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Hong Kong Early Industrial Venture: The Sugarcane Saga in Hong Kong

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.

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