What makes Kowloon Soy Company a household name is its shop in Central, which opened in the 1960s and has kept operating out of there without interruptions. “We used to have five shops, all around town,” says Kenneth Wong, third-generation soy sauce brewer. Only the one on Graham Street remains, a living memory of the old-style pickle and soy sauce shops that used to be all over Hong Kong.
Contrary to our modern perception of soy sauce as an ubiquitous condiment, for a long time, as Hong Kong University’s soy sauce expert Angela Leung says, it was reserved for the upper classes, as soybeans were scarce and costly. “Until the 19th century, soy sauce was primarily made at home by those wealthy enough to do so,” she says. Then, as the opening up of the northern Chinese plains of Manchuria to peasants from Shandong and other parts of China led to more soybean cultivation, soy sauce became accessible by an increasingly larger group of people.
That’s also when pickle shops became more common, in particular in Southern China, where pickles were consumed in greater quantities, both with food and to make refreshing drinks, such as with pickled plums or lemons.
If you are walking around the small streets of the market in Central and do not know what to look for, you could easily miss the Kowloon Soy Company, distracted by the piles of colourful vegetables, aromatics and fruits on the crammed stands. But once you spot it, you will understand why it is a very special place in Hong Kong’s cooking history. Sitting on white shelves, you can see rows upon rows of bottles filled with soy sauce, with a bright orange label and capped in a red plastic cap, secured with a yellow plastic strip that says Mee Chun – the company’s historic name. Various types of sauce are presented straight as soldiers on the shelves, accompanied by other sauces and pickles and fermented tofu (fu6 jyu5 腐乳), in vats and jars.
Clients come and go, asking questions on how to use certain products, and purchasing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, in what resembles a cooking ritual that needs to be followed to be appreciated in full. Wong explains: “Before, we used to sell all the ingredients for a certain dish in one go. A client would come and ask, ‘How do you make chicken this way? How do you make pork or fish this way?’ So when we had all the ingredients at hand we would sell the right quantity of pickles and sauces and explain what to do. Or we would hand out a little piece of paper where we had written down the recipe. The point of our sauces is to enhance the flavour of fresh ingredients, so normally the recipes are not very complicated. Steam the fish, add our premium soy sauce, a little spring onion, and you are done!”
Graham Street and its surrounding area has been subjected to years of redevelopment, but the shop seems set to remain for the foreseeable future, its white tiles and retro look telling countless stories of meals gone by and meals to come.
Nearly 40 kilometres to the north, Wong is walking around his factory grounds in Tin Shui Wai. It’s an entirely different scene to the busy market in Graham Street. “When we moved here, in 1963, we were among other small-scale factories, and there were none of those buildings you see today,” he says, pointing at the jungle of residential towers rising just beyond the factory wall.
The contrast is indeed remarkable: on this side of a low white wall sit long rows of large and rounded ceramic jars, covered with fitted fibreglass lids secured by red bricks perched on top – a necessary provision in typhoon season. The earthenware jars are brown and beautiful, and increasingly rare.
“They are not produced anymore,” says Wong. “Nor are the matted straw conical lids that we used to put on top. That’s why now we switched to these fibreglass ones: the lid needs to be thin, to allow the sun to do its work, to break down the amino acids and create flavour.” Should an earthenware jar break, it cannot be replaced, and the beans are put instead in large cement vats that sit just behind the big ceramics jars.
Not for the last time, Kenneth Wong nods thoughtfully as he explains all this: he tends to do so quite a lot as he illustrates an activity that was started by his grandfather and brought forward by his father, over which he seems to be worrying quite a lot today. Producing soy sauce the artisanal way, a land-hungry endeavour that requires space to allow the beans to be sunned until the sauce they produce is ready, is not without headaches.
“This is where everything happens”, explains Wong. “Here we produce our premium soy sauce, using the traditional, time-tested method: non-GMO fermented soy beans covered in brine sitting under the Hong Kong sun for three and a half months. Just that.”
