Des Voeux Road West is an ocean of dazzling seafood products, with over 200 dried seafood shops displaying a wide assortment of exotic delicacies such as sea cucumbers and abalones around their brightly-lit interiors. Yet in the midst of this boisterous maze lies a dim and somewhat empty shop where a few plainly-dressed workers squat in a corner and quietly eat soy sauce rice. Compared to its neighbours, this seafood shop seems as unassuming as it is incongruous.
Who would have thought that this place is a treasure trove for those who have savoured one of the most popular family dishes of old Hong Kong – salted fish? Since it opened more than 60 years ago, Hop Lee Seafood, now owned and run by second-generation salted fish maker Au Chin-pang, has been selling this typical local ingredient, especially to working class and grassroots families who cannot afford the more expensive seafood options next door.
The history of salted fish goes way back – not surprising considering that salt was always one of China’s most important industries. “Salted fish making is an ancient trade,” says Au, looking up from his thick, yellow account book. He says the Chinese idiom “baau1 jyu4 zi1 si3” (鮑魚之肆; “the shops of salted fish”) could be traced back to as early as the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) when Book Six of The School Sayings of Confucius was written. The teachings of Confucius state that customers will get used to the pungent smell of salted fish shops after staying inside awhile, however smelly the shops are. “This has been taken as a metaphor for how people are easily blinded by bad influences,” says Au. Salted fish was also historically documented in The Records of the Grand Historian: The Book of Emperor Qin, which mentions that when Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC) — the first emperor of a united China — died suddenly during his summer travels, his entourage transported his corpse back to the capital city along with salted fish. The strong smell covered the putridity of his decaying corpse so that the populace was not aware of the ruler’s death.
Salted fish has existed for a long time, but just how did it become the everyday meal of Hong Kong people, especially the poor? “Hong Kong is a coastal city rich in resources from the sea, making fish an easy staple,” explains Au. Fresh fish was affordable only by the rich before the mid-20th century, when refrigeration became cheaper and more abundant. Salt helps dehydrate the meat and acts as a natural preservative. It costs much less to preserve fish in salt than it does to refrigerate it, especially in the days when ice was imported. With the mass production of salted fish, the huge supply of this product kept the retail price low, making it an affordable and therefore popular source of protein.
The salted fish trade in Hong Kong began in Sai Ying Pun, a natural base for the seafood industry, thanks to its seaside location. In the beginning, most salted fish businesses were concentrated on Mui Fong Street, where racks hung with tails of fish for sun-drying were a common sight on the rooftops of the old three or four-storey tenement buildings. Production took place on the middle floors, right next to living areas, and the final products were displayed in ground floor shops. It’s not hard to imagine why the street was widely known as Salted Fish Street (haam4 jyu4 gaai1 鹹魚街).
As the demand for salted fish boomed along with Hong Kong’s population after World War II, the industry expanded from Mui Fong Street to Des Voeux Road West. In the heyday of the trade, more than 90 percent of the area’s shops were involved in the production and sale of salted fish; the rest were cured meat and dried seafood shops. “Back then, you needn’t worry about missing the stop if you took a nap on the tram – the pungent smell of salted fish in the area would surely wake you up,” says Au, laughing.
Au’s father got his start in the salted fish business in the boom years of the 1950s. “He came all the way to Hong Kong from the mainland, where he used to work in the seafood industry, and worked in one of the salted fish stores in Sai Ying Pun for a period of time,” he says. “One day, a few friends of his asked if he was interested to open a shop. That was really the turning point when he received some funding and support from them. In 1956, Hop Lee was established.”
That was only the beginning of the story. Making salted fish is long, arduous work. “In our trade, we start working at five in the morning, collecting fish harvests transported straight from saam1 gok3 maa5 tau4 (三角碼頭)” – a former pier at 9 Des Voeux Road West that no longer exists. If everything went well, the workday ended at 6pm. “But in the prime fishing seasons when the workload increases, we typically end our days at nine,” says Au. “The worst times are in winter when we have to work with salt even if our cold and sore fingers are chapped.”
