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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of local Hong Kong dairy farms

By Catharina Cheung 9 March 2021

Header image courtesy of Kowloon Dairy

Hong Kong is a Chinese society with so many historically western influences, and it’s easy to forget that our love for dairy products is one such cultural import. When the British started moving into Hong Kong after acquiring it as a colony in the mid-nineteenth century, they were so loath to give up dairy products that they actually shipped their own cows over to fill that culinary gap! According to a 1988 historical SCMP column by Eamonn Fitzpatrick, most “expatriate households usually owned at least one cow.”

However, milk production was not the pleasant pastoral scene one would normally envision of English countryside farms; instead, these cows were kept in the already crowded tenement flats within Chinese slums. One can imagine the filthy living conditions for both parties involved without being too explicit about it—suffice to say this would not be an environment from which you would want to consume anything dairy-related.

Luckily, conditions in Hong Kong improved rapidly enough for our small city to go on to establish several dairy farms, producing local milk and dairy products for Hongkongers and expats alike, even importing such goods abroad. Here is a look into the history of Hong Kong’s very own dairy farms and producers—it’s “udderly” fascinating, to say the least.

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Dairy Farm

In 1883, a Scottish surgeon by the name of Patrick Manson moved to Hong Kong, took one disapproving look at the state of local dairy production, probably shuddered in horror, and set about providing Hong Kong with milk that isn’t contaminated. He purchased a plot of land in Pok Fu Lam with five other businessmen, and shipped 80 Freisian cows over from Scotland. Thus, in 1886, the aptly named Dairy Farm was born.

To say that Dairy Farm had experienced some ups and downs through the years would be a bit of an understatement. After surviving the bubonic plague of 1894—which killed over 20,000 people—rinderpest then almost completely wiped out their entire cattle herd. Dairy Farm purportedly only survived by the skin of its teeth because a quick-witted farmer took 30 cows to safe shelter as soon as the outbreak occurred. 

During the Japanese Occupation, only a bare minimum skeleton crew of staff were allowed to remain at the farm to keep it running. According to a report titled “An Outline of Conditions in Occupied Hong Kong” sent to the British Army Aid Group in 1945, the Japanese shipped away 1,200 head of cattle from the Dairy Farm herd in 1942 to provide milk for their troops, and took another smaller shipment the next year, greatly reducing Hong Kong’s remaining milk production and quality. By the end of the war, only 300 cows remained of the 1,900-strong herd, and even then they were malnourished and in very poor condition.

Despite this, the Dairy Farm was one of the first businesses to resume operations after the war. Its monopoly on the dairy industry was somewhat threatened as similar companies were eventually established, but it continued to thrive. In fact, the post-war era was when Hong Kong’s dairy industry truly began to boom, becoming widely commercialised instead of mostly exclusive to the expatriate population. In spite of the prevalence of lactose intolerance among Chinese people, milk was widely promoted as a healthy source of protein and caught on with wide-spread popularity. Between every local restaurant and food stall selling our ubiquitous milk tea and charity organisations setting up milk bars in resettlement estates, most Hongkongers became used to consuming dairy in their daily diets from an early age.

Meanwhile, Dairy Farm diversified; they also began dealing in frozen meats, a line of business for which it built a cold storage warehouse on Lower Albert Road, had merged with the Hong Kong Ice Company to supply ice, and eventually moved on to bigger things, launching Hong Kong’s first modern supermarket named Dairy Lane in 1960. Four years later, it acquired the Wellcome chain, cementing its position as a conglomerate company.

Today, Dairy Farm operates or has controlling stakes in thousands of supermarkets and stores, including Wellcome, Marketplace by Jasons, Mannings, 7-Eleven, and Ikea. Its farm in Pok Fu Lam was shut down in 1983, and its old cowsheds were allocated to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 2003 as part of their Béthanie campus. Their cold storage facility, which also housed a dairy shop, a meat-smoking room, a quality control lab, and staff recreation spaces, remains to this day one of the most notable landmarks in Central.

The Old Dairy Farm Depot, with its Eclectic architectural style and distinctive brick and stucco façade, was partly acquired by the Hong Kong Fringe Club in 1984. The other section of the building houses the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and the site has been listed as a Grade I historic building since 2009.

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Photo credit: @pink-dolphin_blue-elephant (via Flickr)

Kowloon Dairy

George Ahwee and Rudy Choy co-founded Kowloon Dairy in 1940, an interesting partnership as neither men seemed to have experience in the industry—the former was simply interested in animal husbandry and the latter was an amateur jockey. The farm started off on a very small scale, with 30 employees, and only produced enough milk to keep northern Kowloon supplied. Li Lan-sang—once the owner of the largest number of racehorses in Hong Kong—joined this business venture very soon after as an investor, and gave Kowloon Dairy enough financial backing to expand steadily.

Named to differentiate itself from the Dairy Farm established on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Dairy operated out of acres of land in Kowloon. In 1972, the government claimed the land for housing development, and the company then decided to separate farm and factory, moving its farm to Yuen Long and constructing a purpose-built milk production plant in Tuen Mun. The factory building is still in use to this day, and the site of the original Kowloon Dairy is where Choi Wan Estate sits now.

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The farm in Yuen Long was a sprawling 21,000 square feet of land, housing approximately 400 milk cows. By 1975, Kowloon Dairy was even supplying their products to Macau, with products aside from fresh milk including recombined milk made with imported milk powders. Instead of only acting as a distributor for foreign ice cream, they also decided to produce their own ice cream around 1979, cooperating with an Australian dairy company for technology transfer. This would pave the way for the creation of one of Kowloon Dairy’s most popular products. 

