It’s hot – and worse, it’s so humid, the concrete jungle has begun to feel like an actual rainforest. There are some benefits to being in the tropics though, and while some of us looking for palm trees and white sand this summer, others will settle for a cold drink with tropical fruits and a lot of imagination.
Move over, kale-spinach-spirulina-chia-seed smoothie: the original juice makers are here. Before the arrival of “superfoods” poached from the bottom of our oceans or discovered from indigenous groups in Latin America, people relied on more normal fruits to treat their ailments. In Hong Kong, that admittedly means fruits imported from all over the world, but fruits with names we can easily pronounce nonetheless.
Chinese culture has traditionally regarded foods as having the power to heal or to balance the body’s system. Food therapy, known in Chinese as sik6 liu4 (食療), is the wisdom passed down through the ages about which foods are necessary for a healthy diet and which ingredients have powerful healing properties. When people fall ill, it’s food first, drugs later. High calorie foods, deep fried dishes, alcohol and red and orange foods can generally be seen as “hot” foods which are appropriate for treating “cold” illnesses such as fatigue and anaemia. Green vegetables, watery flavours and sour dishes are generally seen as “cold” foods useful for healing “hot” disorders such as heartburn, sore throat and constipation.
In Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, the fruit juice doctor is stationed at the Forever Healthy Fresh Fruit Shop: Cheung Shui-man. No more than two metres wide and six metres long, this tiny streetside shop has been treating locals to fresh fruit juice for the past twenty years. The tight space is filled with boxes of Hawaiian papaya, Japanese peach, American cherries, Chinese Hami melon, purple plums, oranges and Xinjiang pear. Only the best will do for Cheung, who insists there is no reason to compromise on quality just because they are being juiced instead of eaten whole.
A long horizontal fridge lines the wall, filled with various fruit chilling comfortably before their date with the juicer. A large floppy canvas sign hangs above the fruit, suggesting juice combinations and their benefits. Carrot and apple is good for the eyes, guava and celery is good for high blood pressure and diabetes; orange juice prevents the flu, star fruit juice soothes the throat, grapefruit juice is good for beauty. All these miracle juices are listed at HK$17, while ironically, a can of Coca Cola is promoted for HK$5. Fresh fruit juice is not without sponsorship from sugary syrup, it seems.
We think of cold fruit juice and ice cream as summer treats, but Cheung says that their customers come all year round, as much in winter as in the swampy heat of summer. The health benefits of each fruit don’t stop with the seasons. “Old people like guava juice,” says Cheung, by way of example. “It is good for blood pressure and the flavour is refreshing.” As we discuss the benefits of celery versus green apple, customers pass by, asking her to choose the best piece of fruit for them. With many loyal customers, trust has been established over the years and they know that they will be getting something delicious, even if it means splurging HK$25 on a single Japanese doughnut peach.
“Sometimes people will come by and describe how they feel. Their system might be a bit out of balance. They’ll say they are “hot” (jit6 hei3 熱氣) or tired and I’ll suggest a juice for them.” With the Chinese belief of yin and yang, a bit of “hot yang air” can be balanced out with “cold yin” fruit and vice versa. Cheung insists “it is so much better to go the natural way. Sometimes there is no use for medicines and pharmaceuticals. We use Australian carrots, American apples and we choose to use a juicer and not a blender so that what you get is only the purest juice. There is no added sugar or ice to thicken it up. And for that the fruit must be good.” If you listen to Cheung, apple juice begins to sound like the strongest form of ibuprofen.
The juice stand was originally opened by Cheung’s sister, who sold juice and desserts for around thirty years before deciding they needed seating space for customers to consume their treats on site. They set up shop down the road, and since then, the juice shop has been Cheung’s domain. Before the era of 7-Eleven and Circle K, the Forever Healthy Fresh Fruit Shop also functioned as a small convenience store, selling cigarettes, soft drinks and tissue packets. Nowadays, they focus entirely on fresh juice.
Every morning, Cheung phones her wholesale supplier to get the latest update on what is fresh and good and then orders based on their recommendations. She keeps the quantities small so that they can be replenished every day. But the quality of the fruit is only one reason Cheung has such a loyal customer base. “People keep coming back to us, because it is just as much about personal relationships,” she says. “In Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau, we are boat people, so there is also very much a sense of community. We were born and bred in Aberdeen. I was born in the hospital right here.”
Cheung’s fresh juice shop is representative of many small family businesses which have been taken over by large chains and franchises in the city. They are hidden among the Watsons, Park’n’Shops, Wellcomes and 7-Elevens that occupy the roadside real estate of most neighbourhoods. With rents as ridiculously high as they are, it is increasingly difficult to hire outside help, so most family shops can only afford the free labour of family members. The younger generation is losing interest in this kind of life: it is tough work with long hours on your feet and not much monetary reward in return.
“I enjoy this because I also chat with customers, I give advice. But my children are not interested, they have studied more and will not want to do this,” says Cheung. “I guess I will just continue as long as I am healthy.” Good thing she runs a juice stand. When asked which juice is her favourite, Cheung brushes it off with a grin. “Oh, I am too gourmand, I like to mix everything together.” Maybe the secret to keeping fit and balanced is to mix it all up.
Forever Healthy Fresh Fruit Shop (永康鮮果士多), Shop M, 171, Old Main Street, Aberdeen.