Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: A Tonic Wine For What Ails You

We live in an era when more and more consumers are looking for products that are local, handmade and artisanal. Even in Hong Kong, where almost everything is imported, you can find specialty shops that sell everything from local organic rice to craft beer infused with distinctly Hong Kong ingredients.

Yet somehow the interest hasn’t extended to one of Hong Kong’s most deeply rooted products: Chinese wine. Known as tou2 zau2 (土酒) in Cantonese, its name literally means “earth alcohol”. It is, nevertheless, commonly translated as “wine” even though it is not made of grapes but rice or other grains. It has been produced here since at least 1864, when a winery of this sort was already in place near Wan Chai. Under the big umbrella of Chinese wine, tonic wine (bou2 zau2 補酒) is particularly prevalent. You can find them in every convenience store and supermarket, their clear bottles revealing liquids in a range of hues, their old-fashioned labels promising health benefits like better blood circulation, replenished life force (or qi), stronger bones and more overall vitality.

The Lee family has been making these kinds of wines for more than half a century. Their winery is named Sam Kong Hong (saam1 gong1 hong2 三江行) and it is tucked into an understated industrial building in Tsuen Wan, but it was originally a cottage industry before it received its first operating licence in 1969. Although it has relocated a few times over the years, the Lees have always had roots in the Tsuen Wan area.

wine maker sam hong kong

An array of dragon pots, which Mrs. Lee treasures dearly

Sam Kong Hong is now run by the second generation. According to its owner — who asked only to be identified as Mr. Lee, for privacy reasons — there are two ways to make wine: by infusion or distillation. Lee produces wine according to the former method. First, he buys spirit from a distillery — usually a neutral rice wine — and then soaks a wide variety of ingredients in it to produce different infused blends. Traditionally, the winery uses anything from herbs like ginseng, fleeceflower roots (sau2 wu1 首烏), Chinese angelica (dong1 gwai1 當歸) and Lingzhi mushroom (ling4 zi1 靈芝), to ingredients that may seem particularly exotic and peculiar: venomous snakes, deer antler velvet (luk6 jung4 鹿茸), deer’s tail (luk6 mei5 baa1 鹿尾羓), geckos (gap3 gaai3 蛤蚧), newborn meadow voles (tin4 syu2 田鼠) — even the male reproductive organs of certain animals.

This is the way things have been done for generations. Lee learned the craft from his father, a Chiu Chow migrant who fled China’s Communist regime in the 1950s. As he began to rebuild his life from scratch, he tried his hand at many industries, eventually landing a job as an errand boy at a wine manufacturing plant that no longer exists. After shadowing a variety of jobs in the winery, the senior Lee took a leap of faith and embarked on a journey of starting his own winemaking business.

wine maker sam hong kong

Usually three different kinds of snakes are used for the production of their snake wine.

The younger Lee grew up in this family business. Making tonic wine is in his blood, he says. “I have not got into any other fields,” he says. “It is a unique industry.” Neither he nor his brother were academically gifted, so their father decided to prepare them to take up the winemaking baton when he retired.

Not much has changed since the days of Lee’s father. Everything is done by hand in Sam Kong Hong’s 10,000-square-foot factory, from infusion to ageing, bottling and packaging. Lee could have streamlined the production but he says he does not want his loyal patrons to shoulder the extra costs. He insists on making tonic wines with traditional steeping methods, without artificially speeding up the process for a quicker return on his investment.

Traditions are a burden to some, but to others, they carry wisdom that withstands the test of time. Sam Kong Hong’s factory is dominated by stainless steel containers, but in the heart of the space, there is a room with an array of glazed clay vessels embossed with dragons. “We call them lung4 gong1 (龍缸) – dragon pots,” says Lee’s mother, who still works with him at the winery. Her face lights up. “They are over 100 years old and previously belonged to at least two generations of wine manufacturer before us.”

