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A customer drinks her Hong Kong-style milk tea in the Hoko Cafe in London. Workshops are popping up and milk tea businesses are expanding beyond Chinatowns in Britain. Photo: AP/Kin Cheung

‘It’s like reminding myself I am a Hongkonger’: drinking Hong Kong-style milk tea in the UK offers émigrés a taste of home

  • As thousand of Hongkongers leave their city, many are finding comfort in a familiar taste: Hong Kong milk tea, which is growing in popularity in Britain
  • For some it’s a political statement, for others it’s nostalgia, but either way, five milk tea brands have emerged in the UK in the past two years

In London, Wong Wai-yi misses the taste of home. A year ago, the 31-year-old musician was in Hong Kong, earning a good living composing for TV and films and teaching piano.

Today, she makes about half as much in London, working part-time as a server alongside her musical pursuits. She chose the job in part because staff meals allow her to save money on food.

It’s a difficult adjustment. And Wong, who left Hong Kong with her boyfriend in January, has turned to a hometown staple to keep her grounded: milk tea. She takes the drink to parties with Hong Kong friends and gives bottles to colleagues as gifts.

“It’s like reminding myself I am a Hongkonger. It will be fine as long as we are willing to endure the hardships and work hard,” said Wong, who left as part of an exodus that began the National Security Law was passed in 2020.

How Hong Kong’s iconic milk tea became a symbol of the city’s identity

As tens of thousands leave Hong Kong for new lives abroad, many are craving a flavour from childhood that’s become a symbol of the city’s culture: the sweet, heavy tea with evaporated milk that’s served both hot and cold.

Workshops are popping up to teach professionals to brew tea like short-order cooks, and milk tea businesses are expanding beyond Chinatowns in Britain.

The menu at the Hoko Cafe, a pop-up café in the trendy London neighbourhood of Shoreditch. Photo: AP/Kin Cheung
Since 2020 more than 133,000 Hong Kong residents have secured a British National (Overseas) visa that allows them to live and work in the UK and apply for British citizenship after six years. Official figures have not been released on how many have gone to the UK but most recipients are expected to do so, given the visa’s cost.

Exiled activist Lee Ka-wai said that immersing himself at a Hong Kong-style cafe in London with a cup of milk tea was a luxury.

The 26-year-old fled Hong Kong in March last year out of fear of being arrested. He is wanted by police for inciting others to boycott the legislative election in December 2021. As an asylum seeker in Britain, he is not allowed to work and is living on savings.

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Even if the taste is right, he said, the feel of a cha chaan teng – a traditional Hong Kong cafe – and the sounds of customers chatting in Cantonese cannot be replicated.

“It’s strange because I can feel a sense of home overseas. But it also has another meaning – there’s something that cannot be replaced,” he said. “What we long for most is to go home and see a better Hong Kong. But we can’t.”

Some emigrants, like Eric Tam, a 41-year-old manager at an insurance company, enrol in milk tea lessons before leaving. Visiting Hong Kong this month, he stocked up on a milk tea blend, a recipe that evolved from British teas in the colonial era.


While tea is easy to find in England, he said, the taste isn’t the same. “British milk tea is just watery milk,” said Tam.

A staff member of Hoko Milk Tea pours milk tea. Photo: Hoko

Before moving to Liverpool with his wife and two younger daughters in June, Tam signed up for lessons at the Institution of Hong Kong Milk Tea. The two-year-old organisation teaches students techniques like pouring tea back and forth between a kettle and a plastic container to enhance its flavour before mixing it with evaporated milk.


Yan Chan, the school’s founder, estimated that about 40 per cent of the 2,000 people who have studied with her were planning to emigrate.

Milk tea only began to emerge as a symbol of the Hong Kong identity over the past 15 years, said Veronica Mak, associate professor in the sociology department of Hong Kong Shue Yan University.

Mak said that many young people began to think about Hong Kong identity after the government removed Queen’s Pier, a landmark from the city’s colonial past, in 2007. Childhood memories, marketing and a fashion for localism came together to make milk tea a totem of Hong Kong culture.

Veronica Mak is an associate professor in the sociology department of Hong Kong Shue Yan University. Photo: courtesy of Veronica Mak

“When you ask young people what kind of milk tea they like to drink, they will tell you it’s the bubble milk tea,” she said. “But when you come to the identity part … they will not say the bubble tea but the local-style milk tea.”


Most milk-tea lovers interviewed said milk tea isn’t political. But Tam believes it’s a form of silent resistance. “We can choose to preserve the culture that we want to keep. It cannot be destroyed even if other people try,” he said.

Contemporary Asian tea culture is catching on globally. Outside Chinatowns, at least five Hong Kong-style milk tea brands have emerged over the past two years in Britain.

One set up a pop-up cafe in the trendy East London neighbourhood of Shoreditch in September, attracting locals and tourists, as well as Hong Kong émigrés.

Patrons enjoy Hong Kong-style milk tea in Shoreditch, London. Photo: AP/Kin Cheung

Eric Wong, a tea wholesaler, began selling bottled milk tea in 2021 after moving to the UK, and offers milk tea workshops. He said he’s making 500 to 1,000 bottles of milk tea a week, and his south London business broke even after about six months.


His Trini Hong Kong Style Milk Tea products are available online and at major Asian supermarkets. The taste of home can provoke strong emotions. A young woman from Hong Kong once shed tears after tasting his tea, Wong said.

Between people planning to leave and growing interest in local culture, Chan is busy. On November 3, nine people attended her class, none of whom had plans to emigrate.

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Cooking enthusiast Dennis Cheng had a class with her in late September and practised the signature pouring while preparing to leave Hong Kong with his wife and children.

He said the taste will help remind him of Hong Kong and friends back home.

“This may help me feel that emigrating overseas isn’t really that sad,” he said. “It’s just that I need more time to adapt to it.”