare Scheme, which extensively funded agriculture, fisheries and economic improvement programmes across the British Empire in the 40s and 50s.

Co-operative associations that loaned improvement funds to fishermen at low interest rates were established, as were schools. For the first time, a generation of fishermen's children were being educated.

Lasting credit for this innovation, which radically improved the lives of thousands of Hong Kong's poorest, most socially marginalised people, goes to the late Sir Jack Cater, who then headed the Agriculture and Fisheries Department and later became the city's chief secretary.