Humble bamboo basket takes a cha siu bow

Dim sum is starting to be served up in silicone steamers. One family of basket makers argues it's best to stick to tradition

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 3:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:16pm

The bamboo steamers in which dim sum is served in Chinese restaurants across the city are hardly mere cookware - they're an essential part of the Hong Kong story.

Nowadays, most of them are imported from the mainland. But in a 1,000 sq ft unit in a Cheung Sha Wan industrial building, the To family is keeping a tradition alive.

The family's Sum Hing Kee Bamboo Steamer Company is one of the few remaining businesses in the city still supplying the distinctive round items that serve as both cooking utensil and serving dish.

While owner To Wai-pan gets most of his products made across the border because of lower costs there and a lack of artisans in Hong Kong, he still gets special orders which require him to make the steamers by hand and he also repairs damaged ones.

Bamboo may face rivalry from new materials such as silicone, but To, whose family has been making steamers for 100 years, still swears by bamboo.

"If you pay attention to the taste, bamboo steamers give a unique smell and flavour to the food," he said.

His shop looks as though it was plucked from an old Hong Kong movie set, with steamers of all sizes piled up to the ceiling.

The business was brought to Hong Kong by To's brother-in-law when the family migrated from Guangzhou in 1963.

When his brother-in-law later emigrated from Hong Kong, To took over the business and ran it in Yau Ma Tei for more than 40 years until soaring rents forced him to move to Cheung Sha Wan in 2011.

The 53-year-old's business tracks the city's history.

"There was an immigration trend into Hong Kong after the Chinese civil war and the manufacturing industry benefited from the large inflow of people," he said.

"Chinese restaurants expanded in numbers, giving rise to the demand for bamboo steamers.''

Benefiting from convenient transport and its proximity to Nathan Road's "Golden Mile", jam-packed with restaurants, the Sum Hing Kee Bamboo Steamer Company flourished in Yau Ma Tei.

The 1960s was a golden age for the business.

At first, the smallest bamboo steamers made by the family measured a massive 50cm in diameter. Filled with hot steamed buns, waiters would carry them from table to table for diners to choose from.

Changing times brought demand for new products.

As the economy prospered and people were able to afford a better eating experience, a dim sum master at one long-established restaurant in Nathan Road - now known as the London Restaurant - introduced dumplings served in the small bamboo baskets seen today.

"His idea attracted a flood of customers. Other restaurants followed, giving rise to the demand for small bamboo steamers of 6 ½ inches in diameter," To said.

Ironically the huge exodus in the 1980s, prompted by the Sino-British agreement to return Hong Kong to Chinese rule, brought with it further prosperity. There was an enormous rise in the number of Chinese restaurants overseas, causing another wave of demand for bamboo steamers.

"For the first time, the company took a lot of overseas orders," To said.

Making the bamboo baskets is labour-intensive as several procedures can only be done by hand - hence most production has moved to the mainland, where wages are cheaper. At the Sum Hing Kee Bamboo Steamer Company, there are still three family members who hand-make steamers to order.

To make a bamboo steamer, craftsmen first have to remove the bamboo skin and soak it in water to make it pliant. It is then bent into a circle, the basic structure of the steamer.

Bamboo nails are then hammered into the wood to fix the shape, but some makers prefer to hold the baskets together with bronze thread to make them more durable.

A base of latticed bamboo strips is then added. The interlocking trays can be stacked one on top of the other. It takes a skilled artisan several hours to make a large steamer.

Bamboo is naturally antibacterial, so should yield years of use if taken care of, To says.

The cookware is easily washed with mild soap and warm water, and should be allowed to drain completely before it is put away.

Stressing the advantages of hand-woven bamboo steamers, To says they foster good water absorption and evaporation and make the food tastier.

Over the years, Sum Hing Kee has kept ahead of the competition thanks to satisfied customers returning time and time again.

The company has 60 per cent of the local and overseas market and the business is not dying, To says, proudly introducing his 23-year-old son as his successor.

The younger To is not only as passionate as his father about keeping the traditional craftsmanship, he has also brought in novel business ideas, such as using steamers as gift boxes for even the most precious gifts, like engagement rings.

A new challenge emerged with the trial introduction of silicone steamers by restaurant chain Tao Heung early this year.

Currently in use at only two of the citywide chain's outlets - Kowloon Bay and Shau Kei Wan - the new steamers are said to be able to withstand heat of up to 300 degrees Celsius and to be more durable than bamboo.

A Tao Heung spokeswoman said the company would study customers' feedback before deciding whether to extend use of the new steamers to more restaurants.

They have the same shape of the traditional bamboo baskets, are highly flexible, easy to clean and are able to breathe, allowing water molecules to pass through.

The Tao Heung steamers come in six bright colours, which the chain believes will boost customers' appetites.

The spokeswoman said the chain was always looking for new gimmicks and ways to keep customers excited.

To stands firmly behind bamboo, however, and believes customers will, too.

The interlocking baskets can be placed over a pot of simmering water, allowing steam to rise through the layers and cook the food. Bamboo absorbs moisture and won't cause condensation to drip onto the delicate buns and dumplings inside the steamer.

"You can cook almost anything in a steamer basket, from whole or sliced vegetables to foods like dumpling and fish fillets," To added in a final defence of the traditional bamboo basket.