From Hong Kong to Hershey


From Hong Kong to Hershey
(Or, I Liked the Thick Chocolate Shake More Than the Thick Soup of Snake)

Originally published in Pietisten, Summer 1997

“We Chinese eat everything in the sky that is not an airplane, everything under the sea that is not a submarine, and everything on land with four legs that is not a table.”
–Endlessly repeated aphorism in Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China

By Owen Youngman

It seems like a long way from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, a few miles from the coast of China, to the small-town serenity of Hershey, Pa., a few miles from the border of Harrisburg.

In fact, it is. Visiting both places (and a few others) in the space of a fortnight may not be the most common way to draw sweeping conclusions and make broad generalizations about the world in the late 20th Century, but it’s a fairly efficient one.

Point of view is what a visit to see Hong Kong in the first half of 1997 was all about. The emphasis of a visit during the second half of the year remains to be seen–which, of course, is the reason that point of view was the point in February.

Every event in Hong Kong could be seen in at least three ways: through the eyes of its soon-to-be-former British protectors; through the eyes of the Chinese governors-in-waiting; and through the eyes of someone affiliated with neither side–a journalist, say, or a merchant. And that’s the bare minimum, of course; the residents of Taiwan, Korea, or nearby Macao all need to interpret everything in Hong Kong by refracting it through their own prisms.

The most striking juxtaposition was that of the British and Chinese points of view, and it was best summed up by their view of the calendar. In speaking of the impending turnover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control, Christopher Patten, governor of Hong Kong, referred often to “June 30.” Rita Fan, speaker of the Beijing-backed provisional legislature that will take over soon, talked about “July 1.”

Ms. Fan made herself available for an interview at the unassuming high-rise offices of the Committee for the Celebration of the Reunification of Hong Kong with China, a suite with fewer rooms than there are words in the committee’s name and equipped with eight-foot tables like those found in church basements everywhere. Gov. Patten held forth over a full circle of polished tables in a magnificent briefing room at Government House, a bastion of British colonialism where tea was served from china cups (Noritake. We checked).

In this world about to be turned upside down (or not), you are where you sit (or don’t): The British bemoan the end of democracy; the Chinese wonder what kind of democracy is this, where all power is vested in a governor appointed half a world away? The Chinese complain that their every parliamentary move is subject to outside criticism; the British worry that complaining by its nature is ineffectual.

And on the streets of Hong Kong–a city that resembles none other so much as New York, from its towering high-rises to its downtown parkland–the merchant class waits to see if “one country, two systems,” the solution for Hong Kong (and Taiwan) espoused by the late Deng Xiaoping, will mean that the system on which their wealth is built is permitted to flourish, untrammeled by China’s brand of socialism.

Hong Kong itself is wealthy, with billions of U.S. dollars on its balance sheet, billions more of its residents’ money invested in China and throughout Asia, and who knows how much constantly changing hands among tourists, shopkeepers, hoteliers, restaurateurs, and tailors. It’s hard not to mine the sights and sounds of the city for metaphors about its uncertain future.

Take this appetizer from a Monday night meal as an example: “drunken shrimp on fire.” Several dozen shrimp, flipping their tails from side to side, are dumped into a clear casserole filled with a clear Chinese liquor. Soon they are flipping even more wildly, as they involuntarily imbibe. And then, sated (or saturated), they’re flipped into a wok and torched (alcohol sure makes for a good fire!).

So let’s see: drunken shrimp are the Hong Kong merchants. The liquor is free trade. And fire is . . . and the restaurant patrons are . . . Oh, let’s not get too carried away here, or we might start substituting “speech” for “trade” and “politicians” for “merchants.”

The food was just as interesting in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), where the road to capitalist investment seemed paved with big McDonald’s. Not that we ate any Big Maos–er, Big Macs. But there was that thick soup of snake–not thick as in creamy, but thick as in absolutely chock full o’ serpent. Well, with 1.2 billion mouths to feed and only 7 percent of your land arable, you’re not going to be too choosy about cuisine overall.

An afternoon in the public market in Guangzhou was equally instructive, where it turned out dog was not in season, but a wide variety of other semi-domesticated rats, cats, fish and fowl were available for your evening repast. Here were the post-soup snakeskins, dried and ready to be ground into medicine, and the odd-looking roots and plants that a Chinese handler said smilingly were “for the men.” Through an interpreter I learned that one shrimp salesman was clearing about $9 a day–an excellent wage in a country where income per capita of $1,000 is a national goal for early next century.

Guangzhou was only a border crossing and a train ride away from Hong Kong, where a Big Mac did indeed seem like a good idea. Not so Hershey, where Milton Snavely Hershey, “the Henry Ford of chocolate,” perfected his own formula for milk chocolate around the same time as the British took control of Hong Kong. The Hershey Chocolate Co. dates to 1894, the Hershey Bar to 1900, and the expiring British lease on Hong Kong to 1898, just after the Opium Wars; draw your own addiction parallels.

With its chocolate-kiss-shaped streetlights and pervasive aroma of, well, Hershey Bars, the little Pennsylvania town is almost aggressively cute; probably the only enemy anyone there ever thinks about is M&M/Mars, that other noted purveyor of things mostly brown and mass-marketed. What borders on exotic is the occasional fruit dessert (I admit I passed up the Season’s Wok restaurant at the Darrytown Mall).

Having buttressed its original tourist attraction with a zoo, an amusement park, a museum and a convention center–not to mention mascots for most of its eponymous company’s candy bars–Hershey seems almost Disney-like in its determination to make sure its visitors leave town smiling. (I know the chocolate shake at the Chocolate Town Cafe inside Chocolate World had that effect on me.) One city, one system, stable as Milton Hershey’s formula for low-cost chocolate, Hershey is–in more ways than at first evident–at least a world away from the Far East. It certainly leaves a far different taste in a visitor’s mouth.

As for the promised sweeping generalization: Despite the differences, these cities both exist as monuments to enterprise, and as such are likely to retain their essential characters.

Admittedly, to force more parallels would be to strain credulity beyond all reasonable bounds. Still, there is this thought with which to conclude:

The largest Hershey’s Kiss ever made weighed 400 pounds, was 30 inches tall and 3 feet in diameter. It was used in a marketing promotion in . . . Hong Kong.

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About Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development, Chicago Tribune.