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Hong Kong-style milk tea brand Hoko in London is giving emigrants a welcome taste of home

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 23/6/2022 Charmaine Mok
  • Launched by Hongkonger Nicole Ma in September 2021, Hoko sells milk tea in pouches and bottles brewed daily using a secret blend of different Ceylon black teas
  • The brand, which also sells Hong Kong's famous coffee with tea and French toast, has quickly found a niche as record numbers of Hongkongers emigrate to the UK

Hoko, a modern ready-to-drink milk tea brand launched by Hongkonger Nicole Ma, introduces a quintessential flavour of Hong Kong to Londoners - and, for new and old immigrants in Britain, a much-needed taste of home.

Hoko's strikingly simple plastic-pouch packaging, which features a swathe of bright red and a minimalist typeface inspired by Chinese calligraphy, is simultaneously retro and contemporary - a symbol of Hong Kong's dichotomous nature and a beautifully designed product that stands out on shelves.

Its signature original milk tea is a secret blend of different Ceylon black teas hand-brewed daily in London in small batches - the only ingredients are water, evaporated milk, tea and sugar. It also sells bottles of yuen yeung, Hong Kong's famed coffee-meets-tea hybrid.

Launched in September 2021, Hoko started off with online orders and partnering with restaurants and cafes which would serve its product. It was important for Ma and her team to find brands aligned with hers, as Hoko was envisioned as "a way to celebrate where we are from and who we are", she says.

Bottles of Hoko's yuen yeung - Hong Kong-style coffee with tea. Photo: Hoko © Provided by South China Morning Post Bottles of Hoko's yuen yeung - Hong Kong-style coffee with tea. Photo: Hoko

A former floral designer based in Hong Kong, Ma moved to the UK several years ago with the desire to expand her knowledge in the design and floristry industry, but is now dedicated to promoting Hong Kong culture in her newly adopted city.

For Ma, the brand quickly became a proxy for her to explore her own connection to her hometown, while parlaying its quirks and characteristics to a new audience.

"Having been away from home for some years, the lingering memories and attachment to Hong Kong grew stronger and stronger," she says. "Being an immigrant at this stage of life does make us rethink, explore, and pursue our origin, cultural identity and roles."

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ma grew up in a public housing estate and has many fond food memories: wrapping Shanghainese wontons with her grandmother for Lunar New Year; warming up with hot charcoal-roasted sweet potatoes from street hawkers in Kwun Tong during wintertime; and exploring historic cha chaan tengs, or Hong Kong-style cafes.

"One of my favourites was Hing Kee on Hollywood Road, where they serve delicious Hong Kong French toast, pork liver noodles with ginger slices, and Hong Kong-style milk tea," she says.

Hoko's French toast. Photo: Hoko © Provided by South China Morning Post Hoko's French toast. Photo: Hoko

Now, nearly 6,000 miles (9,600km) away from Hong Kong, she fears that her home city will "become distant from how [I] remember it was" as she hears about more and more restaurant closures there amid ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.

Hoko is, therefore, her way of expressing love and nostalgia for the city. Since launch, the brand has found a certain niche; London-based food writer Angela Hui, for example, hailed a pouch of Hoko milk tea as her top non-alcoholic drink of 2021: "I took a sip and my homesickness was instantly cured," she wrote in Time Out London in December 2021.

A Hoko employee makes milk tea at the brand's production location. Photo: Hoko © Provided by South China Morning Post A Hoko employee makes milk tea at the brand's production location. Photo: Hoko

Capturing the taste of Hong Kong will certainly be welcomed by many in the UK as the nation has seen a record number of Hongkongers emigrating there since the launch of the British National (Overseas) pathway scheme in 2020. More than 123,400 Hong Kong residents applied for the scheme between January 31, 2020 and the end of March 2022, with at least 92 per cent of the applications being approved, according to UK government figures.

"We can see groups of Hongkongers settling in residential areas like Sutton, Colindale and Kingston in London, and the community spirit is great," Ma says. "Hongkongers are creating their own economic circles and supporting each other by offering services and goods. There has also been an obvious growth of Cantonese food [businesses] and cultural set-ups such as Chinese medicine shops, as well as kung fu and Cantonese language schools."

Hoko's milk tea in bottle form. Photo: Hoko © Provided by South China Morning Post Hoko's milk tea in bottle form. Photo: Hoko

Hoko's joyful and approachable branding highlights the egalitarian nature of enjoying a cup of milk tea in a cha chaan teng. Since the end of March the team have taken the brand further with a nomadic pop-up kiosk selling French toast and milk tea, appearing in street food markets around London. They also use their social media platform to educate followers on the culinary culture of Hong Kong.

Gloria Chung, a food stylist based in Hong Kong who is currently travelling in London, couldn't resist giving Hoko a taste while she was in town.

"The tea was rich and very silky, and not too sweet, and the French toast was legit," she says. "These guys are so passionate about Hong Kong and Hong Kong culture - they are trying to keep it alive and spread it to everyone in the UK, not just Hongkongers."

Hoko has also become a proxy for founder Nicole Ma to explore her own connection to her hometown. Photo: Hoko © Provided by South China Morning Post Hoko has also become a proxy for founder Nicole Ma to explore her own connection to her hometown. Photo: Hoko

For Ma, that's exactly what it's all about.

"Our smallest wish is to bring glimpses of memories to people in the UK, even simply by a cup of milk tea," she says. "Most importantly, we'd like to tell Hongkongers [in the UK] that they are not alone, and that home is where the heart is."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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