In the beginning...
Once upon a time around mid-afternoon at some point in 1840, Duchess Anne of Bedford felt a “sinking feeling” and requested that her maid bring some tea and light refreshments to see her through till dinner.
Sounds pretty normal, right? Well, the Duchess had actually bucked the trend, which, in Victorian times, was to abstain from eating altogether from lunch until dinner, typically served at 8pm. Duchess Anne saw the opportunity to invite her friends for a catch-up, and so afternoon tea was born as a time of day for women to socialise privately with simple, light food like biscuits, bread and butter. This later evolved into fancier but still small and manageable bites such as crustless finger sandwiches and scones with jam and clotted cream.
The Duchess was Queen Victoria’s lady-in-waiting, and soon the Queen became a big supporter of the concept, regularly having what was known as “low tea”, due to the low tables on which it was served. As tea became more affordable, the middle and lower classes began opening tea rooms around England so that they too could benefit from the fashionable upper-class trend.
In comparison to “low tea” originating with the upper class, “high tea” was born by the working class. It was a hearty meal served at high tables (hence the name), usually between 5–7pm, featuring items such as meat pies, cold cuts and bread and butter – heavier foods to sustain those who had been toiling all day long and who would likely work throughout the evening.
So why is afternoon tea so popular in Hong Kong?
Around the time that afternoon tea was becoming customary for the Brits, Hong Kong came under British rule (1841–1997). When the wealthy British Kadoorie family founded The Peninsula hotel in 1928, it quickly became a popular meeting place for the community and, eventually, the rich and famous of the time. Regular “afternoon tea dances” were held for entertainment, accompanied by live classical music. Even during the Second World War, the hotel was still known for its traditional afternoon tea and high-end service.
Today, afternoon tea at The Peninsula Lobby is still a must-do in Hong Kong. Andy Cheng, chef at The Lobby, describes the famous afternoon tea as “an institution, a way of connecting with old Hong Kong, of a more traditional time”. The Peninsula’s scone recipe is said to have remained unchanged for over half a century!
With such strong British colonial roots, it isn’t surprising that Hong Kong has taken this significant part of its historical identity and made it its own, fusing its melting pot of foreign fine-dining expertise with traditional Hong Kong cuisine. No wonder afternoon tea springs to mind when people think of Hong Kong!
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