Hong Kong Soy Sauce: Koon Chun’s International Legacy

Koon Chun (gun1 zan1 冠珍) is one of the oldest soy sauce brands in Hong Kong. It has been producing soy sauce for nearly 100 years, since being established in 1928 in Kowloon City. In 1968, when the government decided to use more centrally-located land for housing, it relocated to Yuen Long, where it remains to this day. 

Koon Chun’s products are highly recognisable, as they sport a bright yellow cap and label, but in spite of its long history and ease of recognition, it is a brand that has only recently become widely used in Hong Kong. It is a strange twist in Hong Kong’s commercial history, especially if we consider that this trademark is well known abroad, from the United States all the way to the French territory of Réunion, and, even more important, that Koon Chun’s products are among the finest available. But it is the kind of twist that underlines, yet again, that Hong Kong has been part of a multi-layered web of connections that have spanned the globe for a very long time.

“My great grandfather, Chen Yue, who was also known by several other names, was a businessman from Guangdong,” explains Daniel Chan, the fourth generation operator of the nine decades old soy sauce manufacturer. Chen moved to Panama, where he spent around 10 years, before finally settling in Hong Kong just before the Great Depression. “Along with some relatives and neighbours, he established a few businesses as an entrepreneur, including a soy sauce factory. His knowledge of export businesses, and his contacts abroad helped a lot,” says Chan, hinting at why the family brand became so popular abroad. 

Koon Chun was one of many soy sauce manufacturers in the 1920s, most of which were concentrated in Kowloon City. The industry suffered a blow during the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945, when land was confiscated and some businesses were forced to move or shutter their operations. But the biggest change came with the Korean War, during which the US imposed an embargo on Chinese products and products with raw materials imported from China. That impacted Hong Kong quite severely. 

Many soy sauce manufacturers had also been producing other foods like preserved plums and lemons, so if they wanted to continue exporting their products to the US, raw materials had to be sourced bearing the embargo in mind. This is when most of Hong Kong soy sauce manufacturers started to import soybeans from Canada, allowing them to keep on producing for domestic and international consumption without incurring into the embargo. With the steady growth of overseas Chinese communities, Chinese restaurants became more common around the world – and they needed a steady soy sauce supply.

“We already had many international connections, so we started to produce, for example, custom sauces for some of our clients, who might require a saltier, or a mellower, product,” says Chan. In many instances, it was migrants themselves who became distributors of Koon Chun’s sauces. From Costa Rica to Madagascar, Cambodia to Peru, Qatar to Norway, the company’s products were brought over either by international connections formed since Chen Yue’s days, or by the Cantonese diaspora and, after the 1970s, by groups of Vietnamese refugees that settled in Europe and in the US. Chan says there was “a kind of gentlemen’s agreement [between] Hong Kong’s soy sauce brewers and pickled industry’s guild. In order not to fight over distribution, we would agree on who would export to a certain part of the world.”

Today you can find Koon Chun’s premium soy sauces, salted dried black beans and a variety of soybean-based sauces in high-end supermarkets more often than you can in your regular corner store. A reflection, perhaps, of the high esteem in which the products are held, but also the strange twist that has seen Koon Chun become more sought after and appreciated in its home city in the past decades. John D. Wong, who researches soy sauce and Hong Kong’s local industries at the University of Hong Kong, says that when he was in the US he used to see Koon Chun’s products everywhere. “I was surprised when I realised it was a Hong Kong brand, as it really wasn’t well known in Hong Kong,” he says. That started to change only after 2010, when more and more people in Hong Kong began paying greater  attention to the provenance of their food, and the pleasures of eating local.

Koon Chun is definitely local, with its only production plant located in the same spot for the past 55 years. Today, a walk through the factory is a chance to see how soy sauce is produced, a step-by-step process that hasn’t changed in decades. As soon as you enter the factory’s gates, about ten minutes by car from Yuen Long MTR station, you are welcomed by the most delicious smell: a nutty, sweet and savoury scent that hangs in the air like a happy cloud, coming from the beans slowly fermenting in their cement vats under the sun. To begin with, soybeans are sorted and checked for any impurities such as a random leaf or small stone. Then they are boiled before being mixed with flour (the innermost part of the wheat grain, unlike Japanese soy sauce, which uses whole grains), then inoculated with a starter called aspergillus oryzae. 

At this point, the beans are laid into large trays and stacked one on top of the other in tray stands, then left to mature in a large room at controlled temperature. As they start to turn darker, the beans are moved out into the open air, and poured into the cement vats: one of the few changes to the original technology, as these are easier to keep perfectly clean and aseptic compared to the previously used ceramic vats. Then a brine is poured in with large tubes. (Don’t ask what the exact ratio of salt to water is – Chan says it’s a family secret.) As they spend more time in the sun, the beans, some of which are stuck to each other in blocks, slowly turn darker and darker as they ferment and macerate in the brine, eventually turning into soy sauce. At this point, the sauce is extracted with a long transparent pipe, through which one can see the translucent red-golden-brown hue of the just-brewed condiment. It is then pasteurised and bottled. 

Koon Chun doesn’t add more brine in order to produce a second or third extract from the beans, but the company does not discard the beans, either: they are mashed and processed to create more soy-beans based sauces, like hoisin sauce, bean sauce, ground bean sauce, barbecue sauce, and so on. In other words, all the different sauces that are so typical of Hong Kong’s cuisine, and that add umami to every ingredient they are combined with. 

Meanwhile, a new geopolitical twist has meant that Koon Chun has had to change its Made in Hong Kong label for export to the United States. In 2020, in response to the National Security Law, American lawmakers decided that Hong Kong was no longer sufficiently autonomous from China to justify a different customs status for its products. Now, goods made in Hong Kong products are considered the same as those made on the mainland, which means that Koon Chun — along with any other local manufacturers — has had to cover up its Hong Kong label for the export market. 

In parallel, though, that little Made in Hong Kong mark is what is gaining traction among local consumers. What is peculiar in all this is that it’s a Hong Kong product only through the labour that goes into making it, and the terroir where it is matured. That’s because all the raw ingredients — with the exception of the water — are imported. The beans are from Canada. The salt is from Australia. The sugar from Korea. The recipe, though, is all local; a century-old family secret blend of quality ingredients and time spent under the Hong Kong sun. 

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