If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: how staying original has helped Hong Kong coconut sweet brand Yan Chim Kee survive for over a century
- Yan Chim Kee started out in 1915 as a street-side operation selling home-made coconut sweets, and became a household name in Hong Kong and beyond
- Members of the third and fourth generation of the family that founded it reflect on its rise, fall and revival, and the the secret to its enduring success
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s Adrian Yan Ka-chun’s approach to preserving the 107-year-old coconut candy recipe passed down through his family for generations. After all, this is what has made Yan Chim Kee a household name in Hong Kong and beyond.
Adrian’s great grandfather Yan Lun-lap founded the Yan Chim Kee confectionery company in 1915, after finding success selling his home-made sweets – produced from fresh coconuts imported from Malaya (in modern-day Malaysia) – on the street in Caine Road, in Hong Kong Island’s Mid-Levels.
The factory producing the sweet treats was in the building’s basement and – as was the case with many Hong Kong businesses at the time – he and his family lived above the shop on the building’s upper floors.
A diner serving dim sum and other items was later opened in the building, and customers typically followed such savoury dishes with a serving of the family’s home-made coconut or mango ice cream.
“Our sweets and ice cream attracted not only our neighbours [along] Caine Road; those who lived on The Peak [historically Hong Kong’s most affluent neighbourhood] would send their chauffeurs to buy our products too,” Evelyn Yan recalls.
Another attraction of Yan Chim Kee during this period was the Chinese starling perched at the shop’s entrance.
The talking bird would greet customers in simple Cantonese; “Jou san” (“Good morning”), and would squawk at the shopkeepers, alerting them that someone “wants to buy something!”
During the 1950s, with the continued growth of the business, Yan Choi-yuen – Yan Lap-lun’s only son – realised the brand could no longer keep up with demand by producing its snacks manually.
Accordingly he built a factory in Wong Chuk Hang, in the south of Hong Kong Island, and imported a steam boiler from Europe and other foreign machines to boost production.
Having gone from strength to strength throughout much of the 20th century, the company fell on hard times in the 1980s, when the Caine Road flagship store was torn down and replaced by a high-rise residential building as part of the area’s redevelopment.
Unfortunately, relocating the factory to the Chinese city of Guangdong turned out to be a “very wrong” decision, according to Evelyn Yan.
Fresh coconuts need to be processed within three hours of being husked, but because of logistical and technical issues at the new factory, most coconuts had dried up or even perished before they could be put to use.
Proposed solutions to this problem included importing ingredients from somewhere nearer, but the family chose to stick to using Malaysian coconuts, and fresh, natural ingredients.
The family struggled on before making the painful decision to shut down the factory in 2006.
“I felt so reluctant to let Yan Chim Kee go for good,” says Evelyn Yan, who had always been keen to see the business survive into the future.
She conducted market research by selling coconut-flavoured Lunar New Year cake (nian-gao) at the 2011 Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo – an annual event in Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island that shines a spotlight on local products.
She was thrilled to discover many shoppers remembered Yan Chim Kee. “They flocked to our booth to tell us they shopped at our Caine Road store in the old days,” she says.
The overwhelming response inspired Evelyn Yan, and she enlisted the help of Hong Kong designer Keo Wan to make new packaging for the products. Yan Chim Kee was back.
In 2018, Adrian Yan gave up his job in trading and logistics to join his aunts Lilian and Evelyn in the family company, and he now represents the fourth generation to run the confectionery brand – quite a feat considering that most firms don’t survive into even the third generation.
He says learning of the heartfelt support for the brand from customers young and old influenced his decision to join.
“I found out customers came to us for different reasons. The older customers bought our products to rekindle sweet memories, while younger customers travelled to buy our candies for their grandparents.”
Even though Yan Chim Kee no longer has a permanent bricks-and-mortar store, customers can still buy its signature coconut-candy treats, ice cream, and other products – including coconut egg-rolls, coconut juice, mango rice crackers, oven-baked coconut chips, and ginger- and sea salt-flavoured snacks – online and at some supermarkets in Hong Kong.
However, despite expanding its range of products, Yan Chim Kee won’t compromise on the originality of its signature chewy coconut sweets; even when the opportunity came to introduce sugar-free versions, the family decided against it.
“With the artificial sweetener or low-sugar formula, we found that the unique flavour of our candies completely disappeared … It would not be the same Yan Chim Kee confectionery any more,” Adrian Yan says.
To reduce the sugar content of its snacks for health-conscious fans – especially those in their middle and old age – while retaining the delicious taste they’re used to, the company instead reduced the size of each candy.
In addition to its ice-cream factory in Ap Lei Chau, on Hong Kong Island’s south side, Yan Chim Kee now has production lines in Malaysia, Thailand and Macau, and from time to time Adrian Yan and his aunts travel around Asia to nurture relationships and collaborate with other businesses.
“With the help of our business partner in Japan a few years ago, we ran a roadshow and set up a pop-up store in Yokohama [the country’s second-largest city] to promote our coconut drink.
“In Hong Kong, we have also worked with Hotel Icon [a five-star hotel in the city’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood] to run a coconut-themed buffet,” Adrian Yan says.
“While reviving our family business, we are even more pleased to see the bond between our brand and Hong Kong people, as well as the candid friendship and support from all our friends in the industry, which is something we really cherish,” Evelyn Yan says.