When Chinese didn't value eggs, a foreigner saw opportunity and launched a roaring trade from Shanghai in tinned eggs to the UK

preserved eggs

Industrial production of chickens evolved globally over the past 70 years, with chicken only becoming a staple in much of Asia in recent decades. Armies fight to victory on their stomachs, as has often been observed, and a key reason suggested by various scholars for limited Allied ground force commitments in China during the Pacific war was the logistical difficulty of feeding them an appropriate diet in the absence of industrial production of meat, eggs and dairy products.

Despite limited production, mostly at village level, various chicken by-products – in particular, eggs – were an important Chinese export in the interwar years, and for some decades afterwards in Hong Kong. Dr Gren Wedderburn’s entertaining memoir No Lotus Garden: A Scottish Surgeon in China and Japan (1979) describes the egg export industry from Shanghai, just before the Communist assumption of power in 1949.

“Although chicken is an important dish, by quirk of culinary aberration the Chinese neither value nor prize the humble egg. Before the turn of the century, some astute foreigner realised this and over the years built up an enormous business.

“As long as there was water transport and collecting depots, small farmers and peasants were only too willing to be paid for a commodity for which there was little demand. The peasant’s wife, by selling a few eggs, gained a copper or two for what was barely a useful item.

preserved eggs

A hawker selling chickens, garlic and tobacco in China in the 1960s. For a long time Chinese had little appetite for eggs, and a lucrative export trade developed until it was halted by a UN trade embargo on Communist China. Photo: Getty Images

“The eggs were delivered from a million sources, preserved in ice as soon as they reached a small depot, collected on junks and sampans to be brought down river to Shanghai. The eggs could only be sufficiently fresh and in commercial quantity if the collecting system cast an enormous net into the hinterland with a widespread batch of agents.

“On arrival in Shanghai the eggs came into the factory. There, scores of girls sat at tables; in front of each girl was a metal prong embedded in the desk. The eggs came past her on a moving belt; she took an egg, broke it on the prong, smelt it to make sure it was fresh and if so, emptied the contents into a four-gallon tin. If the egg was bad, she threw it behind her into a refuse trough. One bad egg ruined the contents of a four-gallon tin.

“When one considered that, pre-war, there were special refrigerated ocean-going freighters whose only cargo out of China to Europe consisted of tins of eggs, it will be realised that literally billions of eggs arrived in Shanghai. Eggs and egg powder used in baking in Europe depended almost entirely on this source.”

From the late 1940s, Hong Kong also exported egg products, in particular salted and preserved eggs essential to various Chinese recipes. While most of these items consumed in Hong Kong – then and now – were produced in mainland China, a thriving local production sector almost entirely devoted to the North American export trade also existed.

During the years of United Nations embargo on China trade, invoked at the outset of the Korean war in 1950, only preserved eggs produced in Hong Kong could be exported to the United States. In Chinatowns from San Francisco to New York, preserved eggs – whether salted, pickled or “thousand years old” – were produced in Hong Kong, from eggs that were certified to having been laid by Free World poultry.

preserved eggs

A stall in 1980s Hong Kong selling fresh and preserved eggs. Most of the latter were produced in mainland China, but with a UN embargo after the Communist revolution, preserved eggs from certified Free World poultry raised in Hong Kong were exported to North American Chinatowns. Photo: Getty Images

No nasty “Red Menace” hens could be permitted to undermine democracy; bizarre as these regulations may appear to some today, moves to check Communism’s insidious spread extended even to poultry by-products.

In the Hong Kong of yesterday – perhaps even more so than that of today – there is much one simply could not make up, however hard one tried.

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