The price of rice in wartime

Rice is Hong Kong's staple food. As shown below, the cost of rice increased over 600 times during the 3 years 8 months of the Japanese occupation. 

DatePrice per catty in HK$Source
1941-12-010.15WIS #14, 16.12.42.
1942-04-150.70Harry Ching
1942-08-01(official rate) 1.20WIS #14, 16.12.42
1942-08-01(black market rate) 1.20WIS #14, 16.12.42
1942-11-30(official rate MY0.30) 1.20Harry Ching
1942-11-30(black rate MY0.67) 2.68Harry Ching
1943-02-28(black market rate) 3.70WIS #23, 14.3.43
1943-08-08(Ration MY0.30) 1.20Tom Hutchinson
1943-09-20(Ration MY0.375) 1.50Tom Hutchinson
1943-12-10(Black Market MY2.35) 9.40Tom Hutchinson
1944-03-14(Black Market MY4.7) 18.80Tom Hutchinson
1944-04-07(MY7) 28.00Harry Ching
1944-07-24("Kam Fung Suet" @ MY8.10) 32.40KWIZ #68,29.9.44
1944-08-02(MY7.00) 28.00KWIZ #67, 22.9.44
1944-08-22(MY14.00) 56.00KWIZ #72, 27.10.44
1944-10-17(MY14) 56.00KWIZ #76, 24.11.44
1944-11-13(MY18.5) 74.00KWIZ #78, 22.12.44
1944-12-08(MY27.00) 108.00KWIZ #78, 22.12.44
1944-12-20(MY24.5) 98.00Tom Hutchinson

Price per catty in HK$

The sources above all use the "catty" as their unit of measure for retail sales of rice. It is still widely used today in food shops and markets today, and is roughly equal to 1.3 lb, or 0.6 kg.

I've used HK$ as the currency, though all the later prices are quoted in Military Yen (MY). This was the currency introduced by the Japanese shortly after the British surrendered. The initial exchange rate was HK$2:MY1, but from July 1942 it was changed to HK$4:MY1. I've used the 4:1 rate throughout.

In earlier references the sources specify whether the price quoted is the official / ration price, or the black market price. In April 1944, Harry Ching writes: "Rice rationing to cease from 15th April", and from then on all rice is bought and sold at the market rate.

"Kam Fung Suet" is a type / brand of rice. The report mentions two types, and this is the cheaper.

I don't have any prices for 1945. I wonder if it is because rice became so scarce and unaffordable, it wasn't available to the average person? If you know of any 1945 prices, please could you let us know in the comments below?

For comparison, a catty of rice costs HK$4 - 8 in the supermarkets today.

Sources

Thanks to Elizabeth Ride for giving me a head-start on this. She has compiled a list of the costs of commodities from the WIS (Waichow Intelligence Summary ) and KWIZ (Kweillin Weekly Intelligence Summary) documents produced by the BAAG (British Army Aid Group). Copies of these documents are held in the Elizabeth Ride Collection.

I've also extracted notes of prices from the wartime diaries of Harry Ching and Tom Hutchinson, kindly shared with us by Henry Ching and Barbara Merchant respectively.

If you have any family diaries or memoirs from wartime Hong Kong, would you be willing to share them here on Gwulo.com?

Regards, David

Comments

Great job!

Did you fathom what Tom Hutchinson was doing when he was drawing rice from Lim's shop, seemingly without paying for it? I'm assuming he either deposited rice he bought when it was cheaper, and drew it out when required - this only makes sense if it ensured he could get reasonably fresh rice due to Lim's turnover, or, Tom was getting it on tick.

James, Tom's son has another story, whereby Sarah, being Japanese, was given rice by the Japanese police/guards, and Tom gave this to Lim. There is no proof or corroboration on this, so it's anyone's guess. Sounds like rice-laundering! It is clear though, that the Lims and the Hutchinsons were friends.

Barbara

Rice from Lim's shop

Hi Barbara,

No, I hadn't picked up on that.

I wonder how the family was registered with the Japanese authorities, and how much benefit they got from their Sarah's Japanese ancestors.

The diary for 22 Sep 1943 records "2.4 Cats Rice ration". Harry Ching's diary says that families registered as Eurasian received a flour ration instead of rice, which suggests the Hutchinson's weren't recorded as a Eurasian family?

Regards, David

Re: Black-market exchange rate?

Hi David,

Thank you for posting such valuable numbers.  They certainly help us understand the social situation much better.

Just a thought...  Circulation of Hong Kong dollars was banned after some time in 1943 (?), so the official exchange rate of HK$4:MY1 probably did not apply after that day.  I wonder if there is information about the black-market rates between that day and liberation in 1945.  I read about black-market rates after liberation but forgot from where.

Rice from Lim's shop

I really don't know if the Hutchinsons were registered as a Eurasian family. I know they were stateless in Shanghai and also while they were in HK, until 1948 when Tom  was naturalised British. But then they couldn't have been completely under the radar as they were getting rations, and Tom mentions getting his "passport" photo done by Maytime Studio on 28/3/44.

Family accounts would suggest that they were friendly with the Japanese police who guarded their neighbourhood, as Sarah could speak Japanese. Possibly that is why the Japanese gave them rice, which they then gave to the Lims, who were Singaporean and were not eligible for rations.

I'm not sure how much of all this is mythical, but in the chaos of war and occupation, all sorts of things must have happened which have not been documented, or for which any records have now been lost.

Barbara

The price of rice in wartime

C, yes you're right the exchange rate changed significantly. This from pgs 228-9 of Snow's "The Fall of Hong Kong":

Next to real estate and jewellery the Hong Kong dollar had now become the favoured form of investment; and it gained value with dizzying speed against the collapsing military yen. For a year or so after June 1943 a Hong Kong dollar was worth som MY1 to MY2 on the black market - an exchange rate already in sharp contrast with the official rate of MY1=HK$4 which had prevailed at the time the dollar was suppressed. By March 1945 it fetched MY25, by April MY30, and by August approximately MY250.

At first glance that suggests my figures are over-inflated. But if we think of how affordable the rice was to the average family, I think they're about right. By the time the HK$ was suppressed, I don't think many Hong Kong residents had much HK$ left.

Barbara, Henry Ching has written in with more information about rations:

Dear David – wrt your reply to Barbara Merchant in which you point out that according to my father’s diary families registered as Eurasian received a flour ration instead of rice, I think the position was somewhat confused and my father’s diary is not at all clear on this point. In the entry for February, 1943 he mentions that the rice ration for Eurasians was halved if they received flour as well.  I suspect that in theory the intention was that the entitlement should be either rice or flour, not both, but it appears that in practice some Eurasians received a reduced portion of both. The Japs were not good at admin and were illogical at the best of times.

As regards references to “rations”, I take this opportunity of commenting on the apparent meaning assumed for the word by some commentators.  “Rations” as applied to certain foodstuffs meant simply that supply was limited and only a certain restricted amount could be obtained – but it still had to be paid for (i.e. bought) and was not supplied free of charge.  I have, for example, seen an argument that, of course, the inmates of Rosary Hill were interned because they received “rations”.  Yes, internees were fed (after a  fashion) free of charge to them. But in Rosary Hill the “rations” had to be paid for, and this was done on behalf of the recipients by the Red Cross Representative who bought the “rations” from his limited resources. The system replaced the arrangement whereby he gave cash aid to destitute third nationals, before Rosary Hill was established as a home of refuge for them, to buy their own “rations”.