The factory was founded in Hong Kong in 1917, by Wong’s grandfather, who had began producing soy sauce earlier in Foshan, Guangdong, before settling in Kowloon City and starting a soy sauce brewery afresh. Afterwards, the business was taken up by Wong’s father, then Kenneth Wong himself came back from his studies in Canada to take charge of the family’s business.
Now its future is uncertain. As we tour the rows of ceramic vats and the hangars that store the spices and pickles that Kowloon Soy Company is famous for, Wong issues a plea. “The young generation has all left, or is leaving!” he exclaims. “I wish to tell them to come back, there is work in Hong Kong, and it is a good business.” He is worried about his advancing age — he is 72 — and about who will take over the factory once he is too old to work. His own son and daughter are well established in Canada and have no plans to take on the artisanal soy brewing business.
If it ever had to close, Hong Kong would be losing one of its original soy sauce manufacturers. Kowloon Soy Company started life as Mee Chun (mei5 zan1 美珍), one of the many chun (zan1 珍, “crown” or “treasure”) that form the old guard of local soy sauce production. It was forced to adopt a new name after Japan invaded and occupied Hong Kong in 1941, because the first character of its name, mei5 (美), which means “beautiful,” is also the first character in the Chinese name for the United States. Despite the name change, a big sign at the factory’s entrance still reads “Mee Chun Canning Co. Ltd.” Today, labels on the company’s products sport both names, and Wong assumes that those who have grown fond of this brand’s products know the background story to its name.
In Central, where the company still has a little shop at 9 Graham Street, the brand name is the post-World War II one, and the shop is known as Kowloon Soy Co. Ltd. Here, you can find all the products from Wong’s factory, including what he calls the money-making part of his business: pickles.
“Soy sauce, in particular when made in the traditional way as you see here in the factory, is a money losing business,” he says. “It takes so long to make, and people will keep a bottle for a few months, you don’t just drink soy sauce! But the pickles sell well in Hong Kong and we export them all over the place.” He points to the labels on the products being canned in Tin Shui Wai, which are in English, German, French, and Dutch. The company also makes a spicy plum sauce that has recently been doing well in the UK. “I was surprised,” says Wong. “How do they use our plum sauce there? Here we use it for glazing duck, but I didn’t know the British consume duck this much. Turns out, they spread it on toast, like jam. It’s been selling really well.” There’s also pickled ginger, a best seller in Hong Kong and in Germany, where it is used for Christmas confectioneries, and Chinese-style pickled olives, a condiment for stir-fries. And of course, like every soy sauce maker, Kowloon Soy Company also makes bean paste from spent soybeans.
Canning, as the big sign at the entrance says, is still done in Hong Kong, and from here the products are then shipped worldwide. But these days, the company’s production is split between Tin Shui Wai and mainland China, where it runs a factory in Dongguan. “Work has become too expensive in Hong Kong, so we source some raw materials, like the prunes and the ginger, in the mainland, and do some part of the processing there, and the other part here,” says Wong. “The sugar we put in our pickles comes from Thailand. And for the soy sauce, we source our non-GMO beans from Canada. We kick start the process in China, by inoculating the beans and mixing them with wheat, to launch the fermentation in temperature-controlled rooms, and after one week of fermentation there, once the process is on its way, we bring them over and place them in the jars and add the brine so we can sun them under the Hong Kong sun. We cannot control the quality of our products as much if we do everything in the mainland, so we bring it here where quality control is much easier.”
Before, when everything was done exclusively in Hong Kong, Kowloon Soy Company used to put the beans in large straw trays to inoculate them and mix them with the wheat and leave them to mature in small rooms. However, the necessary air flow and the ideal temperature was insured only by fans, as these are no temperature-controlled high-tech rooms. “Before technology gave us a hand, we didn’t have anything to affect the temperature other than these fans, and we kept the trays in a small room without windows that would get really hot and stuffy,” says Wong. These rooms are now used by workers to change clothes or rest. This part of the factory looks semi-abandoned, a lingering memory of the days in which Hong Kong was partially cut off from mainland China and every step of production had to be done locally.