When the catch of the day is delivered to his shop, Au examines the fish. Sometimes, it has been previously salted by the fisherman who caught it, but if it is fresh, it must be washed, descaled, gutted and then thoroughly coated with salt, inside and out. It is then buried in salt in a five-day process called cong4 jim4 (藏鹽). After this, it is washed, hung on rooftop racks to dry in the sun. After this, the fish is packaged for sale. “The fish heads are all wrapped with paper so that flies won’t be able to lay eggs inside,” says Au. Besides, he adds – it’s inauspicious for dead fish to stare at customers.
Although the process of making salted fish has remained unchanged for more than a century, there are still plenty of opportunities for variation, thanks to the different types of fish available in nearby waters, including snappers, fourfinger threadfins, tigertooth croakers and Chinese herrings. It can also make a difference if fishermen salt the fish immediately after they catch it, which Au says makes the meat more tender. “We call it Mould Fragrance Salted Fish (mui4 hoeng1 haam4 jyu4 霉香鹹魚),” he says. If a fish is frozen before it is salted, its meat will be more firm. “This will create Stiff Meat Salted Fish (sat6 juk6 haam4 jyu4 實肉鹹魚),” he says.
However it is produced, salted fish adds an interesting texture and depth of flavour to food. Au references a line in a popular 1980 Cantonese song by George Lam: “haam4 jyu4 baak6 coi3 jaa5 hou2 hou2 mei6” (鹹魚白菜也好好味, “salted fish and bok choy can be extremely tasty”). For families who could otherwise afford only bland food such as congee and vegetables, salted fish was an affordable delicacy.
Today, the classic taste of greens and salted fish has been supplanted by a large array of more complicated dishes based around salted fish: diced chicken and salted fish fried rice (haam4 jyu4 gai1 lap1 caau2 faan6 鹹魚雞粒炒飯), fried salted fish cakes (hoeng1 zaa3 haam4 jyu4 juk6 beng2 香炸鹹魚肉餅), and stir-fried gai lan with salted fish (haam4 jyu4 caau2 gaai3 laam4 鹹魚炒芥藍), to name but a few. Salted fish made its way into imported dishes, too, such as aubergines with minced salted fish pot (jyu4 hoeng1 ke4 zi2 bou1 魚香茄子煲), which was introduced to Hong Kong from Sichuan and has become a popular order in many local restaurants.
Over the years, there has been a sea change in how salted fish is made and consumed. In the past, most places salted their fish by hand. Today, most salted fish is imported from industrial facilities in mainland China. Au says Hong Kong was once a leading producer of salted fish, but it is now “merely an entrepôt” for products travelling from the mainland to North America – “where quite a number of our older Hong Kong patrons, nostalgic about salted fish in their youthful days, have migrated to.”
These customers are gradually growing old and passing away, and Au says their children do not share their taste for salted fish. “As you can tell from the recent declining number of salted fish cargos to Canada and the United States, the overseas demand for salted fish is dwindling,” he says. The market is smaller in Hong Kong, too, thanks to an increasingly diverse food landscape. “With so many different types of exciting, new and international cuisines available, the younger generation nowadays are reluctant to give salted fish a try,” he says.
In the 1960s, the Hong Kong Salt Fish Merchants Association had more than 600 members. In 2014, there were just 15. Hop Lee is one of the last three salted fish shops that still make their product locally and by hand, although Hop Lee also runs manufacturing lines in Bangladesh and Thailand. It may seem like a dire time for local salted fish, but not all is lost. Hop Lee has recently started working with the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage to organise guided tours for local schools, so that the trade is not just a bygone cultural artefact, but a memory — cherished and very much alive — passed down to the next generation.
For Au, salted fish is irreplaceable as a symbol of an older way of Hong Kong life. In keeping with tradition, Hop Lee still offers free meals to its employees, a practice known as baau1 fo2 sik6 (包伙食) that was common among traditional salted fish shops. “The salted fish trade is really a testimony to the tough way of life in the past, as well as the close rapport between workers – which is so rare nowadays,” says Au.
That’s why he continues to insist on producing salted fish by hand, here in Hong Kong, despite rising costs. “If I don’t maintain the traditional trade in my home city, the craft of making salted fish will be lost,” he says.