The Maritime Museum has kindly agreed to grant Ocean Imagineer to its private library to conduct archival research for the exhibition. While the collection is not particularly extensive, here are some interesting facts about oysters in Hong Kong I found on my first visit!
1. Oysters can be used in various ways
Other than breeding them for food, people have found innovative ways of using and processing them. For example, oyster sauce is made from distilling oysters soaked in water. Even the oyster shell can be incinerated into ash to be used in construction or livestock feed. And of course, certain species of oysters are well-known for their pearls (see no. 2).
2. There has been a long and extensive history of getting pearls in Hong Kong
There are historical records of pearls being found in Sha Tau Kok before the Ming Dynasty, while the Tanka people's involvement in pearl-picking have been noted since 8AD during the Tang Dynasty. However they were stigmatised for this occupation, which was also extremely dangerous and fatal as they would tie stones to their feet and go to the depths of the ocean to pick pearls.
Subsequently, there were various waves of interest in pearls by the emperors of some dynasties, and the last wave was sparked by the success of the Japanese in pearl cultivation. AFCD took the lead in trialing pearl production in 1955 and was successful, and Japanese and Hong Kong business people started to partner with each other to apply to set up a pearl farm in Tolo Harbour. Regulations were set up and licenses were given out, and the results were good but not economically effective. In the mid-60s, part of the area was also affected by peripheral construction. The Japanese withdrew their capital, and the Hong Kong businessmen also stopped their activities, seeing its lack of profitability.
3. How was oyster production organized in the past?
Oyster beds were mostly owned by large owners or a powerful village family clan who would then either sublet it to others or hire workers. In the map below, it can be seen how oyster beds were demarcated for the government to keep track of licenses. Initially, the Deep Bay was considered British, but later in 1950, it was split into two, with one part belonging to the Chinese area. Licenses were given out and renewed on a 7 years basis, matching the cultivation period of oysters. Later, there were also people who combined funds to set up their own companies (e.g. 太和公司，集安公司). Rent may be calculated according to the commission for the number of oysters produced or the area of the oyster field.
Official records about the oyster industry in Hong Kong only started from 1950. In 1984, there were about 300 families (1200-2000 people) working directly in oyster production, while another 1000 would be involved in related work like transport or oyster sauce production. In 1980, it was found that 70% would be directly sold to be restaurants, while 30% would be sold to retail or used in manufacturing e.g. for oyster sauce. Fun fact: 80% of the oysters would be produced during October to March as this is the time Hong Kongers eat their fresh oysters. The industry produced an average of 200 tonnes of oysters between the 60s and 70s (possibly the peak as previous numbers were fudged - see point 4) before steadily falling over the years to around 100 tonnes now.
4. Fluctuating with the region
The Deep Bay and Tolo Harbour are considered part of Hong Kong but these boundaries are geo-political rather than natural. These complex, overlapping and constantly fluctuating geographical and socio-political relationships have led to some interesting changes, such as:
- The migration of the Bao An County (Guangzhou) people who are oyster farmers to Lau Fa Shan during the Japanese Occupation in 1938, who brought their expertise to start a booming town
- The sudden spikes in oyster 'production' from 1950s due to an embargo of Chinese imports by the US (due to the Korean war) - oyster farmers were transporting oysters to fatten in Hong Kong so as to evade the embargo by getting a Hong Kong license
Books referred to:
- Exploring the History of Hong Kong 2: The History of Eastern Hong Kong, 香港史學會 , 2015
- 十九及二十世紀的香港漁農業—傳承與轉變（上冊漁業), 饒玖才, 2015
Other interesting photos:
(when furiously trying to record information at the library; can refer to if we want to see the exact Chinese words, some of which I don't know how to pinyin):