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How to walk through a Hong Kong Grocery (straight into a theory of Taste)

2013 December 10

“[O]ne cannot fully understand cultural practices … unless the elaborated taste for the most refined objects is reconnected with the elementary taste for the flavours of food.”—Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste

You would come to Taste a tourist-pilgrim, moved, satiated, wanting for nothing more.

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Your heart would be still at the feet of the Tian Tan “Big” Buddha where the six Devas offer flowers for generosity, incense for ethics, lamps for the clarity of patience, perfume for persevering joyous effort, food as ambrosia to feed the mind, and musical instruments for the clear sounds of wisdom. 

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Your body would be nourished plentifully by what is perhaps the most perfect veg(etari)an Chinese meal you can ever have, set unceremoniously before you at the Po Lin Monastery‘s no-frills cafeteria, some distance beneath the feet of the great Buddha.

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Farther below, a tall escalator ride down from the base of the Ngong Ping cable car station, is the world to which you must return: Starbucks, Häagen-Dazs, and all the world’s name brands making their own offerings in a giant outlet mall just outside the Tung Chung mass transit rail stop. Still one more level down in the basement: Taste.

It will be a precipitous descent.

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The first thing you will notice is the time: not just that it is past 6pm on an early November day in 2013, but that it is 16 years after the British handover of Hong Kong to the PRC, 33 years before the city loses its Special Administrative Region (SAR) designation. You will know this, oddly enough, from what you find at Taste.

Taste is set up like most of the city, to accommodate the global traveler and expat seamlessly, so much so that you don’t really have to pause to think about how to catch a train or how to find a meal or even how to cross the street. You just have to pause with the rhythmic electronic pings that count the time before the “walk” signal appears again, and then when it does, be propelled by the quickened beats to get to the other side. You will learn these habits quickly, and not forget them easily.

Taste is like this. It uses what is familiar and comfortable and recognizable so that you will, before you know it, be yourself absorbed in keeping pace. These quotidian movements and repetitions are like a solution: both means of solving mundane urban problems and liquid solvent. You dissolve quickly into the lifestyle that is Hong Kong.

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For the global traveler and expat is the Hong Kong resident—which is to say that it is that global sensibility that appears most to characterize the city, which positions itself at once as the entry-point to Asia and to the trans-national world beyond. Everywhere, there are little signs of this. The situation of the Tian Tan Buddha vis-à-vis Big Ben, the Cape of Good Hope, the Statue of Liberty, and the Great Wall of China. Footprints that lead in the directions of other Asian countries at a square in Kowloon.

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Even the “Beautiful Wind Mill” bun cups that are both here in their amusing phrasing and elsewhere. And of course, what you find at Taste is just about all of which is here—in the sense of being in the physical space of a Hong Kong grocery—but is also from elsewhere, drawing from the elsewheres of the inimitable “Hong Kong spirit.”

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There are apples from Japan, Malaysia Jackfruit (no cutting necessary), Thailand Emperor Bananas, Taiwan Starfruit, and China Red Persimmons, Red Lily Tomatoes, Kam Quats, and Green Dates. Navel oranges are from far-off South Africa. Classification is by point of origin, tellingly not by fruit or vegetable type.

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Most produce is marked by its provenance–even the Boscs, which are here called “conference pears.” All that isn’t, certainly does not bear the mark of Hong Kong–even when it is a little unusual, like the white packages which were not enoki mushrooms but white (albino?) bittergourd. The significance of all things are relativized in one fashionable post-modern fell-swoop.

Everything, with the exception of dragonfruit and some produce, you will have found it hard to ignore by now, is held tight in plastic wrap.

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Exception: live fish, which need to stay in water until they’ve been rendered into fish heads and fish balls and other fishy products before they can be plastic-wrapped.

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Fish heads, fish heads,
roly-poly fish heads,
fish heads fish heads,
eat them up yum.

You will learn that wet markets that characterize cities like Pondicherry and Ubud have been replaced by wholesalers in Hong Kong. Wholesalers grouped under the “Vegetable Marketing Organization” and the “Fish Marketing Organization” umbrellas handle fresh marine, locally produced, or imported vegetables and fish respectively. Grocers who once used to stock only dry goods now combine the erstwhile wet market and dry good grocery in one large, convenient store. The history of the city is writ-large at Taste: the collective struggle for survival in the post-war years opening out to the emergence of industrial food production (fish sauce, soy sauce, shrimp sauce, oyster sauce; soda; preserved fruits and cakes) in the 1950s, social instability in the 1960s giving way to industrial take-off in the 1970s—and a growth in economic confidence, not to mention mass, ever since.

Taste, as Bourdieu tells, is all about social distinction. The only questions that remain then are: whose taste? And with what social distinctions?

