Four generations of the Lam family are sitting in the Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company. Nestled deep in the Western District of Hong Kong, this long and narrow workshop is one of the last remaining places in town where bamboo steamers are still made by hand. Steamers large and small hang close together at the entrance, along with wooden mooncake presses, bamboo ladles, pale wooden slabs for ginger grating and bamboo nets.
Further back, next to a set of old metal cabinets, Raymond Lam and his father discuss orders while his brother and granddaughter go through accounting sheets. Behind them, deep in the belly of the shop, are rows of huge industrial-sized steamers stacked high up to the ceiling, ready for restaurants to fill them up with some of Hong Kong’s favourite dim sum items: 燒賣 (siu1 maai6), 蝦餃 (haa1 gaau2), 叉燒包 (caa1 siu1 baau1).
Dim sum is synonymous with Hong Kong’s culinary culture, and without bamboo steamers, there would be no dim sum. Archaeological findings show that steaming is one of the oldest cooking methods in China; pottery cooking pots with colander-like inserts have been found from as far back as 5,000 years ago. Steamers were used for grains like rice and millet and later for meat and fish as well. Originating in the south, dim sum veers towards steaming over frying in most dishes and for the past few decades these mini morsels have been served in individual bamboo steamers. Not only is bamboo naturally anti-bacterial, it helps capture the moisture from the steaming process, so that water droplets from condensation do not dampen the delicate food. Proponents also argue that the special scent from the bamboo steamers improves the flavour of what is cooked inside. There can be no good dim sum without a stack of bamboo steamers.
The Lam family came to Hong Kong from Guangzhou about 70 years ago and have been supplying the city’s restaurants with hand-made steamers for five generations. “In the 60s, Hong Kong’s population grew rapidly and the restaurant scene boomed alongside it, so the market for bamboo steamers grew bigger and bigger,” says Raymond Lam. “We were constantly making big steamers for restaurants, about five to eight a day, always made to order.” He gestures towards the tower of steamers beside him. “Now people come directly to buy the ready-made ones.”
Lam’s schedule still depends on the orders that come in. Recently, the family worked on a huge two-metre-wide steamer that serves as a decorative centrepiece for a restaurant in Tsuen Wan. “When there is a new restaurant opening we may be busier with a large initial order, whereas at other times we are mainly working on refills to replace older steamers,” he explains.
Before Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, many professionals moved away, emigrating to the US, Canada, Australia and UK. Paradoxically, this exodus was a boon for the Lam family. “We not only exported Hong Kong’s food culture abroad, but also our craft by supplying Chinatowns everywhere with our steamers,” says Lam. The situation has changed a lot since then. While there used to be about five to six other bamboo steamer makers in the same area, they have all since retired. “Everything used to be 100 percent handmade, but nowadays they are often made in China, or at least the bamboo processing is done in Guangdong where most of the bamboo grows,” says Lam.
Bamboo has always been a significant material in Chinese civilisation, its versatility and strength playing a large role in China’s industrialisation. Even the scaffolding we see on Hong Kong’s buildings are made from long sturdy bamboo rods, not from steel or iron constructions. “Just learning how to process the bamboo can take several years, you have to learn how to split the bamboo, how to polish it, how to make bamboo pins, how to knit the bamboo,” says Lam. “I started learning as a teenager right at home and now have been doing this for over forty years.”
Looking around, Lam points to the various products they sell besides bamboo steamers. “There have always been side products of bamboo steamers, so as not to waste the leftover bamboo,” he says. “In the past, many households items in China were made from bamboo – cups, holders for objects, boxes, bowls. Now most of them have been replaced by metal or plastic. Some older masters still make chairs, but not the other things,” he says.
Will anyone else in the family carry on the tradition? Raymond pauses before answering carefully. “You know, even if the children would be interested, there is a difference between learning a craft and knowing the business,” he says. “Business has changed a lot now and learning to grow a business like this is not the same as training for the craft. Bamboo prices have gone up and labour costs have gone up, so it is definitely not an easy way to earn a living.” In the past, one person would learn how to create a single product from start to finish. “Nowadays no company is going to invest in training someone for three years before they become productive,” says Lam. “The steps of making a steamer have now been broken down and divided among different people and jobs.”
There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. Bamboo steamers have gone through a sort of mini reinvention, as people have begun to seek them out to use as gift boxes. Lam says one customer even hid an engagement ring inside a steamer. Western chefs have sometimes used them to present dishes with a slightly different aesthetic, even though the ingredients are miles away from anything you would see on a classic dim sum menu. The steamer has come to represent a sort of Asian touch. It is also increasingly popular as a gift to bring abroad for friends who enjoy cooking. “Maybe there will be a new market for them after all,” says Lam.
Where: Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company, 12 Western Street, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong, 2548 8201 Bamboo Steamers range in size and price for ready-made retail, from HK$18 to $250.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.