25 October 2016
Today, only Mobile Softee operates ice cream vans on the city's streets. Photo: HKEJ
Today, only Mobile Softee operates ice cream vans on the city's streets. Photo: HKEJ

The story of ice and ice cream in Hong Kong

Forgive the Cantonese for mixing up ice and snow.

After all, snow is something seen here once in a hundred years, if that often.

The China Mail reported snow on The Peak on Jan. 17, 1893, when roofs of houses in the urban area were covered by frost.

While the expats enjoyed playing in the snow at the mountaintop, the locals gathered the icy crystals, which were considered a rare necessity for medical purposes.

In the 19th century, all the ice used in Hong Kong was imported from North America.

As soon as the sailing ships dropped anchor at Central, workmen would go on board, sprinkle sawdust on the blocks of ice and rush them to the warehouse next door.

In 1866, a merchant set up a factory to turn water into ice at Wan Chai’s Spring Garden.

Local production made the luxury so much more affordable that ice imports ended by 1880.

The abundant, cheaper supply of ice also gave rise to ice cream, which used to be an imported dessert served only in high-class western restaurants in the city.

Some local people learned and modified the foreign recipes for ice cream, blending eggs, milk, yoghurt, sugar, coconut oil and ice cubes into a frozen paste.

That was the birth of Hong Kong-made ice cream.

Among many brands, On Lok Yuen was the most popular.

In their battle for a bigger market share, the companies came up with a variety of forms for the dessert: ice cream pies, ice cream sandwiches, ice cream cups, and so on.

In the 1950s, hawkers all over recreational facilities, beaches and country parks sold ice cream to help people cope with the hot, humid summers.

Soon, soft-serve ice cream vans mushroomed, playing their delicious tunes around the city.

Today, only Mobile Softee, which was initially franchised from Mister Softee in the United States in the 1970s, is still operating.

Freshly made, vanilla-flavored soft-serve ice cream, nutty drumsticks, large ice cream cups and jumbo orange sherbet are all that you could buy from a Mobile Softee van all these years.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 14.

Translation by Darlie Yiu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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An On Lok Yuen ice cream vendor in the old days stations his bicycle on a popular path leading to The Peak. Photo: internet

HKEJ contributor

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