In the middle of a steamy summer afternoon, one of Hong Kong’s last remaining ice cafés is packed with customers. Guong Shing Ice Café hasn’t changed much since it opened on a Sheung Shui side street in the 1960s. Every day, its wooden booths play host to customers looking for egg sandwiches and ginger-scented macaroni soup, which they slurp down with one of two nostalgic drinks: red bean ice and pineapple ice, both doused in coconut milk and served with crushed ice in an old-fashioned soda glass. Eventually, the ice melts and mixes with the milk and toppings, creating a frosty, creamy treat that cuts through even the muggiest of heat.
It’s a long way from Sheung Shui to Central, but there’s a link: Ice House Street. For centuries, Cantonese people have enjoyed a diet built around a mix of day-fresh seafood, meat and vegetables, supplemented by a handful of preserved items. When the British arrived in Hong Kong in 1841, though, they had no interest in the local way of eating, and they were frustrated by the lack of refrigeration. One of the first matters of business was to import ice. In 1843, Jardine’s made its first shipment of ice from northern China. Two years later, the Ice House Company was established by another group of entrepreneurs. The government gave it a rent-free plot of land in Central in exchange for providing free ice to the colony’s hospitals. The company built a cold-storage warehouse on Queen’s Road, at the corner of a small lane that was soon named Ice House Street.
While the earliest shipments of ice came from China, the trade was soon dominated by ice from an unlikely source: the frozen ponds of New England. It was a man named Frederic Tudor who hatched the idea of turning ice harvesting into a global business. His plan was to export New England ice to the wealthiest households of the American South and the Caribbean, whom he assumed would enjoy the luxury of a cold drink in the muggy afternoon. In 1806, he packed his first shipment of ice in sawdust, which insulated it on the journey from Maine to Martinique. It arrived mostly intact, but the venture ultimately failed: the ice melted soon after arrival because there was nowhere cool to store it.
Tudor was not deterred. He built a network of storage depots, which expanded the ice business until there wasn’t enough ice in Maine to go around. That’s when Tudor teamed up with inventor Nathaniel Wyeth, who pioneered a new kind of horse-drawn ice cutter that could cut blocks of ice more efficiently than before. Wyeth built a harvesting station on the shores of Fresh Pond, near Boston. As soon as the pond had frozen to a depth of 14 inches, workers and horses ventured onto its icy surface, carving it into a grid.
By the 1830s, Tudor’s ice trade had reached India and South America. He expanded his business to Hong Kong in the 1840s, but the long journey from New England to South China — across the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, past Madagascar and across the Indian Ocean — meant a large portion of the ice melted by the time it completed its journey. Wealthy homes in Hong Kong typically had just enough ice to keep their milk from going sour. In 1857, journalist George Wingrove Cooke painted a sorry picture of expatriate meals in the colony: “In Hong Kong and Shanghai, a dinner table in the summer season is a melancholy spectacle of spoiled food. The creatures to be eaten were necessarily killed the same day, and the tough tissues are as hard as death stiffened them.”
Interestingly, Ice House Street was misnamed Syut3 Cong2 Gaai1 (雪廠街) in Cantonese – literally “snow factory street.” But ice wasn’t made in Hong Kong until 1874, when two Scottish entrepreneurs installed two damp-air machines in Causeway Bay, which allowed them to manufacture ice. Three years later, the factory was bought by Jardine’s, which built a network of cold storage warehouses around Hong Kong, in order to expand its dairy and meat business.
In 1905, the Hong Kong Telegraph was already reminiscing of the days when ice was a precious commodity: “Few of the present generation can remember the days when Hong Kong was dependent for its ice supplies on American ships, but one can easily imagine the anxiety with which hospitals and even private citizens looked forward to the arrival of these vessels, when patients lay panting amid the torrid heat of the summer months, and businessmen were obliged to quaff the post-meridian peg in the form of toddy.”
The paper noted that the price of ice had dropped from “six cents gold a pound” during the Tudor days to just one cent for locally-manufactured ice in the early 1900s. While ice soon became a staple of expatriate life, it would be another several decades before average Chinese families had any use for it. “When we were young, we didn’t have a refrigerator, so for leftovers, we had a container with mesh doors so flies couldn’t get in,” says retired architect Alfred Tam, who grew up in a rooftop hut in the 1950s. “If you had something big like a chicken left over, you could pickle it. Otherwise, we didn’t have a lot of leftovers. We were quite poor.”
Traditional Chinese beliefs about health and wellness discourage the consumption of cold beverages. But Hongkongers are not always a traditional bunch, and in the 1950s and 60s, small cafés known as bing sutt (bing1 sat1 冰室) — literally “ice rooms” — became popular. At the time, bing sutt licences did not allow them to handle raw ingredients, so they offered pastries and ready-made snacks like noodle soups, all of them washed down with sweet, slushy drinks.
“At that time it was very difficult to make shaved ice,” recalls Chan Kwong-yiu, owner of the Tai On Coffee & Tea Shop in Yau Ma Tei. An ice block was put onto a stool and shaved manually. “The ice block was slippery and hard to grip,” he says. Staff hated shaving ice, but customers loved it. In its heyday, Tai On served red bean ice, pineapple ice, fruit punch and an ice drink with lotus seeds. Most of those drinks have vanished from the menu, but one remains – red bean ice, as cold and refreshing as ever.
Guong Shing Ice Café is located at 10 San Shing Avenue, Shek Wu Hui, Sheung Shui.
Tai On Coffee & Tea Shop is located at 830 Canton Road, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.