Burnt rice would be dried and stored in tins by Chinese migrants for sending or carrying to family in mainland China during Mao’s “Great Famine”, when millions died. Photo: Shutterstock
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

When burnt rice, sent or carried to China, was a lifesaver for families during Mao’s ‘Great Famine’

  • People who left Communist China for Hong Kong and Southeast Asian countries aimed to make a living, not a permanent home, and provide help to family back home
  • They would send parcels containing, or take there themselves, essentials hard to obtain in China. Rice was allowed if cooked, a godsend in Mao’s ‘Great Famine’

From its mid-19th century urban beginnings, Hong Kong was regarded – with some truth – as a place of opportunity for those who had scrabbled hard to make a bare living elsewhere in the Pearl River estuary.

Those who migrated to the British colony generally did so with long-term transience in mind; first and foremost, newcomers came to make a living – not a permanent home – and repatriated whatever money was left over to their home villages, where it went much further anyway.

This remained the case until relatively recently; stories abound of Hong Kong people who visited relatives in mainland China in the 1980s, and returned with only the clothes they wore – everything else had been left behind.

After the Communist assumption of power, in 1949, care parcels were still regularly sent back to ancestral villages from Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Hard-to-obtain goods – many of which could be bought only through ration coupons, or a lengthy wait for a quota-limited item – were popular inclusions.

The cover of Yeap Joo Kim’s book.

China’s best-quality manufactures in those years were almost entirely exported; with unintended irony, these were purchased outside the country (with hard currency) in Hong Kong, Singapore or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and then sent straight back.

In her autobiographical novel Of Comb, Powder and Rouge (1992), Malaysian author Yeap Joo Kim vividly describes the contents of a package sent to relatives in China in the mid-1950s by their family amah.

“Ah Jee ordered a huge wooden crate, almost the size of a bathroom, and hired an expert to chng siow (literally ‘decorate’ – a euphemism for pack). She spent one whole day in Penang doing her shopping, and overseeing the ‘decoration’ of her crate.


“In it she had two Sunbeam bicycles, one Singer sewing machine, heaps of old clothes, bales of navy denim, piles of patchwork quilts, tins of sun-dried leftover rice, cartons of medicinal herbs and roots, black canvas shoes in all sizes, kitchen stools, gallon tins of groundnut oil, spectacles for aged eyes, nails, hammers, sewing thread, scissors, hoes, rakes, needles and a whole paraphernalia of living that we took for granted.”

One staple food item that could not be included in such consignments was uncooked rice; the basic underlying reason for this prohibition was national pride.

A starving peasant family, victims of the disastrous economic policies of the Great Leap Forward that led to the ‘Great Famine’ in China. Photo: Getty Images

In Fragrant Harbour – A Private View of Hong Kong (1962), Hong Kong University lecturer and marine scientist F.D. Ommanney recounted his domestic observations of famine mitigation around the Lunar New Year of 1960.

“In the official view there is plenty of rice for all in China and to spare. In order to demonstrate this, and to show that under Communism the land flows with milk and honey, the People’s Republic occasionally makes gifts of beautiful white rice to the people of Hong Kong. These the Hong Kong Government accepts with its tongue in its cheek.

“While uncooked rice was a prohibited import into the mainland,” he wrote, “for some reason burnt rice, the scrapings from the bottoms of cooking pots, apparently aroused no hostile emotions in the breasts of the Communist authorities, and one could bring into China as much of this as one liked or could carry.”

Families in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia sent or carried leftover rice to their relatives in China to stop them starving to death. Photo: Shutterstock
Team of peasants labouring on a communal farm during the Great Leap Forward that triggered a man-made famine in China. Photo: Getty Images

Ah Jee’s crate sent from Penang also contained this material; what could and could not be sent was widely known across the diaspora.

“‘We are starving. Bring us food!’, their families wrote [from China],” noted Ommanney from his own amah’s experiences in 1960 – and the contents of these food parcels saved many lives, as they were sent at the outset of what has been described as “ Mao’s Great Famine”, the catastrophic failure of agricultural collectivisation and industrial central planning during the Great Leap Forward a few years earlier, that eventually resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

This completely avoidable man-made nightmare – given China’s enormous population – remains unprecedented in human history.