You are lead to the heung-gong yan (Hong Kong people;香港人): not so much a people as “an identity of lifestyle,” as Matthew Turner once called it. Fittingly, Taste’s owners (A.S. Watson, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa Limited), rebranded a selection of their Park’n Shop grocery chain in 2004, precisely to enter the “lifestyle” market: the very domain of the socially distinct heung-gong yan who require “more than food.”

The two most frequently mentioned ‘characteristics’ of heung gong yan were adaptability and metropolitaneity. Most Hong Kong people are immigrants from the mainland or are their descendents who have been affected by the political upheavals in contemporary Chinese history. This common experience in first adverse conditions, and then in the social and economic development in the 1960s and 1970s, contributed much to the high value placed on the ability to adapt. The economic success in the 1980s and 1990s that Hong Kong as a society has enjoyed greatly enhanced the popular belief that, because of the hardworking and versatile population of Hong Kong, the city has matured as a metropolis not only in the Asian region, but also in the world. Such sense of pride and identity as part of this socio-economic miracle has acquired a mythical aura in the Hong Kong ethos. In effect, then, the identity of heung gong yan as a separate group of Chinese was built up in the past 50 years, congealed around the mythical Hong Kong spirit.
–Cheung and Wu, The Globalization of Chinese Food, p142.

This Hong Kong spirit is contained in certain key eating practices, particularly yumcha–literally “drink tea,” or the practice of eating hot and cold foods  in a restaurant when tea is served, “the way of eating that occupies both the stomach and the imagination of the Hong Kong people,” says Hong Kong scholar Siumi Maria Tam. What you know as dimsum is an example of yumcha, which these days incorporate Japanese sashimi, Thai-style chicken feet, and Western fresh cream cakes on the same trolleys alongside more conventional dumplings, buns, and rolls. In yumcha, then, is a metaphor for all of Hong Kong eating: Cantonese at core, but also diffusing its influence to non-Cantonese restaurants as well as karaoke bars, pubs, open-air food stalls, fast-food restaurants, convenience stores.

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And yet, you will find as you wander through the aisles of packaged foods at Taste, either you are not able to recognize expressions of Cantonese selfhood, or this isn’t where to find its strong expressions. Instead, there are further dissolutions into global identity. All the usual juices. A plea for health in Bifidio. A section for packaged Thai. A section for packaged Taiwanese.

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An entire display for Japanese specialty imports. Obligatory Organic. Halloween (just past) candies still out, Christmas in the offing.

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There are refrigerated noodles—lots of them. Japanese and presumably local, quick fix meal-ready.

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Then again, there’re Starbucks Espresso Doubleshots right beside fizzy orange drinks: things classified by their canned packaging rather than their contents. Lemon tea, milk coffee, milk tea, Starbucks Espresso Doubleshots, all a seamless mix. The milk teas strike you as oddities in an otherwise black tea-drinking culture, but perhaps the closest you’ll come to a truly local product in its “east meets west” politically unthreatening yet culturally reassuring sensibility.

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Definitely set apart from the display case with carefully arranged dry sea horse and antler and sliced antler and sea cucumber (from which the lady attendant shoos you off before you can photograph). Specialty items of a culturally esoteric, exotic sort which belong in a “traditional” category all their own.

Taste exemplifies the inventiveness, inclusiveness, and adaptability that characterizes Hong Kong spirit: more than “resident” yet “less than a people’”; diasporic in spirit: neither mainland nor minority, but moving always between locality and nationalism and inter-nationalism; “fed with cultural hybridity and ambiguity”; “marked by adaptability and metropolitaneity.” (All that is Matthew Turner again).

Hong Kong dissolves and absorbs such distinctions with fast-flowing fluid ease. Local culture exists only as lifestyle, lifestyle is articulated as social distinction, taste, and Taste holds it all together, displayed for consumption.

 

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3 Responses Post a comment
  1. December 15, 2013

    Deepa! What a bounty of treats.
    I have to send you some from our ethnic grocers here…
    Hong Kong in many ways seem to empitomize the phenomenon.
    I loved that your lens captured it through the aisles of ‘food’.

    • December 16, 2013

      How nice to hear from you, Shri. Yes, I’ve grown rather obsessed with looking at things through “aisles of food” as you say, wondering how far I can push the analysis with so limited an immersion :) I’d love, love to see images of your aisles and know your thoughts on what they say…

  2. December 28, 2013

    Oh my Deepa, what a beautiful exploration.

    You make me want to head to experience taste….in time.

    I love the photos – especially the white bitter gourd which I thought was ‘enoki’.

    And the concept of hot and cold…..

    Asia is SOOOOOO on my list! Welcome back X X X

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