Updated: Sep 10, 2020
Sugarcane, along with tea and silk, was the main exported product from China. Sugarcane
sellers, according to the poets in Qing Dynasty, were a sign that winter was around the
corner. It is believed that sugarcane tastes sweeter in the colder months. As the global
financial center it is today, a part of Hong Kong’s roots of wealth was in the sugar industry
despite its lack of physical traces left in the territory.
The sugarcane industry in Hong Kong, which appeared in the diary of Jiaqing emperor of the
Qing Dynasty, stretches back 120 years. The New Territories was leased to Britain following
the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. Sir Arthur Henry Blake, the
12th Governor of colonial Hong Kong, was taken by the sugar agriculture of the territory. Sir
Henry suggested obtaining sugar mills from America in hopes of replacing the primitive
sugar mills with Western machinery. He also imported varieties of sugarcane from Java and
The Cheung clan, under the reign of Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, settled into Sha
Ha Village in Yuen Long in the mid 1 th century. They ventured into planting mainly rice and
sugarcane. Every household grew nearly three to four mu (around half an acre) of sugarcane
at the time. There had been thirteen sugar refineries, all run by the Cheung clan, built in the
village throughout the sugar industry phase. A sign of the prospering sugar industry, they
were simultaneously running three refineries at the same time. Families in the village would
take turns producing sugar at the refineries which only operated during the harvesting and
crushing season in the last 6 months of each year.
When the sugar production reached its maximum in the 18th century, there were about 750
acres growing sugarcane and 81 sugar mills of a very primitive nature scattered over the
territory. The total value of the sugar produced annually added up to about HK$175,000,
two times more than the sum required for wages and crushing expenses. A quarter of the
sugar produced was used for local consumption among the villagers while the rest was
either traded in for daily necessities or exported to Hong Kong Island and Guangdong.
During harvesting seasons, Sha Ha villagers harvested and delivered sugarcane to the mills
early in the morning. They cut off the ends and removed the yellowing leaves before
crushing the sugarcanes at the mills. A team of steamers boiled the extracted juice with
sweet potato and oil until it was clarified without any soil and impurities. By boiling off the
excess water, the juice came out concentrated with a syrup-like consistency. The villagers
worked until midnight to make 24 buckets of sugarcane into raw sugar.
The abandoned farmland and centuries old sugar mills sit idly in the Sha Ha Village now.
Equipment used at the sugar refineries have literally gone down in the village as part of
their history as they are believed to have been buried underground.