When talking to people who happened to live in Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s, one is struck by their frequent reference to Russian restaurants. Places like Tkachenko or Cherikoff are oftened mentioned. There was a time indeed, when Western food in Hong Kong was systematically associated with Russian cuisine. Similarly, Russian pastries were popular in the British colony for their big creamy fruit cakes. Then again, who are these Russians who stayed in Hong Kong and left such a legacy that it is still remembered today?
If you visit the Happy Valley's colonial cemetery, where the oldest tombs in Hong Kong are located, you will probably notice some Saint Cyril crosses bearing Slavic surnames among the British tombstones. Those are orthodox catholic Russians tombs. Among the reasons that led several generations of Russians to emigrate to Hong Kong, many are related to the turbulent history of this country. The first waves, however, were the Jews fleeing the progroms of the 1880s. Those took refuge in Harbin Manchuria, at the end of the Trans-Siberian line. Some families continued their journey to Shanghai and eventully to Hong Kong. In the Jewish cemetery which was opened in 1855, you can see the tomb of Pearl Antschel Steinberg, who was born in Russia and died in Hong Kong in 1901 at the age of 72. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the massive exode of escaping csarist Russians pushed thousands of people into China.
These White Russians would leave Harbin for Shanghai in the 1920s, turning some parts of the city into some kind of "Little Russia". From the 1930s on, some moved to Hong Kong, which was the "economic" annex of the "Paris of the East". The cards were redistributed in 1949 with the fall of Chiang Kai Shek to the armies of Mao Zedong. The Russians, like many other nationalities, had little left but leaving China. They would often transit through Hong Kong before obtaining a visa for Australia or the United States. However, some of them chose to settle in the “fragrant harbour” for a few decades.
In 1934, the Orthodox Church Peter and Paul was founded by the missionary and future Archpriest Dmitry Uspensky (1886-1970), a native from Shuya near Moscow. At the same time, former demobilized csarist soldiers who had a reputation of solid military expertise, enrolled in the Hong Kong police, constituting up to 15 per cent of the peace keeping forces. A small group of 25 even formed a unit specializing in the fight against the pirates, then raging in the China Sea. Indeed, a hostage-taking on a line boat near Hong Kong made the front lines of the newspapers a few years earlier, making it crucial for the Westerners to adapt to this threat. These additional Russian resources were then more than welcome. From 1930, they will accompany valuable shipments, deterring many pirates attacks, which decreased significantly for the boats that were protected by these valuable guards (first photo).
Already popular in Harbin and Shanghai, Russian cuisine was soon to fill the restaurant tables of Hong Kong. Thus in 1928, the Russian Jewish associate Aaron Landau of Jimmy James, the founder of Jimmy's Kitchen on West Nanjing Road in Shanghai, launched the brand in Hong Kong. Among the dishes on the menu were classics like chicken "a la king", fish meuniere or the famous borscht. The success was such that, just like in Shanghai, Hong Kong cafes, whose chefs had been trained by Russians, also proposed comparable dishes.
Today, whether at Shanghai's Deda Cafe or Hong Kong's Queen's Café, you can find "lo sung tong" (羅宋湯), the Chinese name for borscht, or the pork schnitzel alongside the old-style fresh mold coffee. Tkachenko, which already existed in Shanghai, opened a tea salon in the 1950s which cakes soon reach a high reputation among hongkongers. In "Gweilo", Martin Booth's childhood memories, it is after leaving Tkachenko's that the main character met the "Queen of Kowloon", a Russian aristocrat who had fallen into opium and sold her diamonds on the street to survive. On Nathan Road, the Chantecler restaurant, whose name is French but food Russian, also served meals made of zakouski, the typical Russian starters, or pan-fried liver with bacon. Then Cherikoff pastry, near Waterloo Road on Kowloon, is one of the remaining Russian tradition addresses in Hong Kong.
If you have the opportunity to have lunch in Hong Kong, check if the menu includes borscht. This could be a rare and exquisite opportunity to celebrate 150 years of history between Russia and China!
References et adresses:
- Anti-Piracy Guards - 1939-1939 by Nona Parks, post from her familly website Pio-Ulski.com
- Othodoxy in Hong Kong, post from the Peter & Paul Orthodox Church in Hong Kong website
- Russian food and eateries in Hong Kong, Gwulo website by David Bellis, post 3/2/2011
- Jimmy's Kitchen, 1-3 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong, tel +852 2526 5293
- Cherikoff, 760 Nathan Road, Prince Edward, Hong Kong, tel +852 2381 8195
- Queen's Cafe, 500 King's Road, North Point, Hong Kong, tel +852 2576 2658