A protester in Mong Kok in February. Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images.

Fish Balls Are Served with a Side of Politics in Hong Kong

For many people in Hong Kong, the fish ball represents the city’s struggling Cantonese identity, as it unwillingly becomes more and more eroded by China.

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Dec 8 2016, 9:00pm

A protester in Mong Kok in February. Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images.

Ms. Ng* serves up red, squiggled intestines over thin wooden skewers, along with fat beef balls sweating in their own juices. It's Hong Kong's first perfect night of weather in early December, and just after 6 PM, hungry businessmen are pouring out of their halogen-lit office buildings to her glass-covered snack stall. They dip their skewers into free-for-all chili and peanut sauces she leaves out in metal bowls.

In the middle of Ms. Ng's meat-filled cart, she's frying up tiny, starch-laden fish balls—her best seller, she says. "I don't know much about democracy," Ms. Ng says, "but when there are protests, that's when I do my best business." Her stall is in Wan Chai, just blocks away from Hong Kong's government building—where outside, Hong Kong's political protests most often take place.

A battle for democracy looms ahead as Beijing's government tightens its stranglehold on the semi-autonomous city. Last month, for the first time, China's central government ignored the courts and kicked two young democrats out of office, without being asked—bringing thousands to the streets in protest.

But amid the political change, Hong Kong has one cultural constant: the fish ball. It's a quick and easy skewered snack enjoyed by nearly all—Hong Kong eats 55 tons of fish balls every day. And for many, the fish ball represents the city's struggling Cantonese identity, as Hong Kong unwillingly becomes more and more eroded by the Communist state.

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A Hong Kong fish ball vendor. Photo via Flickr user cogdog

Hong Kong's fish balls are usually made from starch, and fried up in a fish-flavored sauce. Hawkers sell the cheap snack on corners throughout the city, along with other traditional Cantonese snacks like siu mai. The balls are often tossed over a paper cup of rice noodles soaked in a mix of artery-arresting salty sauces.

The ubiquitous fish ball is more than a quick bite for the city. The snack sparked a so-called revolution in February, when the police began to harass fish ball hawkers in the popular Mong Kok pedestrian area for operating without licenses. The night ended in scores of bloody injuries after a violent clash between demonstrators and riot police.

It may sound like an unusual catalyst for a violent mob, but in Hong Kong, democracy—just like fish balls—is part of the city's cultural DNA, where even eating is political. Hong Kong enjoys basic political freedoms and a semi-democratic government; the city is allowed autonomy from mainland China by its own mini-constitution called the Basic Law.

The city's autonomy from the Communist state is enshrined in a Chinese constitutional principle called One Country, Two Systems. But the more democratic Hong Kong becomes, the angrier a heavy-handed Beijing gets.

"People in Hong Kong are unhappy, Beijing is unhappy, and a lot of problems are facing us," said Emily Lau, one of the city's longest-standing liberal lawmakers. She's for decades been a Chinese icon of peace and democracy. "Hong Kong can't lose its nerve—Beijing must be dealt with in a non-violent way," Lau said.

The Umbrella Movement in 2014—which crippled the city's financial district as protestors called for universal suffrage and the resignation of Hong Kong's leader—was a valiant effort, but it failed to achieve either end.

And since the Fish Ball Revolution in February, Communist Beijing has been eroding Hong Kong's democracy at a breakneck pace.

"Many Hong Kong people have been alarmed by what's happened this past year, which started with the abduction of Lee Bo and the booksellers," said Maya Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch. Lee, who sold satirical fiction about the Chinese government, was allegedly kidnapped after mainland agents reportedly crossed the border and kidnapped him in December last year.

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Thousands of protesters gathered in Hong Kong in 2014 during the Umbrella Revolution. Photo via Flickr user studiokanu.

The incident sparked much of the anger that exploded in the February riots: Many failed to understand why the police had done nothing for Lee, but cracked down on fish ball hawkers. Four other booksellers from Lee's contentious shop also went missing at the time.

"Hong Kong is moving gradually towards One Country, One System—of course, with trepidation and fear," Wang said. "There's a sense of helplessness here in how to resist Beijing."

Days later after Lee Bo's televised confession, in March, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba finalized its takeover of the city's independent English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post. The paper, once the most profitable in the world while under Rupert Murdoch, quickly began to lose its editorial independence. Last month, The Guardian called it a "pro-establishment" newspaper—implying that it openly supports China's central government.

And in October, the newspaper shuttered a 25-year-old magazine it owned, HK Magazine—known for its pithy political satire. The last issue was aptly headlined "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish Balls."

In Mong Kok, where the Fishball Revolution took place, Ms. Fan*—whose face, like Ms. Ng's, is hardened—fries up golden-yellow fish balls at her snack cart. She also has fried tofu on offer, which she packs into greasy paper bags, smothered in a salty chili sauce that tastes similar to sriracha. "I'm afraid of what's coming next," she said. "This city is becoming more like China."

The biggest political blow to Hong Kong—since its handover back from Britain in 1997—came just last month, when China's central government bypassed Hong Kong's courts and ousted two pro-democracy lawmakers who advocate for the city's total independence.

The lawmakers' cases had gone to court because they went off-script while reading their oaths to Hong Kong's government in September. They brandished flags reading "Hong Kong is not China" and refused to pledge allegiance to China. Beijing quickly took matters into its own hands to bar them, instead of waiting for the court's decision—an unprecedented move.

"People feel hopeless, of course—we want to change, but we can't find an effective solution," said Icarus Wong, a political analyst who works with an NGO called Civil Human Rights Front.

The revolution in February that sparked a year of dramatic political setbacks has, clearly, little to do with fish balls. But the future of city's identity—prided on democratic values—has been called into question, and what's next is wildly uncertain.

When I covered the Fish Ball Revolution for HK Magazine—the now-defunct publication—back in February, human rights monitors and police officers alike told me that it was just the beginning of more violence to come. At the time, the Hong Kong government even considered purchasing an armored tank for riot control.

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Photo via Flickr user riverdaleto.

"It's important for us to maintain our values—democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights—because it's what distinguishes Hong Kong's society from mainland China," Wong said.

And Hong Kong—strong on its core principles, but without an army or even the right to conduct international relations—has few options in staving off China's central government.

"I don't think the vast majority of Hong Kong wants independence, and there are no means—no arms, no rifles, no planes, no food, no water," Lau said. "Nobody can ensure that Beijing won't barge in again, but we can still try our best to use peaceful means of persuasion."

Back at Ms. Ng's cart in Wan Chai, she serves me a paper cup of fish balls served over chang fen—a thick, white rice roll she cuts with a scissors. She covers it all in soy, chili, peanut sauce, and sesame seeds. Her customers are still enjoying the weather, but as night falls, it's impossible to ignore a choking thickness in the air. Record pollution has gripped China over the past week, and now it's seeping down to Hong Kong.

*Sources' names have been changed to protect their identities.