Kowloon Soy Company still makes its popular black condiment the slow and simple way, writes Janice Leung
"SOY SAUCE IS actually just a tiny part of our business," says Wong Kwok-fai, the third generation of the family that manages Kowloon Soy Company, a subsidiary of Mee Chun Canning Company.
To the rest of the world, the Kowloon Soy Company doesn't exist - although they buy Mee Chun's pickles, preserved lemons and soya bean paste by the container. "Europe is our biggest market," says Wong.
Founded in 1917 as an export business, Mee Chun is a partnership between three families, with the Wongs at the helm. "Even today, Hong Kong only has around seven million people, but once we export, we're talking about a much larger market," says Wong.
The second world war brought about two major changes. First, there was the name. Wong repeats the story his father told him about the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. "They saw our name - they could read Chinese - and because it had the word for America in it, they gave us two choices - close up shop or change our name". The word "Mee" can mean America, Japan's then-enemy. Pushed for time, Wong's father changed it to "Kowloon", after their location in Kowloon City.
The second change was doing business locally. "During the war, money meant nothing; what was valuable was food, and we had lots of it in our factory," says Wong. The neighbourhood of Kowloon City then was as densely populated, if not more so, than it is now. "People asked us, 'Why don't you sell us some of your food, you have so much of it,' and since [the war meant] we couldn't export, there was no reason not to," Wong says.
The Japanese occupation lasted three years and eight months and, by the end of it, Kowloon Soy had garnered a local following. Wong senior, Wong Hung, set about opening shops all across Hong Kong, although none in Kowloon.
By the 1970s, due to rising rents, the proliferation of cheaper, industrialised soy sauces and the rise of supermarkets, business plummeted and the shops were closed, except for the Central location (9 Graham Street, tel: 2544 3695).
At the current factory in Yuen Long, the hundred or so ceramic vats used to make Kowloon Soy lie in neat rows in the open. "Sunlight is clean, free and incredibly efficient," Wong explains. "We don't use anything artificial in our soy sauce. We do it the slow way and, as a result, it has a richer flavour and no harmful substances."
Once fermentation is completed the soya beans are placed in the vats with salt and water. Then the sun breaks down the beans over three months, to create the umami-packed sauce.
Now, the vats are now covered with fibreglass shields. Previously, they were woven bamboo, which is better for ventilation. "But no one makes them any more," says Wong.
The soy sauce sifu, or "masters", need to periodically open the covers to let some air in. "They're even better than the Hong Kong Observatory for weather predictions," Wong says with a chuckle.
Despite high costs, minimal output and the lack of young sifu, Wong hopes to carry on the soy sauce legacy. "Few sauce makers do it the old way anymore. I'm no saint, but I want our soy sauce to live on, because it's important, for tradition, as well as health."