For those who know me, you know where I stand on proper English high tea.  It’s one of the most colonial and traditional ways to spend an afternoon – sipping English teas and eating finger sandwiches and scones.  And yet, there is something so homey and English about having Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.  I don’t know that it’s the best afternoon tea in Hong Kong, but it’s one of the oldest and one of the most sought after locations by tourists and locals alike.  This east meets west collides right along the Victoria Harbor, where the hotel has become one of the worlds most famous.

When you look beyond the classic “Peninsula green” color that is the signature of the hotel, the magnificent lobby, the luxurious shopping arcade, and the quartet playing high above in the balcony, lies a deeper story of colonization of the British.  The British, by all accounts, had a tremendous profitable trading partner in China in the 1700’s.  With China’s insatiable appetite for silver, Britain was feeling the pressure of supplying silver by purchasing it through other European countries.  When that appetite continued to grow quicker than the supply, Britain turned to opium, a poppy when cultivated, was used as a type of medical morphine.  In large doses and especially through smoking the poppy, it is an hallucinogenic drug.   China would ban the import of opium because its citizens became hooked on it as the main drug of its day.  And thus, the two Opium Wars came about between China and Britain.  We all know how that ended for China – it ceded Hong Kong Island first in 1845, then Kowloon peninsula in 1860.  For the next 137 years since the cessation of Kowloon, Hong Kong would become a financial center of Asia, an asylum of sorts for the Chinese fleeing Mao and Communism in 1949, and where Oriental and Occidental became one.  At least in a governing sense.

With the British sovereign rule came cross cultural blending where east not only meets west, but both started to fuse into one another.  And none of that became more evident then the British lifestyle – clothes, makeup, capitalism, ideas, and of course, food.  Afternoon teas were introduced and people in Hong Kong not only embraced English style tea [with milk and sugar], but they would, over the years, perfect a variation of their own English tea [with condensed milk and sugar through strained steeped black tea leaves].  Here at the Peninsula Hotel, is a world where the English clearly became the forefront from its colonization of a tiny part of China, and turned it into one of the most dynamic and multi-cultural cities in the world.  And yet, when you step inside the hotel, you are transported back to the 1930s and 1940s, where you can still hear the sound of old money in the lobby, talking about life, art, the economy, and the future, all through drinks and food.

When Britain finally handed Hong Kong and Kowloon back to China on July 1, 1997, I think we all feared the worst.  What will happen to this dynamic city where the west has so immersed itself into the culture of the east?  After 13 years, the Peninsula Hotel continues to be a vibrant landmark in Hong Kong, where important dignitaries, celebrities, and wealthy travelers stay as a way to experience something so European in a country so Chinese.  But then again, we’re talking about Hong Kong, where locals drink English tea in the morning, eat congee for breakfast, and have afternoon teas in the afternoon.  It’s a way of life that is still dear in its heart. The colony of Britain, for 137 years, has not changed much in the way of its roots.  One can only hope that the Peninsula Hotel continues to breathe its English history each and every day, while serving its magnificent afternoon teas to all.

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