The mochi ice cream was launched in 1989, and proved to be a smash hit with local consumers. The concept itself is credited to Japan and Taiwan, but Kowloon Dairy was the first company in the Hong Kong and mainland China region to combine ice cream with dim sum-type snacks. Mochi ice cream remains a popular ice cream variant to this day. Other innovations by Kowloon Dairy include Hong Kong’s first low-fat milk in 1986, high-fibre papaya milk in 1994, and they were also the first company to produce durian ice cream in Hong Kong.

In terms of expansion, Kowloon was rapidly urbanised in the late 70s, so Kowloon Dairy shifted its farms north from Yuen Long into Guangzhou. In 1992, they expanded into the mainland Chinese market by forming a joint venture with Fengxing Milk—to this day, dairy products by Kowloon Dairy can be found across mainland China, from Guangdong and Hainan, all the way up to Harbin.

Photo credit: @lam.yaan (via OpenRice)

Trappist Dairy

Trappist Dairy was the last of Hong Kong’s three major dairy companies to be established, founded in 1956 by Father Jen Stanislaus of the Trappist Haven Monastery on Lantau Island. The company logo reflects their religious origins with the cross pattée symbol, and their Chinese name is simply translated as the “Cross Brand.”

The first Trappist monastery in Asia was founded in Hebei province in 1883, and 65 of the monks fled the communist forces in 1947. By the end of 1951, approximately 20 of them had managed to smuggle their way into Hong Kong, purportedly by dressing in fake soldiers’ uniforms or pretending to be insane. The local government then granted the Trappists 73 hectares of empty land on Lantau, charging them $20 per hectare per year—the monks still pay a token rent today. Trappist Dairy was established so the religious order could sustain itself. This cream-rich milk is well-known for being available in half-pint glass bottles, a touch of nostalgia that has been retained to this day.

The dairy farm itself is no longer located in Lantau, and was later based out of premises along Castle Peak Road in Yuen Long instead. With the original monks far too old to continue tending livestock, the production of Trappist Milk was then taken over by a private firm in Guangzhou—the Trappist monks own a 30 percent stake in this company. However, their heritage was stained by some controversy in 2015, and Trappist Dairy ran into trouble when a batch of their fresh milk had to be urgently recalled after being found to contain 8,600 times the legal limit of bacteria.

Free-roaming cattle can still be found in the hilly areas near the Trappist Haven Monastery, and many of these are descendants of the cattle which were released following the closure of the old dairy farm. Nowadays, the monastery is really only popular as a rest stop located roughly halfway through the hiking trail from Discovery Bay to Mui Wo via Nim Shue Wan. However, the company itself is still producing dairy products, and are perhaps best known for their range of fruit-flavoured milk, including banana, strawberry, mango, melon, sweet potato, guava, and matcha.

Hong Ning Milk Production

Hong Ning is a small-scale dairy farm located in the northern New Territories, established in 1962. This family business operates out of the hillside of Sha Tau Kok, and had the last locally produced milk from Hong Kong. They used to be the city’s one and only licensed organic milk farm, with a herd of New Zealand cattle some 50-strong that fed on soya beans, corn, and wheat. Hong Ning supplied their milk mainly to small, local grocery stores, or were found in organic food stores. Their farm was also open to visitors, and once enjoyed some popularity as a hiking destination where one could feed the animals.

Though not as well-known as Hong Kong’s three biggest dairy companies, Hong Ning is still worth mentioning because of an interesting scandal that occurred with them. 2015 was evidently not a good year for Hong Kong’s dairy industry because apart from the product recall for Trappist Dairy, it was revealed that same year that Hong Ning had been selling milk made from formula under the guise of fresh, organic milk.

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The Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department confirmed that Hong Ning had lost its license to operate a cattle farm all the way back in 2008, and Apple Daily reporters found the farm completely devoid of milk cows. Hong Ning still claimed to be producing approximately 4,000 bottles of fresh milk daily, and they haven’t had visitors for at least a year due to “renovation” work. It turns out that what the farm did still have was their dairy processing license from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, which allowed them to process beverages containing dairy for sale. 

Reporters further claimed to have seen workers at the farm transporting huge bags of milk formula from a New Zealand dairy supplier into Hong Ning’s processing plant, and this was corroborated when a staff member from the Department of Applied Science at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education was quoted analysing the ingredient information listed on Hong Ning milk bottles—the list contained water, milk solids, fat, salt, vitamin A, and vitamin D, which essentially makes up milk formula dissolved in water. Hong Ning’s staff apparently still insisted that their milk comes from actual cows. Well, we suppose it’s true that all milk powder came from cows at some point up the production line!

The loss of Hong Kong’s last locally produced milk comes as a shame because consumers who have had Hong Ning’s dairy products prior to 2008 generally had good things to say about their preservative-free milk, with it having been described as rich, creamy, and sweet-tasting. 

So, there we have it. Despite our history as a big regional player in the Asian dairy industry, Hong Kong now no longer has its own local dairy produced within the city. Instead, we mostly import our milk from abroad, with Japanese—especially Hokkaido—varieties being the most popular. With the rise of dairy-free milk, meat-free diets, carbon footprint awareness, and environmental consciousness only on the rise, the global dairy industry might well be faced with a dip in the future, but that wouldn’t be our business any longer—Hong Kong’s milky empire has already come and gone.

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Catharina Cheung

Former senior editor

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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