Drink and Tea Culture in Hong Kong

Information on local drinks in Hong Kong, and an overview of tea culture and symbolism...

Imported beverages are widely available, but popular local drinks include:

  • Zhian jing: a rice wine served hot like sake
  • Liang hua pei: a potent plum brandy
  • Kaolian and Mao toi: whiskies
  • San Miguel and Tsingtao: locally brewed beers from China
  • Yeun yeung: a blend of tea and coffee

Drinking Tea (Yum Cha)

Yum Cha, or "drinking tea", refers to the custom of eating small servings of different foods, in particular Dim Sum, while sipping tea, and is a popular family tradition at tea houses on weekend mornings. It's claimed the tea helps to digest rich foods.

There are many tea houses in Hong Kong where tea can be drunk accompanied by noodles, cakes or desserts. Popular types of tea include Sao mei, Bo lei and Tik guan yum.

Cakes and desserts served with Chinese tea include Bow law yau, a steaming hot bun stuffed with melted butter, Daan tart, a baked egg custard or Yau char gwai, a deep fried dough.

Tea Culture and Symbolism

Tea is often poured as a sign of respect, with the younger generation showing respect to their elders by offering tea. Inviting and paying for older family members to go to tea houses is still a traditional holiday activity.

In the past, people of lower rank would serve tea to those above them. Serious apologies could also be made by pouring tea, a sign of regret and submission.

Traditionally, to express thanks to their elders on their wedding day, the bride and groom would kneel in front of their parents and serve them tea. The parents would drink a small amount and then give the couple a red envelope, symbolising good luck. The couple would also serve tea to all their other family members. Drinking it symbolised acceptance into the family, refusal to do so implied opposition.

To express gratitude for tea, a person may tap their bent fingers on the table. This custom is said to have originated in the Qing Dynasty, when the emperor would travel in disguise throughout his empire. One day in a restaurant, after pouring himself some tea, the emperor filled a servant's cup as well. This was a huge honour and the servant, instead of kneeling down to express his gratitude, is said to have bent his fingers on the table.

When a teapot is empty to be refilled, the customer needs only to place the lid at a diagonal angle for it to be topped up. This custom is said to have originated when a poor student hid a bird in his teapot. When the waiter lifted the lid to refill the pot, the bird flew away. The student made a fuss, claiming that it was a precious bird and that the restaurant owed him compensation. Following this, all restaurants decided to wait for customers to lift the lid of their empty teapots if they required a refill.