There is proof that soy sauce has existed for many centuries, but the claim it has been around for millenia has been greatly exaggerated. That’s one of the findings of a research project spearheaded by Angela Leung, director of the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. An oft-quoted text is the Rites of Zhou, written in 300 BC, about the Western Zhou dynasty (1050–771 BC) in which a chef is tasked with keeping a sauce indicated as zoeng3 (將), the general name for soy sauce. But in some cases the word can simply refer to a fermented sauce or paste, which may have been the case in that historical document.
“The short answer to whether this is the same thing as today’s soy sauce is no – it is a different product,” says Leung, who also explains that soy sauce, as well as many other soy products, did not become commonly accessible until the mid-18th century, during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), when the northern plains of Manchuria, where soybeans originally grew, became fully integrated into China.
Under the emperor Qianlong, who reigned from 1735 to 1796, a time when the Manchu rulers felt securely established in their conquered territory, Han peasants from Shandong were allowed to go into the Qing’s ancestral lands in Manchuria and cultivate the beans – thus initiating the era of wide usage of soy and its byproducts. (There were fewer Manchu peasants than Han, and provinces like Shandong had started feeling great demographic pressure, something the Qing rulers alleviated by allowing people to migrate north.) Only then did soy sauce become an everyday condiment for people in China, and not an expensive rarity reserved for emperors and the nobility.
Soy sauce arrived even later in the rest of Asia. It was only towards the end of Qianlong’s reign that the Manchu government began allowing the export of soybeans to countries like Japan and Korea, finally making soy products more affordable there, too. Today, of course, soybeans grow in many parts of the world, including North and South America – a geographical expansion of this Asian crop that is at the origin of a curious twist in the production of Hong Kong soy sauce.
Grown in Canada, made in Hong Kong
“For the Hong Kong soy sauce industry, the Korean War was a pivotal moment,” explains John D. Wong, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, who analyses local soy sauce . When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the United States sided with the South, while China joined the war on the side of the North. In 1951, the US imposed an embargo on Chinese products and those made with Chinese raw materials, which included soy sauce – an embargo that was lifted only in 1971. “Hong Kong, as a British colony, was exempt from the embargo, but the provenance of the ingredients in local products for export was subject to it,” says Wong. “So Hong Kong producers, who had been importing soybeans from China until then, started importing from Canada, and exporting soy sauce to the US, and all over the world.”
In some cases this has continued to this day. Daniel Chan, the fourth-generation descendant of the founders of Hong Kong’s 90-year-old old Koon Chun (Gun1 Zan1 冠珍) soy sauce factory, explains that his company’s soy sauce and soybean paste are all made with non-genetically-modified soybeans from Canada. The Koon Chun factory in Yuen Long has hundreds of kilos of beans neatly stacked in white bags that carry a large red maple leaf on top, a sure sign of their provenance. Koon Chun produces brews that are widely exported, and for a while was better known abroad than in Hong Kong, becoming a local favourite only as interest for locally produced foods started growing in the past few decades.
The local soy scene
Koon Chun is today one of just a handful of local soy sauce producers. A century ago, however, there were quite a number of those, grouped in the area between Kai Tak Airport and the Kowloon Walled City, using the land there for sunning the large vats of fermenting soy sauce. Hong Kong’s soy sauce brewers and pickle producers gathered in a guild in the 1930s, and one of the distinctive characteristics is that most of them decided to put the character for “crown” (zan1 珍) in their name.
“There is no real reason behind it,” says Chan. “People would just look at what names were popular, and called themselves a variation of those. Some people think it may come from a Chinese definition of deliciousness: ‘A hundred tastes of delicacies’ or zan1 sau1 baak3 mei6 (珍饈百味), where the word for ‘delicacies’ is [written] with the character for ‘crown.’ Others say it is because ‘crown’ can also mean ‘pearl,’ and when production was in Kowloon it was near fishermen, who called the soybeans pearls. We don’t really know the origin of the word.”
