Gourmets in the Land of Famine: The Culture and Politics of Rice in Modern Canton

By Seung-Joon Lee | Go to book overview

Conclusion

This study has argued that the modern Chinese state’s attempts to recast the Cantonese transnational rice trade networks into a national framework were doomed to failure, because policymakers were concerned only with the quantitative precision of rice production and ignored the quality of the imported rice. Canton had long been renowned for its food culture, which is distinctive in its flamboyance and sophistication. However, for its rice supplies Canton relied on transnational, high-volume trade with Southeast Asia via Hong Kong, because of the shortage of grain production in the Pearl River Delta region. By the turn of the twentieth century, as the Cantonese silk industry replaced rice cultivation and began dominating markets far beyond the Chinese borders, trade with Southeast Asia—largely dominated by Cantonese émigrés—supplemented the rice shortfall. The Cantonese had to ship in a variety of foodstuffs for their daily consumption to make up for the insufficiency. Rice, in particular, was the staple food and the primary import. The unique food supply structure that was preconditioned by the regional rice shortage and transnational supplement resulted in an unintended consequence, the foundation of a thriving Cantonese food culture. It resulted in a diversity of foodstuffs, along with a wide range of rice varieties and culinary experiments.

To be sure, in the early twentieth century Canton’s trade with Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, though highly lucrative, was a risky transnational business. Canton was not completely free from chronic rice shortages. However, rice shortages were usually resolved by the skillful efforts of the elite mercantile groups, whose business networks formed a web linking the coastal Chinese cities and overseas Chinese communities. The merchants’ successful management of famine relief not only strengthened their business influence and social reputation but also provided an opportunity to test new

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