Hong Kong Soy Sauce: Pat Chun’s Taste of Tradition

Entering the premises of Pat Chun International Limited in Tseung Kwan O feels like walking into a gigantic kitchen. You are welcomed into the courtyard by the sweet and fragrant aroma of soy sauce brewing in large fibreglass vats, but before you even have time to acquaint yourself with this layered aroma, you step into the main building, and the busy cooking and steaming and mixing that happens inside immediately distracts you. 

Pat Chun is one of Hong Kong’s oldest soy-sauce producers and one of the five remaining “jewels” (zan1 珍) of Hong Kong soy sauce production. (They are called this because, for unknown reasons, most soy sauce producers add the Chinese word for jewel to their names. Pat Chun’s name is baat3 zan1 (八珍) meaning “eight jewels.”) Pat Chun is well known for some of its premium soy sauces, but is continually diversifying into a myriad of other products and condiments that keep its staff really, really busy

Trevor Ng, the third generation manager of Pat Chun, is a real food enthusiast. He explains that what happens here is basically “preparing food that I would like to feed my family with,” he says. So everything — from vinegars to soy sauces to pickled plums and lemons to preserved ginger and ready-to-eat meals — starts its life in small batches. These are then tasted multiple times by Ng, by various people at the factory, by his family and so on, and once they are deemed satisfactory, they will be put in production to be sold across Pat Chun’s five shops and distribution network across Hong Kong and overseas.

Which is what brings Ng to answer with an amused smile that doesn’t actually know just how many products are manufactured at Pat Chun. As the Mid-Autumn Festival approaches, part of the factory is busy making a variety of moon cakes: double yolk, sesame, vegetarian, red bean, lotus seed. At other times of the year, Pat Chun would be producing Dragon Boat Festival rice dumplings, or Lunar New Year taro cakes and other delicacies. The cakes are being baked in large trays after a sheet of the buttery, viscous dough has been carefully wrapped around the various fillings by hand, and it is then passed through a stamping press, which imprints the intricate motifs that are always present on mooncakes.

As you move across the factory, the thick aroma of Pat Chun’s famous sweet vinegar pork knuckles and ginger stew wafts through the corridors, as ginger is boiled for a whole week, and pork knuckles and the other condiments are slowly stewed. This is a type of dish that is consumed for its own taste, but that is also considered to be an important postnatal healing food in traditional Chinese medicine that is supposed to help new mothers recover their strength and get rid of unwanted fluids in the body. “My wife always insists that we eat healthy, so now my ready meals include also a few vegetarian items,” explains Ng as he displays one of the latest addition to the Pat Chun’s production, packed ready-to-eat meals made with Pat Chun’s sauces and condiments, and points out a few vegan ones too.

Like most of the other established artisanal local soy sauce producers, such as Koon Chun, Pat Chun has its origins in Guangdong – in Shunde or Shun Tak (順德 seon6 dak1), to be precise, which is where Ng’s grandfather, Ng Wai-sum, worked as a chef and imparted some of his knowledge to his son. Ng Wai-sum moved to Hong Kong and in 1932 opened Pat Chun – where, from the beginning, he brewed both soy sauce and traditional rice wine vinegars. It started life in Mongkok, then moved to Sham Shui Po during World War II, then in the late 1950s — when it also decided to add mooncakes to its products — it moved to Kwai Chung. The current factory in Tseung Kwan O was built in 2011 and is being expanded to host a real kitchen where the company can film recipes for social media, among other uses.

Pat Chun has had its own shops around town since the early post-war days, becoming a very recognisable brand also thanks to its very visible and colourful decorations outside of the shops. Similar to the food truck they now operate in the West Kowloon Art Park, the shops were decorated with large red circles with the character for Pat Chun and the advertised products inside of the circle, further decorated on the outside borders with small lights and festive patterns. It also became the first Hong Kong brand to arrange home deliveries, starting in the 1940s, once again with fully decorated trucks, so as to advertise the existence of Pat Chun throughout the city.

Today, Pat Chun produces some of its condiments in Dongguan for the Chinese market, and the rest in Hong Kong for the local and international markets. The five stores that are scattered around town, like the one in Wellington Street in Central, show just what an abundance of products come out of Pat Chun’s every single day, and what an incredible variety of vinegars can exist.

Trevor Ng is a vinegar enthusiast: he even keeps a jar in the kitchen with a vinegar “mother” (the film of bacteria, cellulose and yeast that allows the fermentation processes to start) where he pours whatever leftover wine he has, in order to produce his own. “I like to drink a small glass of vinegar in the morning”, he says, saying that this little morning kick of fermented food is what he believes makes his immune system very strong.

In Chinese cooking, rice vinegar is largely used to give that special touch of acidity that exalts all other flavours: it is often used in cooking in place of lemon or other citrus, and has a unique flavour profile compared with other types of vinegars found in other cuisines, such as the red or white wine vinegar used in many Western-style stews. In the reference sheet that Trevor Ng uses to explain Chinese vinegar production and how the different elements must come together to produce an excellent batch, you can see a small icon of three old men looking into a large vat, with a spoon in their hands. This is a reference to a theme common in paintings from the Song Dynasty (960–1279), which has remained a traditional subject in classical Chinese painting: it represents the founders of the three main Chinese religions, Laozi for Taoism, Buddha and Confucius, as they taste vinegar – which is meant to represents the unity of the three religions, and the shared sourness of life, and of any religious path. The original painting that started this tradition has been lost, but the theme was then reused many times in China but also in Japan and other Asian countries.

It is not the only reference to classical Chinese culture in Pat Chun’s iconography. The company’s logo is made with the eight Buddhist symbols (the Dharmachakra or Wheel of the Law, a conch shell, a victory banner, an umbrella, an endless knot, a lotus flower, a pair of fish and a vase), an arrangement that plays on the number eight or baat3 in the company’s name. 

This is a Hong Kong company with a very easily recognisable graphic that has made a point, both in its products and in its iconography, of straddling traditional beliefs and modern technology to differentiate itself from its competitors. At the same time, in its use of symbols and references that hint back at ancient Chinese beliefs, it becomes part of a shared Hong Kong cultural language, in which three old men tasting vinegar, new mothers eating stew, or eight Buddhist symbols all remind consumers of a grammar that spans culture and food.

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