At one point, Hong Kong had “very many crowns,” and around a hundred local producers. Five are still active today: Koon Chun, as well as Pat Chun (baat3 zan1 八珍), Tung Chun (tung4 zan1 同珍), Pun Chun (ban2 zan1 品珍) and Kowloon Soy Sauce, which was originally called Mei Chun (mei5 zan1 美珍) but was compelled to change its name during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, as the first character, mei5 (美), can also be used to indicate the United States, which in Cantonese is Mei5 Gwok3 (美國). It has remained Kowloon Soy Sauce ever since, with its main shop in Graham Street in Central.
A unique origin myth
One interesting thing about the Hong Kong guild is that it also has an altar and a yearly celebration for the mythical couple that is credited in Hong Kong with inventing soy sauce. “They are Master Ha Tai (Haa6 Taai3 Sin1 Si1 夏泰先師 ) and Lady Ng (Ng4 Si6 Fu1 Jan4 吳氏夫人), and the legend says that they lived long long ago, and discovered soy sauce by putting some beans in their pockets, and forgetting them there, so that they fermented,” says Chan, amused. He explains that the legend doesn’t exist in any other part of China, and is a purely local myth that is celebrated in the eighth lunar month, corresponding to the season when, in decades past, soy sauce producers would harvest their sauce from vats. “Although now we do the harvesting more than just once a year,” he notes.
The evolution of Hong Kong soy sauce
After the end of the Civil War in China, in 1949, and the successive large waves of refugees that came to Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, the government pushed local soy sauce manufacturers to move out of Kowloon, in order to use that area for housing, which led the local soy sauce producers to scatter to different parts of the territory. A further change took place in the late 1970s and 1980s, when China started to open up, and some local brands decided to take advantage of the greater availability of land across the border, moving production to the north.
By then, far fewer brewers remained compared to the 1930s, as a number of them had succumbed to the competition from China and Japan, who were able to produce much cheaper soy sauces, although they were mostly chemically brewed, thus reducing production time. For local consumption, however, Hong Kong’s distinct duality of light and dark soy sauces remained a mainstay, whether they are produced locally or in mainland China. “Our cuisine simply wouldn’t taste the same without this,” says Wong.
This in spite of the fact that food habits do change across the decades. “In the 1970s at banquets, you would always find a small plate for light soy sauce, only used for dipping,” says Wong. “Soy sauce for dipping had to have a very specific flavour, different from the one used for cooking as it would be mixed with other ingredients. Today in Hong Kong we don’t dip as much, it has gone out of favour unless it is for certain types of dishes,” such as dumplings or some types of dim sum. This seems to be a more general tendency: in Japan, too, soy sauce and rice consumption has surprisingly been going down with time. “People tend to be more conscious of keeping a low sodium diet, and eating fewer carbohydrates,” says Izumi Nakayama, part of the University of Hong Kong research group.
Hong Kong’s essential sauce
Even if these health concerns have gained ground in Hong Kong as well, local history has also produced more cuisine variations that still require the use of soy sauce. “There is what has been called ‘soy sauce Western,’ for example, which is the type of hybrid Western-Chinese food that you can find in many local restaurants, which makes large use of soy sauce for cooking”, says Wong, illustrating how a staple condiment as commonplace as soy sauce can adapt itself to all kind of changes – whether in eating habits or cooking preferences.
And as consumers worldwide become more fond of food products that come with strong local connotations, Hong Kong’s local breweries can make an increasingly significant name for themselves. Not only the remaining “crowns” and Kowloon Soy Sauce, but also special producers like Yuan’s, also called I Ho Yuan (Ji4 Wo4 Jyun2 頤和園, “Summer Palace”), the only Fujianese-style brewer in Hong Kong, which makes the most expensive local soy sauce: Yuan’s Royal Sauce, brewed to a secret recipe in limited batches and that sells for upwards of HK$200 for a 125ml bottle. It has a very distinctive taste of roasted beans. There is also Yuet Wo 1945 (jyut6 wo6 悅和), based in Tsuen Wan, which has recently been experimenting with organic soy sauces, and Tai Ma Soy Sauce (Daai6 Maa1 Zoeng1 Jyun4 大孖將園), which has kept its entire production artisanal.
It’s a reminder not only of how important soy sauce remains in Hong Kong, but that the history of Hong Kong’s soy sauce, with the distinctive flavour produced by local techniques and terroir, is far from over.