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Hong Kong Food Culture
Unlike many other cities, Hong Kong offers a unique case study in the effects of globalization on local economies and cultures due to its premier status as a nexus between China and the West. Over the years, and even through British rule, Hong Kong maintained its own distinctly Chinese culture even in the face of relentless influence from other countries and explicit attempts to manipulate Hong Kong culture. However, globalization has caught up with Hong Kong, greatly undermining the traditional Chinese culture, a fact seen most clearly in the case of Hong Kong food culture. Nonetheless, Hong Kong retains its Chinese cultural importance, such that one examining the decline of Hong Kong food culture cannot help but see the areas in which the process has been inverted as well, with Hong Kong culture serving to integrate certain foods or drinks into Chinese society. Thus, as globalization has undoubtedly and irreversibly undermined traditional Chinese culture in Hong Kong, the resilience of that culture has allowed Hong Kong to become a kind of cultural laboratory, in which global customs and products are vetted before gaining more widespread acceptance in mainland China.
For many years, one of Hong Kong's biggest draws to international businesses and travelers was the fact that "Hong Kong is almost universally lauded for hard work, flexibility and the rule of law, and its success has been largely attributed to its willingness to transform itself and its ability to harness rather than resist the forces of globalization" ( Kwong & Miscevic, 2002, p. 323). Following the transition from British to Chinese rule, however, Hong Kong experienced a number of economic shocks which left "plenty of old-time hardpressed residents are still trapped in chicken coops of a bygone era" (Kwong & Miscevic, 2002, p. 325). This left huge amounts of Hong Kong real estate unoccupied as the shipping of manufacturing jobs to mainland China, coupled with the surging importance of Shanghai, gutted the island of both a robust economy and its "indispensable role" in bridging the cultural and political gap between China and the West (Kwong & Miscevic, 2002, p. 326). Cheap real estate coupled with an overabundance of "younger unskilled workers" provided the ideal context for the importation of globalized food and culture, because "As U.S. firms [sought] to expand their presence in global markets, one of the primary areas of opportunity [was] providing services to the rapidly growing markets in Asia" (Kwong & Miscevic, 2002, p. 325, Keillor & Fields, 1996, p. 83). Thus, in a process beginning in the 1980s but picking up rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s, American fast food companies aggressively expanded into Asia, with Hong Kong representing one of the key areas.
To see how Hong Kong has attempted to resist the undermining of a domestic cultural heritage through globalization, one need look no further than American attempts at marketing fast food on the island. A study investigating Hong Kong's residents perceptions of fast food found that "fast food is considered to be a convenience item rather than a special treat," and as such attempts to sell fast food "as an opportunity to engage in an American cultural experience" fall flat, because they ignore the cultural differences between "staple versus 'treat' foods" (Keillor & Fields, 1996, p. 99, Furnham & Li, 2008, p. 299). This is not to suggest that American fast food has not successfully made its way into Hong Kong food culture, because it has, but rather a means of pointing out that American fast food has ultimately served to undermine a traditional Chinese culture specifically by adjusting the food offered to be more in line with regional tastes. The study found that "traditional elements are important both in the product offering (i.e., the inclusion of traditional fast food items on the fast food menu) as well as in the atmosphere in which the product offering is conveyed" (Keillor & Fields, 1996, p. 99-100). Make no mistake, this does not represent an instance in which traditional culture has been retained, but rather an example of globalization taking traditional culture and commodifying it by reducing certain aspects of it to their most basic essence in order to better suture traditional food culture and globalized fast food. Sure, American fast food companies might include traditional items on the menu in certain regions, but this is only as a means of shoring up a customer base for the rest of the homogenized, globalized food menu. Thus, the convergence of American fast food and traditional Chinese food culture in Hong Kong is an interaction which ultimately subsumes the latter into a globalized cultural marketplace in which it is ill-equipped to successfully maintain itself.
The case of American fast food companies in Hong Kong is perhaps the most obvious example of globalization leading to a vast undermining of traditional Chinese food culture in Hong Kong, but globalization has wrought other, more subtle changes as well. For example, "moon cakes are a traditional food eaten to celebrate Chinese festivals," and "for ages, they have been produced by master bakers using their own secret recipes" (Elsey & Tse, 2007, p. 511). As a result of globalization, however, the demand for moon cakes has challenged the traditional method of production, and a look at one particular Hong Kong bakery offers a case study in the ways in which globalization gradually erodes traditional food culture even as it is ostensibly expanding the reach of that culture to international markets.
Like many other Hong Kong businesses in the 1980s, the bakery in question "grew and moon cakes and other products were exported to the international market […] while continuing to serve a vibrant local Chinese market through a chain of retail outlets and restaurants" (Elsey & Tse, 2007, p. 512). Thus, at first glance globalization would appear to be a boon for the traditional bakery, opening up new markets and sustaining it to the point that "the moon cake [could remain] the same kind of simple and single 'flagship' product, symbolic of the state of the company," which itself "remained deeply entrenched in a traditional Chinese business and management mindset […] positioned to largely ignore 'the winds of change' in an increasingly technology driven and a more competitive market environment" (Elsey & Tse, 2007, p. 512). By offering an initial opportunity for expansion, globalization appears to provide businesses specializing in traditional food the opportunity to sustain that traditional culture through an influx of global money, and indeed, this does occur for some time. Soon, however, the true effects of globalization become clear, because just as the traditional bakery has access to a global market, the market has access to that bakery's product such that it may be copied and reproduced for less money somewhere else. Like the inclusion of traditional menu items in American fast food restaurants in Hong Kong, the experience of the traditional bakery demonstrates the way in which globalization takes traditional culture and commodifies it, thus severing any real connection between the product and the culture which produced it. Even those companies which manage to succeed following globalization, such as the bakery in question, are ultimately only able to do so by altering their traditional outputs in order to satisfy the trends of the global market. Thus, the Hong Kong bakery ultimately shifted from the production of traditional moon cakes "to [creating] a whole new range of upmarket moon cake products" such as "an impressive array of variations for international travelers at the airport shop" (Elsey & Tse, 2007, p. 525). It is worth pointing out here that even the scholarship on this subject works to undermine and minimalize the importance of traditional culture; aside from the glowing description of the expanded moon cake line that is essentially a line of souvenirs for Western tourists, the analysis of the Hong Kong bakery in Elsey and Tse's essay is intent on portraying the traditional modes of production, management, and food culture as hopelessly, provincially outdated, as if it is traditional businesses' fault that the hegemony of global capitalism maintained by massive multinational corporations makes it difficult to continue turning a profit. Thus, the commodification and disintegration of traditional food culture is presented as the hopeful future for the traditional business.
As this essay investigates the changes in Hong Kong food culture as a result of globalization, the course of investigation is towards more and more local levels, such that one may see not only how alien foods and cultures are injected into Hong Kong society, but also how traditional foods are irrevocably altered. Thus, the moon cake bakery previously discussed demonstrated the way in which globalization forced a traditional company to shift its target market away from domestic tastes and begin catering almost exclusively to international desires. Even more subtly, however, globalization has altered food culture in Hong Kong so much that even "domestic" tastes cannot really be called that anymore, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the case of products made from…[continue]
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