When I was a child, I often went to fruit juice stores for cane stalks because other sweets like candies cost a lot back then.
There’s an abundant supply of sugarcane, which was the main crop grown in Guangdong province, and it was quite common to see people chewing sugarcanes in Hong Kong at the time.
Table sugar, today’s most common form of sugar, is manufactured in a refinery where raw sugar is cryztallized by boiling and cooling sugarcane juice extract.
The white powdery sugar just tastes way too inferior to fresh sugarcane juice, if you ask me. However, it was highly acclaimed for making deluxe western desserts.
The Taikoo Sugar Refinery, established by Swire in 1884 in Quarry Bay, enjoyed a robust business. Quite renowned it was that some urban legends had developed around it.
One was about the origin of its Chinese name, Taikoo (太古) — tai gu in Cantonese transcription.
It was said that the British taipan, who encountered the Chinese characters “大吉” — dai gat, meaning good luck – on red paper that was literally on every door of the local families during the Lunar New Year, believed that the two words carry an auspicious meaning and decided that it would be perfect as the company’s Chinese name.
But while writing down the two characters, the gentleman added a dot on the first word but forgot a horizontal stroke on the other, turning 大吉 into 太古.
But I am not convinced. If you look at old photos, you would find the symbol of yin-yang as the product logo on Taikoo sugar packages.
The adoption of the Taikoo brand and the yin-yang symbol should be a result of careful deliberations as they both carry historical references. In other words, if the name resulted from a slip of the pen, it would be such a remarkable coincidence.
Taikoo later built staff quarters in the Mount Parker area, and developed Hong Kong’s first ever cable car system in 1892, connecting Murray Place (now Quarry Bay Street) to Quarry Pass, so that workers of the dockyard and the refinery didn’t need to travel back and forth between the factory and their quarters by going uphill and downhill on foot.
People nowadays often mistake the Mount Parker Cable Car for the “Ropeway in Causeway Bay” (銅鑼飛棧), which happens to be the name of an artwork by famous painter Wu Youru in the late Qing Dynasty.
It is said that Wu’s painting depicts a scene in Causeway Bay in which construction workers employed by Taikoo Sugar use crane trucks to pick up people and move them uphill.
But in my opinion, it is more likely that the painter had witnessed the construction of the Jardines mansion, which was on a hill south of East Point and west of Causeway Bay (now Lee Garden Road), and not the Mount Parker Cable Car.
First, Wu passed away one year after the operation of the cable car. It was quite impossible for him to travel all the way from Shanghai to Hong Kong to visit the remote Quarry Bay.
Second, and most importantly, he couldn’t have drawn out the crane truck as a cable car – the two machines are quite different.
Nonetheless, it is understandable that Wu, who was not a local Hong Kong resident, failed to distinguish between Jardines and Taikoo, which were rivals renowned for making sugar for the Far East region.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 25.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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