Not many things in Hong Kong attract as much snobbery as coffee. Blends from locations as diverse as Jamaica, Flores, Costa Rica and Ethiopia are eagerly discussed. Italianate terms – espresso, cappuccino, latté and the like – add to the beguiling sense of imported glamour. But until relatively recent years, coffee was not widely drunk among Hong Kong’s Chinese population, and those who did drink the stuff tended towards instant varieties.
For most palates, coffee brewed from freshly roasted beans was too bitter and sour – and therefore likely to cause a stomach upset – and for those more accustomed to weak Chinese tea, the sudden caffeine jolt was just too intense.
Instant coffee, like many canned and preserved Western foodstuffs, initially found its way to more widespread public consumption courtesy of the local British garrison. Along with evaporated milk, corned beef and luncheon meat, a few bottles of instant coffee powder were used as payment-in-kind for locally engaged civilian workers, who generally resold them.
From these humble beginnings, the taste for coffee gradually spread via the few Western-style, Chinese-owned eateries patronised by overseas Chinese returnees that offered items which (as far as local circumstances, cost and general availability of imported ingredients allowed) approximated foods they had enjoyed during their foreign sojourn. By the 1930s, a number of popular coffee houses had opened, such as the Blue Bird Café, in the old China Building in Central, which became popular meeting points for affluent young people.
While Hong Kong Chinese tended not to drink much coffee, the local Southeast Asian Chinese community increasingly drank little else. For the most part, these coffee drinkers were émigrés from political turmoil and anti-Chinese movements in 1950s Indonesia. Since they had grown up in a coffee-producing country, where the drink was an everyday commodity for even the poorest members of society, they naturally wanted a reliable supply in their new home. Numerous small “Toko Indonesia” shops opened in Hong Kong, all stocking high-quality coffee at reasonable prices, as well as other familiar Indonesian foods. Coffee available in these shops was usually roasted on the premises, often with an addition of butter or margarine to aid caramelisation, and then ground when required to ensure freshness.
The internationally flavoured coffee culture that has evolved in Hong Kong over the past two decades or so carries a highly desirable whiff of Westernised lifestyle. European coffee stylesrequire specific equipment for expressing the liquid under high pressure, frothing milk with steam, and so forth. Not long ago, these once-expensive imported machines – now standard kitchen equipment in aspirational Hong Kong homes (even if they aren’t actually used as much as their owners might like to have their guests believe) – were available only for restaurant use.
Over the past two decades, North American-style coffee chains, with their focus-group-driven vision of a make-believe-affluent, hi-tech student lifestyle directly translated from an imagined Pacific Northwest, have invaded the region. In their wake an entire new set of parroted vocabulary has had to be learned merely to order a hot drink without confusion. A presumed sense of funky individuality sits uneasily with these otherwise almost identical, numbingly conformist chain stores.
Serving your drinks, with carefully choreographed chirpiness, are minimum-wage youngsters who – in the globalised manner of these jobs – need to look a bit funky and original, and somehow behave as though they didn’t really need the job. (Hey! Being a barista is just for fun while we’re actually at college.)
As with so much else in Hong Kong life, getting a simple cup of coffee is a carefully scripted exercise in role play and manufactured, ersatz lifestyle.