Long before finance, gold or opium, Hong Kong made its fortune from something else: salt. It was one of the only things this rocky patch of land had going for it. For centuries before this land was ever known as Hong Kong, this was a forlorn corner of the Chinese empire, just barely within the reach of the authorities. It was the edge of the earth, the kind of place to which you fled when you were trying to escape your enemies – as Emperor Duanzong did when the Song Dynasty (960-1279) fell to Mongol invaders. After escaping his capital in Hangzhou, the emperor made his way to Fujian and then Hong Kong, where he ultimately died on Lantau Island.
Salt was power in ancient China. It was considered essential to life, used for flavouring and preserving food, but also to disinfect bamboo plumbing and to make saltpeter – a crucial ingredient in gunpowder. When the Warring States were conquered by the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), salt was left in the hands of local rulers and merchants, which eventually weakened the power of the central authorities. The situation remained the same during the early years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), but in the year 119, Emperor Wu of Han decided to centralise control by declaring an imperial monopoly on salt production. Eventually, salt became the second largest source of revenue for the imperial government, after the land tax.
There is archaeological evidence of salt production in Hong Kong stretching back 1,700 years, well before the settlement of any of the Cantonese-speaking clans that came to dominate the area in more recent history. Salt fields were found in six general areas: Kwun Tong, Sai Kung, Sha Tau Kok, Tai Po, Tuen Mun and Lantau. In most of these areas, salt production was controlled directly by the government – Kwun Tong’s original name (Gun1 Tong4 官塘) literally means “government fields.”
But imperial power has always been stretched thin in Hong Kong, and illicit salt production was rampant. In 1278, the ascendant Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) tried to enforce the salt monopoly on Lantau, but the local inhabitants blocked its soldiers from landing by planting wooden stakes on the shore. The locals then retaliated by sailing up the Pearl River to Guangzhou, where they laid siege to the city until imperial soldiers destroyed their boats with flaming arrows – whose incendiary qualities came thanks to salt-derived gunpowder, incidentally.
It wasn’t the first time the inhabitants of Lantau had revolted against attempts to tax their salt production. Another rebellion had taken place a hundred years earlier, which prompted the imperial government to send troops to Lantau to massacre as many local villagers as they could. Salt production on Lantau was centred around Tai O, whose inhabitants were mainly Tanka boat people, who are descendants of the indigenous peoples that had been displaced by Chinese settlers. The Tanka were seen by the Chinese as barbarians, and in turn they had a history of resisting authority; for centuries, Tai O was a centre of piracy alongside illegal salt production. The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) tried to deal with the situation by building forts around Hong Kong, but Tai O’s salt smugglers persisted.
That was true even in the 20th century – for a time, at least. After Japanese forces blockaded the Chinese coast in 1936, blocking imports of foreign salt, Tai O residents began smuggling salt into the mainland. By then, the village was one of three places left in Hong Kong that still produced salt, along with Tuen Mun and Sha Tau Kok. In a 1940 article for The Hong Kong Naturalist, researcher Lin Shu-yen noted that Tai O’s salt industry was by far the largest, with 70 acres of fields that produced 1,488 tons of salt per year. Only a small portion was used locally, for salting fish; the rest was exported.
According to Lin, salt farmers in Tai O were divided into two camps: native villagers and migrants from Haifeng County in eastern Guangdong, where salt had been produced for many generations. The Haifeng farmers received no wages, only a share of the final crop, and a small monthly stipend for housing and food. They made salt by flooding basins with seawater and waiting for it to evaporate, a several-day process that involved transferring the increasingly salty brine into a succession of basins until salt crystals were all that remained. Tai O farmers used the older leaching method, which involved sprinkling seawater on loose soil that is eventually flooded and filtered to create a brine that evaporates in the sun, leaving behind salt.
By the time Lin conducted his research in the late 1930s, the Chinese salt trade had gone through a century of tumult. Although the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) maintained a strict monopoly, corruption was rampant, and government salt officials embezzled money and were bribed by salt producers to keep some of their production off the books. In 1832, an official named Tao Zhu introduced free-market reforms, which led to the decentralisation of the salt industry. Things changed yet again after the 1911 Revolution. The new Republic of China took out loans from foreign banks, which took the salt trade as collateral. The Sino-Foreign Salt Administration was established to oversee the industry, and as the republic descended into chaos, it remained one of the few beacons of stability.
The situation in Hong Kong was a bit different. Although British colonial officials saw salt as a potential growth industry in the early 20th century, foreign imports quickly overshadowed local production. Hong Kong’s salt industry withered and finally disappeared after World War II. But remnants live on. If you go to Yim Tin Tsai — literally Little Salt Field — in Sai Kung, you’ll come across restored salt pans that have been restored as a tourist and educational attraction. And in Tai O, you’ll be greeted by the pungent aroma of shrimp paste drying in large blue barrels. Shrimp paste is made from just two ingredients, shrimp and salt, and it is an essential ingredient in Cantonese cooking. It is still made the way it has been for centuries – only now, the salt is imported.