This story was part of Elephant Community Press' 2017 exhibition, "Hong Kong Farm to Table: Stories of Local Food Producers".
In an inconspicuous corner of the Hong Kong countryside, a legion of winged workers toils away. Fuzzy and bumbling, they flit and float about, sometimes venturing up to three miles away to collect their pollen-laden goods. To most, the honeybee is an irksome insect or a dedicated maker of honey. But to 33-year-old Hugo Yip, years of growing up on Wing Wo Bee farm have made them an integral and effortless part of his life.
Three years ago, Yip and his 50-year-old bee farmer father ventured off the trails of Hong Kong’s country parks to sniff out wild beehives as a rite of passage into becoming a true beekeeper. While trekking the trails, Hugo lost his footing spectacularly, falling a heart-stopping 20 to 30 feet, but at last they located the most plentiful, most bountiful, mother lode of hives. They coerced the gelatinous honeycomb from the bees’ stubborn thoraxes, oozing in all its amber glory. His father posed with the fruits of their efforts balanced in one hand, beaming in triumph at Hugo. Today, the photo still hangs in their apartment as a lingering reminder of the sweet expedition.
And yet for Hugo Yip, this is all in a day’s work. Born in the early 1980s in Hong Kong, Yip has spent most his life exploring, experiencing, and now caring for his family-run bee farm in the leafy outskirts of Sha Tin, the humble apiary known as Wing Wo Bee Farm. As the modest farm enters its 34th year, it continues to bring well-loved honey to the bellies of Hong Kongers. In today’s rapidly urbanizing society, Yip makes peace with both the sweet spots and rough patches in inheriting and maintaining a traditional business, all while preserving the same spark of passion that his father lit from its starting day.
Wing Wo Bee Farm still stands on the exact same uphill path, tucked away in a labyrinth of Sha Tin mountain roads, only found by following a series of faded white picket signs. Yet despite this seclusion, the farm thrives thanks to its customers who climb the hills, all to pop into the shop for a jar of honey and a chat. After years of selling in his living room, Yip knows the ins and outs of the business like the back of his pudgy sting-scarred hand. “There’s all different types of honey with different tastes,” Yip explained. He gesticulated happily, describing every jar of honey on his shelf. “For example, Europeans like honey from trees that are similar to those in Europe. On the other hand, Chinese people prefer summer honey, because that honey is made from fragrant lychee and longan, and the tastes of those flowers are more familiar and recognizable.” Frowning slightly, he stirred the thick, almost creamy white honey, spooning it slowly into a cold water bottle. As the honey sank to the bottom, he shook it, as a mixologist honed in his craft, pouring it out and serving the chilled honey water to a group of middle-aged women who had wandered in during a hike. As the glasses clinked against the linoleum table, he finally mused, “I mean, don’t we all like the taste of home?”
But although the farm flourishes, the going’s not always sweet. “When you just start, people don’t trust you yet,” Yip said. In the early days, Yip’s father had to throw away up to 2,000-3,000 kg of honey, all because he didn’t have a reputation yet. Furthermore, the farm itself is demanding. Fickle factors like an unexpected storm or change in the winds can set a hive awry, so Yip has to perpetually wait on standby. Yip loves travelling, but he can’t leave for long periods because, like a hive mind of clingy girlfriends, the bees are high maintenance, so he sacrifices his social life. “But ah! Such is the cost of a beekeeping lifestyle,” Yip wryly exclaimed.
In a row of weathered bee hives, Yip lifted the lid of a random “bee box”. Peeling back a layer of cloying plastic, his fingers closed down on a single pane, and he removed the rectangle of golden honeycomb, exposing rows upon rows of seething bees. A single bee crawled down Yip’s face as he stood unflinching, gently yet firmly angling the honeycomb to and fro to soothe their increasing aggression. “I mean, to my father, I’m obviously not passionate enough. But to others, I may seem rather passionate. To myself? I don’t know… I do it well, but that’s because it’s what I do.” Smiling goofily, Yip posed next to the bees, indifferent yet industrious, inheritor of Wing Wo Bee Farm, the honeyed man with the city bees.