Three weeks in to my six week stint as an English teacher in Hong Kong, I’ve been struck by how unusual it is to see a fat Chinese person. While at home I’m used to an array of body shapes even wider than the average British waistband, in Hong Kong nearly everyone is a perfect weight – both bones and bingo wings are a rare sight.
According to the stats, my eyes haven’t been deceiving me. The Hong Kong Department of Health classifies 36.6 per cent of the city’s population as overweight, while a Public Health England survey earlier this year found 64 per cent of Brits to be overweight. These figures are even more shocking given that they are skewed in the UK’s favour – the Hong Kong Department of Health takes ‘overweight’ to mean a BMI of 23 or above, while their British counterparts only consider those of 25 or over problematic.
When you look at the Cantonese diet, near-universal slimness doesn’t make any sense. People in Hong Kong eat everything dieticians despise. Fatty meat in a sugary sauce is served on a mountain of white rice. Three measly pieces of mushroom sit atop a wok-full of deep-fried noodles. Most cheap restaurants offer a free fizzy drink with every meal. There’s a McDonald’s on every corner, but miles between every salad.
If it’s not the staple diet, neither is it that everyone’s counting calories – Hong Kong-ers don’t seem to be particularly worried about getting fat. Western coffee chains like Starbucks and Pret A Manger don’t display the calorie content of their food in their Hong Kong branches, while they do in the UK. In British branches of Pizza Express, all the healthy-option ‘Leggera’ pizzas come in at under 500 calories; in Hong Kong, they’re all 500-600 calories.
After a fortnight of classically unhealthy lunches with our Chinese teaching assistants, I’m starting to think that this relaxed attitude might be the slimming secret. People in Hong Kong eat whatever they want until they’re full, three times a day. They’re not hungry in between meals, so they don’t snack.
The Hong Kong ‘eat until you’re full’ philosophy extends to the contentious issue of portion size, too. Meals are a more communal occasion here than they are in the UK. You order as a group, and transfer a couple of mouthfuls-worth of each dish at a time into your own bowl. Even in Pizza Express, a pile of small plates is provided on each table for sharing dishes – which everyone in the restaurant except us was doing. In Britain you’re either given a tiny helping after which you need a snack, or a supersize one that you feel obliged to finish; in Hong Kong you don’t know how much you’ve eaten – you just know when you’ve had enough.
Perhaps people in Hong Kong aren’t slimmer than the British because they eat healthier food, but because they take a healthier approach to their diets. Hardly anyone’s fat, no one’s hungry and, when it comes to mealtimes, everyone’s happier.