From colonial Hong Kong’s earliest years, most Europeans who elected to stay on after retirement had to find some additional income to supplement any pension earned during their working lives. Across Asia, tavern-keeping was a popular choice for former soldiers, sailors and policemen who, for whatever reasons, did not want to return to Britain or elsewhere.
As well as being a convivial way to spend one’s later years, profit margins could be substantial if businesses were managed efficiently and the proceeds shrewdly invested.
Becoming a publican fitted the skill sets many had acquired in their earlier careers. “Mine host” affability, combined with solid people skills, most notably the ability to size up a customer quickly, and either head off or swiftly deal with the trouble that periodically flared with excessive alcohol consumption, were essential requirements.
Given that the clientele were mostly drawn from similar socio-economic backgrounds, a European publican could relate amicably to his sober patrons, and was far better equipped to manage them drunk than a bar manager from a different cultural background.
Hong Kong’s earliest commercial directories mention numerous taverns and their owners. Many establishments were located along the western end of today’s Queen’s Road Central, and the narrow side streets between the waterfront and hillside. Newspapers, court records and local histories drawn from these sources vividly document drunken brawls and other rowdy breaches of the peace connected to the European tavern-keeping trade.
Booze sold in Hong Kong came in a variety of forms, but the cheapest and most potent was locally produced Chinese samsu. Much like Chinese cooking wine, samsu was distilled from rice, sorghum, millet or other grains, and often adulterated with tobacco or even a pinch of gunpowder to give it extra oomph.
“Export strength” British beers were heavily fortified to survive lengthy transportation and prolonged storage in hot climates. Like most non-fortified, grape-based wines, brewed beer could – and did – spoil in the heat and become unsaleable within a short period. India pale ale, still a popular variety, was originally produced in Britain for export to India, tropical Asia and the China coast.
European predominance in tavern-keeping (as well as in other roles of the hospitality industry, such as chefs and pastry cooks) was ultimately due to one basic economic fact: from the time of their 16th-century arrival in maritime Asia onwards, Europeans were unable to compete shoulder to shoulder with their Asian counterparts in almost all pre-existing trades or occupations.
In addition, newcomers from temperate climates were unsuited to most agricultural labour in the tropics, such as rice farming and sugar planting. Specialised occupations where European and Asian skill sets were similar or identical – from goldsmiths and farriers to tailors and shoemakers – all had pre-existing commercial netorks that even enterprising newcomers from elsewhere in Asia (Chinese moving to India, for example) were often unable to penetrate, much less those who hailed from the other side of the world.
In much of Asia, habitual public consumption of alcohol was socially unacceptable, which provided a convenient business opportunity for European entrepreneurs to sell to their own people. Japan was a notable exception. From the 17th century, the country was one of the few places where Europeans did not dominate tavern-keeping.
As Japan expanded economically from the late 19th century, the Japanese opened popular bars in port cities from Singapore to Shanghai. In interwar Hong Kong, Japanese-owned watering holes, mainly clustered around Wan Chai, were perennially popular, especially among poorly paid British servicemen, who were attracted by cheap, high-quality Japanese beer and spirits.