Happy grunting ground
Charles Chan Mo-chee is the owner of Wah Kee in the New Territories, arguably Hong Kong's best pig farm, with restaurant clients including one of Hong Kong's most established Cantonese restaurants, Fook Lam Moon, and Linguini Fini, which specialises in pork nose-to-tail dining.
Chan studied chemical engineering at the University of London and, after receiving his charter, returned to Hong Kong in 1994 to take over the family chicken farm. He decided, however, to convert to pork and now has 3,000 pigs.
Why were you more interested in pigs than chickens?
In technical terms, there are not a lot of things you can do to improve existing systems, which includes using genetic material. There are already a lot of different kinds of chickens in China. It wouldn't have been challenging.
What kind of pigs do you rear?
I bought pigs from China, but I couldn't get pure-bred. I like the UK and the farmers there, and it is now my opinion that the British Bath premium is the best pig. We can trace our pigs back four generations. The males are strong with good muscles, and the females have strong stomachs for babies.
Is your farm organic?
There are no standards for organic pig farming in Hong Kong. We give antibiotics to the babies up to the age of 21 days. If pigs get sick, we give them an injection of Chinese herbal medicine. Everything the pig consumes is fit for humans, including the feed. We mix our own feed here - wheat, corn and soya beans without chemicals; we don't buy cheap feed from India.
Is your pork more expensive than regular pork?
In the wet market it is about 20 to 30 per cent more expensive. But if you go to the supermarket it is nearly 60 per cent more.
Is your farm the best in Hong Kong?
We are not the best one in the world, but we are in Hong Kong. And we are large by Hong Kong standards. There are 43 pig farms in Hong Kong; 10 years ago there were 180. The government pays you to shut down your farm. We care about animal welfare [and so] we give each pig its space. But the sows have to go into a cage so they don't miscarry and so that we know, electronically, how much each has eaten.
Would you like to expand your farm?
In Hong Kong we cannot increase the size of our farm. We have already reached the maximum. Now that we have a protocol in Hong Kong, I would like to develop farms on the mainland.
How do you go about doing that?
At the moment, I am trying to open a market in Guangzhou. We have some butchers and have been buying pigs from other people. We are learning what the business structure looks like on the selling side and what people want. We hope that in less than a year we can look for a farm and bring our concept to the mainland. The farm will be within a two-hour drive of the city.
How different is the mainland market?
Hong Kong is a good market because you have Western people as well as Chinese people, so you use the whole pig - for example, Western people like pork chops. In the mainland, it is difficult to sell the loin and nobody wants the ham; they only like the bone, and they use the meat to make soup rather than a main dish. They prefer fish and vegetables.
Is the butchery process different in the two markets?
The butchers in Guangzhou cut the pig so that every section is perfect by using a saw. In Hong Kong, the meat is less presentable because the butcher uses just two choppers, but he has to be very skilled. He must train for two months. It is most difficult to do, even compared with Western techniques. On the mainland, anyone can chop the meat.
There is a saying that cats think they are superior to humans, dogs look up to humans and pigs think they are equal. What do you think?
[Laughter]. I have never thought about it. Actually, I don't agree. In terms of organs and life cycle, the pig is quite close to a human being. But, of course, we are much more intelligent than all of those.
Do you like pigs?
[Laughter]. Before, yes. I have done all the troubleshooting now, so I don't find farming so exciting any more.