Mrs. Lee says they used to source Chinese wine from a local winery called Chung Yuen (zung1 jyun4 中原酒廠), which stood on land that is now part of the Chi Lin Nunnery in Diamond Hill. When Mrs. Lee found out the winery was going to be redeveloped, she swooped in and asked to take over their dragon pots. Because the ceramic is porous, the wines are able to breathe and change over time as they interact with the air outside the vessels. “They are better than glass or stainless steel,” says Mrs. Lee. “We still use them for wine steeping and ageing processes.”

The Lees keep their formulas secret – they’re either family treasures or the outcome of painstaking trial and error. “We used to have more flexibility to create more combinations,” says Lee, but government regulation has become increasingly stringent. “The lawmakers are highly educated but not experienced the way we are,” adds Mrs. Lee, her voice booming through the room.

“We may look rough around the edges but we have got over ten different licences issued by the Customs and Excise Department, the Fire Services Department, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and so on,” says Lee.

In 1999, the Chinese Medicine Ordinance was enacted to provide an internationally recognised regulating system for herbal and medicinal products. Although it filtered out subpar wine manufacturers, it was also a death sentence for those that didn’t have deep enough pockets to afford all of the necessary licences. It cast a dark shadow over the future of this industry. Today, Sam Kong Hong is one of the last tonic wine manufacturers in town. “There used to be at least seven or eight established wine makers, together with smaller-scale ones,” says Mrs. Lee.

Mrs. Lee says each of the winery’s formulas and wines must be tested and approved by the Government Chinese Medicines Testing Institute. “Each wine in every available size needs to be tested for three years and the finished product will have to pass the test again,” she says. The fees for all of this testing, along with all of the licences, has been a huge investment for the Lee family, but they say they are willing to do what it takes to make sure their wine is well made. “We are traditional,” says Lee. “Our wines get into people’s systems. We must be be extremely careful.”

wine maker sam hong kong

A whole piece of ginseng is visible in each of the bottles.

That traditional approach extends to branding. Sam Kong Hong has never advertised its products, preferring instead to generate business through word of mouth, with a handful of loyal customers including department stores and baan6 gun2 (辦館), an old-fashioned kind of grocery store selling all kinds of dry goods. Similar to the winemaking industry, all these outlets have been bracing themselves against change. “I am open to new outlets if opportunity presents itself,” says Lee, but he prefers to stick with the old ways of doing things.

Although winemaking is one of Hong Kong’s traditional industries, it has been overlooked for years. “The 1970s all the way to the 1990s were the best time for us,” says Lee. The working population was once dominated by manual labourers and these local medicinal wines were considered a major source of vitality. During the economic boom of the 1970s and 80s, the products were associated with celebrities, high society and people who knew how to live a healthy, social life. Marketed as an ideal choice of gift and drink to serve at parties, they were undeniably en vogue.

An army of products awaits to be packaged.

But imported products now rule the market, especially since the elimination of wine duties in 2009. Hong Kong is a place where most people pride themselves on being early adopters of global trends, which has led to the neglect of many traditional products. And while Chinese wines still have many fans, Hong Kong manufacturers have been hurt by a flood of cheaper mainland Chinese imports. “People would prefer some cheap unknown imported table wines to ours at dinners or parties,” says Lee, adding that it’s a question of face: bringing a local medicinal wine to the table might reflect poorly on someone, simply because it is no longer fashionable.

Though young Hongkongers have a renewed interest in health and wellness — another global trend — local tonic wines have not been showered with attention or acceptance. “The younger generations do not want to know about our products,” says Lee. “They would want to explore health supplements imported overseas. Our major clients are people in their 40s or older, both male and female.”

The golden era may be long gone but Lee is confident there is still demand for his traditional tonics. “We still have a peak season [in the winter] – many patrons like to enjoy our tonic wines to keep warm,” he says. New immigrants from China have brought an unexpected extra stream of revenue along with their taste for more traditional goods. “I am trying to do as much as I can with very little resources,” he says. “After all, this company was founded by my parents. I would not want it to end with us.”

wine maker sam hong kong

One of Sam Kong Hong’s bestsellers – Ginseng Wine


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