Queenie Lao Wai Kuan
Having stood in number 14 for close to 150 years, Hong Heng Côcos is one of the oldest businesses in Rua de Tercena, Macau. Known today for its famous coconut ice cream and red-and-white shop sign, the business has long been entangled with local and global historical developments. Hong Heng opened in 1869 at a time when China was at the crossroads of change and uncertainty: following defeat in the two opium wars, the Qing government was forced to open various ports and Britain’s colonization of Hong Kong reshuffled the networks of maritime trade between China and the rest of Asia. Under the umbrella of the British empire, Hong Kong emerged as the transit point of goods and supplies between British-controlled territories and Macau. This included the coconuts sold at Hong Heng’s, which for more than a century, came through Hong Kong from British Malaya and today, is largely provided by Malaysian plantations.
As the coconuts travelled from British Malaya to Portuguese Macau, colorful transimperial interaction was constructed. Hong Heng furthered this cross-border exchange by distributing coconuts across Chinese cities in the Pearl River delta. This was a time when coconuts were considered exotic as they were yet to be widely-grown in the mainland and traveling was not a common pastime. At the height of its business in the early twentieth century, Hong Heng had over ten employees and was a well-known provider of coconuts in southern China. All these came to a stop during the Pacific War when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong and Malaya, respectively in December 1941 and February 1942, cutting off pre-existing connections between the two territories. Perhaps for the longest duration in its history, Hong Heng Côcos closed for three years and eight months until the war ended in 1945.
Soon after its reopening, it was hit by a new wave of challenges during the 1950s. In the shadows of a global recession, 70% of Macau’s economic activities turned to the redistribution of foreign goods such as fruits, rice, textile and wine to mainland China. The US-led trade embargo on China during the Korean war (1950-1953), however, disrupted Hong Heng’s last resort. Shop owner Mr. Lee Hing Keung (李興強) recalled that the 1950s was a tough decade for business owners; many local businesses including fruit stalls and rice shops were forced to close their doors. Unable to ship coconuts into the mainland market, Hong Heng could only rely on selling coconuts to Macau’s population of over 185,000. Although unable to return to the peak of its business in the early twentieth-century, Hong Heng survived. Mr. Lee believes this was due to the popularity of coconuts to both Chinese and Macanese cuisines, as seen in coconut milk and snacks like coconut chunks and coconut candy. Coconuts are also a part of Chinese marriage rituals where the groom presents a pair of coconuts to the bride’s family for good luck.
In 1962, Hong Heng’s owners started selling ice cream, marking the start of a tradition that has continued to date. The idea was not original to Hong Heng, but the result of an encounter from the previous decade. An ice cream street stall, one in many street stalls popular to the lower classes and the unemployed, taught the owners of Hong Heng how to make ice cream using their coconuts, a wooden bucket and ice. Hong Heng later purchased an ice-cream machine worth ten times more than an apartment from a hotel that had run out of business. The shop then began to sell ice cream in bulk to the public for MOP 20 to 30 cents, initially offering coconut, pineapple, melon, chocolate, mango and the seasonal taro ice cream flavors. From 2010 on, the shop has sold only coconut ice cream and continues to be well-known for this product alone.
For more than a century, Hong Heng has striven from a fruit store to an ice-cream shop. But more importantly, it has been the gem of Macau that tells us the ups and downs of Macau people in history. Next time when you travel to Macau, please visit Hong Heng to have a taste of the sweetness of Macau history.
Queenie Lao Wai Kuan (劉慧鈞) is a fourth-year History-major student in the University of Macau. She did a series of interviews for PMH during her time as a summer intern for PMH.