Mon, Jun 10, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Resurrecting Hong Kong’s ‘Pearl of the Orient’ past

Pearl farming stages a comeback with traditional knowledge and cutting-edge technology

AFP, HONG KONG

In March, former investment banker turned scientist Yan Wa-tat (center) scrapes barnacles off Akoya oysters on a fishing raft culturing pearl oysters in the rural Sai Kung region of Hong Kong.

Photo: AFP

On a raft floating off Hong Kong’s rural eastern coastline, former investment banker turned scientist Yan Wa-tat patiently scrapes barnacles off some 2,000 oysters — a tiresome but crucial part of his mission to bring back pearl farming.

“The species was once abundant in Hong Kong,” the 58-year-old lamented. “We have a history of pearl fishing of over 1,000 years... but because of over-fishing in Hong Kong, we only have very few of them left,” he explained.

Yan is farming Akoya pearl oysters, a specimen prized for jewelry, hoping his research will show other fishermen that the industry could be viable.

It’s a calling that requires patience. Cultured pearls take around a year to form and every few weeks Yan has to scrape away any barnacles that might compete for food with his precious oysters.

This kind of knowledge was once ubiquitous in the region. After all, the famous waterway that sustains this part of southern China — along one of the world’s most densely populated regions — is called the Pearl River.

The world’s biggest pearl, once owned by Catherine the Great and known as the “Sleeping Lion” because of its bizarre shape, is thought to have been plucked from southern China’s waters sometime in the 1700s before Dutch traders spirited it away.

And Hong Kong — dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient” by its former colonial overlords — remains the world’s largest importer and exporter of pearls, with exports topping US$1.8 billion in 2016, according to UN trade data.

But none of them are produced locally. Over-fishing and market forces have long devastated the wild pearl farming trade in the city.

Cultured pearl farming is a relatively modern industry, and a few Hong Kong ventures rose to the challenge in the 1950s. But they struggled against Japanese competitors who came to dominate the trade. The city’s last pearl farm was shuttered in 1981.

OYSTERS AND CHIPS

Now Yan and a handful of fishermen are trying to change that — with a small cottage industry combining traditional knowledge and cutting-edge technology.

Yan worked in Hong Kong’s lucrative banking sector until his mid-50s, when he decided he wanted to do something “more interesting and also more productive for our society.”

He embarked on a doctorate at Hong Kong University’s School of Biological Sciences looking at how to resurrect the city’s pearl farming trade, something he didn’t even know existed until he stumbled across it in early research.

In his lab at Hong Kong University, Yan researches the best ways to insert a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip into an oyster’s nucleus, around which a pearl will then grow — although the exact mechanism is a closely-guarded secret.

The chips are part of the same family of technology that allows users of mobile phones, transport cards and identity badges to scan into a building or to make a purchase with a simple swipe.

Yan holds a scanning device against one of his oysters and after a small bleep sound, a set of numbers appears on an app on his smartphone.

That tech has multiple benefits. Some 10 to 20 percent of nuclei are expelled by the oyster — meaning a cultured pearl is unable to form — but this is usually only discovered when prizing them open at harvest time.

Using a chip means farmers can simply scan the shell to check if a pearl has been produced.

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