Did you know that Hong Kong has rice paddies, and that buying organic doesn’t always mean paying an arm and both legs? Tong Chong Street Market founder Janice Leung Hayes sets things straight on Hong Kong-based agriculture and what you can do to support local farmers.
Janice Leung is a food journalist and blogger who is particularly passionate about the food industry, and learning about its processes from beginning to end. She co-founded artisanal food and crafts fair Island Street Markets a few years ago, but really wanted to focus on the food side of things. And so TCSM — a collaboration between herself and Swire group — was born, bringing local organic produce to an easily accessible market in Quarry Bay on Sundays.
1. Buying organic doesn’t necessarily mean spending more
Local organic produce definitely is much cheaper than flown-in organic produce. And it’s very fresh here and tastes great. There are some instances where normal conventionally farmed produce from China is even more expensive than local organic because of things like drought, or logistics issues. The good thing about buying direct from the farmers [at TCSM] is, you get [produce] at a pretty good price. There is no middleman: you’re safe in the knowledge that the farmers will make good use of what you give them.
There is no middleman: you’re safe in the knowledge that the farmers will make good use of what you give them.
2. Just because it’s local, doesn’t mean it’s eco-friendly
Local and organic are really dangerous kinds of labels. Let’s say people try to grow tomatoes in the UK where it’s really cold, and they’ve actually ended up using more energy and resources than if they just brought over tomatoes from Spain. That’s why it’s important to know about how food is grown and what grows well where, because it’s not really that straightforward. For a lot of people it’s more about knowing that there is access to locally grown things, and not everyone needs to eat 100 percent local or organic.
3. Look beyond labels — go visit a farm and see for yourself
The great thing about Hong Kong is you can just go an hour out and you can get on a farm and you can actually see what the farmers do. Organic certification is important for consumer knowledge, but what we’re trying to do is hopefully look beyond certification – I think knowing how farming works, and things like soil health or air quality, that sort of stuff: it’s the whole ecosystem that matters.
Local and organic are really dangerous kinds of labels.
4. Hongkongers are spoiled for choice
Roselle or hisbiscus flowers are actually native to Hong Kong, and autumn is their season. Bananas grow really well, and of course there are your Chinese vegetables like choy sum and kai lan when it’s cooler. Strangely, strawberries grow really well — but in the winter. Winter in Hong Kong is like a European summer, so strawberry season is our winter. I think [the importance of seasonality] is something that Hong Kong people are not so used to, because you can walk into a supermarket any day and the abundance of products is unbelievable. Things like typhoons actually affect farmers a lot, especially in Hong Kong where they have open fields and mostly don’t use greenhouses.
5. It’s not too late to sow some new seeds
Hong Kong used to grow its own rice up until the 1950s or 60s, and then people started to leave farms to work in factories and the rice paddies were abandoned. But the rice cycle is actually a huge ecosystem that relies on birds and flowers and bees. Some environmental groups wanted to preserve the ecology, and the byproduct was that they produced rice — they revived the paddies, and not only one patch. There are actually quite a few different rice producers today. For example, we have Long Valley Eco-Rice; they’re an environmental NGO and they grew rice for environmental reasons, but the result is we now have locally grown rice.
I wouldn’t say local organic produce is getting into the mainstream yet, but there’s definitely more interest in it. One thing we’re trying to do with the markets is to create a rapport between the buyer and seller, and increase the buyer’s knowledge of how to buy, what to buy and when: things that were very basic back in the day but people have forgotten over the years.