The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London has a Center for Food Studies which invites a Distinguished Lecture every year. I had given the Distinguished Lecture in 2009 on ‘Challenges to Food Security’ . This year James L. Watson ,Emeritus Professor of Chinese Society and Anthropology, Harvard University, will deliver a lecture on an unusual and interesting subject: How the farmers in the fertile and productive Pearl river delta in China grew red rice in the mudflats and when the situation turned adverse for them, moved to Europe and Canada to dominate the business of Chinese restaurants. Watson’s talk, as the note from SOAS describes, will explain how in the chaotic aftermath of the Manchu conquests from 1644-1672, pioneers from central China settled on the fringe of the delta, near salt-water marshes that no one else wanted. Over the next two centuries they and their descendants reclaimed over a thousand acres of mudflats and built brackish-water enclosures that grew a special variety of red rice. The single crop was sold entirely to distilleries that produced medicinal wines and livestock feed. Unlike neighboring communities that had access to fresh-water and could take two crops a year of white rice, the Man community always lived a difficult life , dependent on their single crop from brackish water. Watson’s lecture will trace the social history of the Man community from the rice fields in the early 20th century, to the European restaurant trade in the 1950s and 1960s, to remarkable affluence and global enterprises in the 21st century. The heart of the story is red rice and the long-term consequences of life in a marginal ecosystem.
For nearly six hundred years, the Man survived by growing a specialized crop of red rice on brackish-water paddies along the Shenzhen River, a muddy creek that became the Anglo-Chinese border in 1898. This border was closed abruptly in 1949, following the Communist conquest of China . The Man farmers faced a crisis when their agricultural system collapsed during the early 1950s since the markets for their specialized rice were located on the Communist side of the river. Unlike other communities in other Territories that were based on fresh-water ecosystems, the Man could not convert to vegetables or white rice (which will not grow in saline ﬁelds). So they moved out to various places and successfully established and controlled the trade in Chinese restaurants !