Of borsch and White Russians - emigres' legacy to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 8:13pm

Ever wondered why every little cha chaan teng in Hong Kong - and even the fast-food chains - serve lor soong tong (borsch) as their 'western' soup option? Tasty and readily available all over Hong Kong, borsch is a lingering reminder of the White Russian presence here and elsewhere along the Chinese coast from the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917 until the late 1950s.

With few employment options open to them when they arrived in China, White emigres - so called because many of them supported the Bolshevik-opposing White movement in Russia - often became bodyguards, riding instructors and dance hostesses. White Russians were responsible for an enrichment in the cultural life of Hong Kong and the treaty ports, starting orchestras, ballet troupes and nightclubs. The Hong Kong Philharmonic for many years was conducted by a talented White Russian violinist, Solomon Bard. Originally from Harbin, in Manchuria, Bard came down from Shanghai in the 30s to study medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

Some White Russians were talented artists. George Smirnoff, an architect living in Hong Kong, moved to Macau with his family after American bombing raids destroyed their home in Kowloon. There he was commissioned by prominent businessman P.J. Lobo to paint a series of views: glorious watercolours, full of detail and light, that are redolent of a Macau now largely vanished. Smirnoff returned to Hong Kong and died shortly after the war. One of his daughters still lives here.

Some White Russians became chefs and opened their own cafes. Their Chinese employees eventually branched out on their own, opening cafes selling similar types of food. Dishes such as borsch and shaslik were inexpensive and easily prepared.

Until the 70s, for many local people, 'eating western' was something of a treat, and menus were for the most part of Russian origin. Queen's Cafe in Causeway Bay is one long-surviving example of a formerly White Russian-owned cafe-bakery.

After the communist victory in China, many White Russians sought to move on again. Having precariously survived one revolution, few had any desire to try their luck with another one. Many came to Hong Kong from Shanghai, Manchuria and elsewhere, and by the early 50s the number of White Russians here was higher than ever. Most, though, only stayed long enough to secure immigrant visas to the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

So, that tasty, ever-popular bowl of borsch didn't just appear in Hong Kong from nowhere. It serves as a lasting reminder of a mostly vanished community that once seemed a permanent feature of local life.