Yuan yang, the original cha chaan teng tea-coffee drink enjoyed by Hongkongers since the 1960s, might not be a good representation of the city's tea tradition, but the nostalgic milky concoction may have found a place in Hong Kong's relatively recent coffee story.
Above Causeway Bay's busy Leighton Road, Caffe Habitu's Coffee Academy & Roasting Studio buzzes with the caffeinated energy of a new enterprise. Opened in September, the converted tong lau - a hip warehouse space filled with old sofas, retro furniture and coffee paraphernalia - is primarily a training space for the small chain's 80 baristas, but it's also a hub for educating a niche and enthusiastic public about the nuances of coffee.
Donning a smart white shirt and brown apron, district coffee trainer Carol Wong is conducting a Hong Kong Explore workshop, using the anecdotal history of yuan yang to describe how the city's coffee has evolved. The original combination of 'weak tasting Lipton teabag tea with cheap Indonesian over-boiled pot coffee' was comforting but underwhelming in every sense, she says. The contemporary version, Habitu's own oolong latte, is a carefully blended combination of Taiwan's famous tea and a shot of good Italian espresso coffee, topped with frothed milk.
'If we think of espresso, we relate it to Italy,' Wong says. 'There's not much of a common image for the Hong Kong coffee culture, so we wanted to make something signature for the city.'
If a little under-researched, it's a good anecdote, certainly one that tourists will latch onto. But do Hongkongers buy into the idea of a local coffee culture, however it's dressed up? Serious coffee drinker Alvin Hui Hau-wing, from Discovery Bay, thinks so.
Although he's not involved with the industry directly, he founded the Hong Kong Professional Coffee Association with a group of friends in the coffee scene. His eponymous website (www.alvinhui.com/coffee.htm) says as much about his passion for the drink as the retro 1950s coffee machine he had shipped from Italy for his kitchen.
Hui believes the past five years provide evidence of a growing local coffee culture. In 2007 and 2008, Hongkongers favoured the branded chains such as Starbucks and Pacific Coffee, he says. They were using coffee machines but making Italian-American coffee not Italian-style coffee.
'Previously, coffee had not been about enjoyment; it was daily medicine, a means of recharging the batteries, and it was associated with work and study. Then Starbucks provided a good-looking and stylish environment, with nice couches and coffee cups. It was about lifestyle,' Hui says. 'Starbucks' coffee might not have been that good, but it had served its purpose by changing people's attitudes about coffee.'
Then two things happened: the financial crisis hit the hip pocket of the big chain coffee consumers, and many outlets switched from manual machines to automated versions to promote standardisation. And by then people were educated about coffee.
One of them was Meme Lam Ngan-fung, a student from Mong Kok, who started drinking coffee in 2008 when a friend brought beans back from Japan 'and let me try her home-brewed coffee'. Lau drinks 'more than three cups a day', and considers herself a serious coffee drinker.
'I am fussy about the taste mainly, and I do my own brewing at home,' she says.
Lam contends a lot more people are drinking coffee now and know more about the subject: 'I think the flavour of coffee and playing with latte art are becoming very popular.'
Foreign influence has certainly been a factor. When expat James Peterson arrived in Hong Kong in 2008, he bemoaned the lack of an independent coffee house serving a good creamy 'flat white', his 'morning drip-feed' in Australia. Then Fuel Espresso opened in the IFC Mall. According to Hui, the shop was a breakthrough for the local coffee scene.
'It was, and still is, the only coffee shop to exist purely for coffee, not coffee and food. It also occupies real estate space that demands big money, which means they're selling a lot of espressos,' he says.
By 2009, other small-scale coffee shops were plying a successful trade. Last year they turned it up a notch by roasting and blending their own coffee beans, a factor considered key to a decent brew. Coffee Corridor, Coco Espresso, 18 Grams and Barista Jam - all characterised by their pocket size and coffee focus - are names serious coffee drinkers will know. Their small-scale expansion, and that of bigger venues such as Caffe Habitu and Holly Brown, 'are key to the future of Hong Kong coffee', says Hui. 'They're the new power in the next five years, with the money, passion and knowledge to promote the culture.'
Back at the coffee academy, Wong is finishing off the frothy oolong latte with a little lesson in latte art. If Hong Kong does have a claim to coffee, it could be the fascination with this peculiarly creative outlet - decorating the milky froth with whimsical pictures. Today we're creating bauhinias, another Hong Kong touch.
The oolong latte might not be to the purist's taste, but it provides a fitting metaphor for Hong Kong - tea and coffee culture can coexist.