Hong Kong immigrants long for the taste of milk tea from home

HONG KONG (AP) — In London, Wong Wai-yi misses the taste of home.

A year ago, the 31-year-old musician was in Hong Kong, making a living composing for TV and movies and teaching piano. Today, she makes about half her living 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 tough adjustment. And Wong, who left Hong Kong with her boyfriend in January, has turned to a hometown favorite to keep her grounded: milk tea. He brings the drink to parties with Hong Kong friends and gives bottles to colleagues as gifts.

“It’s like reminding myself that I’m a Hong Konger. It will be fine as long as we are willing to endure hardships and work hard,” said Wong, who left as part of an exodus that began after Beijing passed a law in 2020 restricting civil liberties.

As tens of thousands leave Hong Kong for new lives overseas, many long for a taste from their childhood that has become a symbol of the city’s culture: the sweet, heavy steamed milk tea served both hot and cold in diner-like restaurants called cha chaan tengs. Workshops are popping up to teach professionals to make tea like small-order cooks, and milk tea businesses are expanding beyond Britain’s Chinatowns.

In Hong Kong, milk tea is an unassuming drink, something you use to wash down sweet French toast from a plastic plate. It’s so beloved that members of Hong Kong’s protest movement call themselves part of a “Tea Gala Alliance” with activists from Taiwan, Thailand and Myanmar, who drink similar drinks.

Following a law that silenced or imprisoned The majority of the political opposition, over 133,000 residents have secured a special visa that allows them to live and work in the UK and apply for British citizenship after six years. No official figures have been released on how many have gone, but most recipients are expected to do so, given the cost of visas.

The pathway was introduced last year in response to China’s 2020 National Security Law, which the UK called a “clear violation” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. The declaration included a promise to preserve the rights and freedoms of the former a British colony for 50 years after returning to Chinese rule in 1997.

Exiled activist Lee Ka-wai said tucking into 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 for fear of arrest. He is wanted by the city’s anti-graft body for allegedly inciting others to boycott parliamentary elections in December 2021. As an asylum seeker in Britain, he is not allowed to work and lives on savings.

Even if the taste is right, he said, the feel of a cha chaan teng and the sounds of customers conversing in Cantonese cannot be replicated.

“It’s strange because I can feel a sense of home abroad. But it also has another meaning – there is 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 migrants, like Eric Tam, a 41-year-old manager at an insurance company, sign up for milk tea classes before they leave. Visiting Hong Kong this month, he stocked up on a milk tea blend, a recipe that evolved from colonial-era British teas.

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

Before moving to Liverpool with his wife and two younger daughters in June, Tam signed up for a course at the Institution of Hong Kong Milk Tea. The two-year-old organization teaches students skills such as pouring tea back and forth between a kettle and a plastic container to improve its flavor before mixing it with evaporated milk.

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

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

Mak said many young people began to think about Hong Kong’s identity after the government removed Queen’s Pier, a landmark from the city’s colonial past, in 2007. Childhood memories, marketing and the fashion of localism combined to make the Hong Kong Culture Totem Milk Tea.

“When you ask young people what kind of milk tea they like to drink, they’ll tell you it’s bubble milk tea,” she said, referring to a drink from Taiwan. “But when you get to the identity part … they won’t say bubble tea but local milk tea.”

Most milk tea enthusiasts interviewed told The Associated Press that milk tea is not political. But Tam said it’s a form of tacit resistance.

“We can choose to preserve the culture we want to preserve. It cannot be destroyed even if other people try,” he said.

Modern Asian tea culture is catching on globally. Outside Chinatowns, at least five brands of Hong Kong-style milk tea have appeared in the past two years in Britain. One set up a pop-up cafe in London’s trendy Shoreditch neighborhood in September, attracting Londoners and tourists as well as expats from Hong Kong.

Eric Wong, a tea wholesaler, started selling bottled milk tea in 2021 after moving to the UK and offers milk tea workshops. He said he makes 500 to 1,000 bottles of milk tea a week and his business in south London broke even after about six months. Trini Hong Kong Style Milk Tea products are available online and in major Asian supermarkets.

The taste of home can evoke 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.

Cooking enthusiast Dennis Cheng took a class with her in late September and practiced his signature pour as he prepared 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 can help me feel that migrating abroad is not really so sad,” he said. “I just need more time to adjust to it.”

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Associated Press photographer Kin Cheung in London contributed to this story.

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