“People think it’s a bit weird that our office is in an old tong lau in Cheung Sha Wan,” says Niki Tang Yee-ki, sales and marketing manager at Bill Kee, the parent company of fish-ball maker Hui Kee. “But we can see two of our shops from the balcony of the office, and Cheung Sha Wan is where it all started.”
Founded in the 1970s by Hui Yan-hoi, Hui Kee has always had its own shops in Cheung Sha Wan.
“Back in the day, the shops were actually a factory floor, and there would be a couple of counters at the front to sell products from,” says Alfred Hui Chun-fai, the founder’s grandson and Tang’s husband. Hui took over the company in 2010 with plans to expand, and the ground-floor spacewasn’t large enough for what he wanted.
“It just looked so messy,” says Tang. “One day I walked past and complained to him about how disorganised it all looked, and he said angrily, ‘Why don’t you help me then?’”
Tang quit her job in fashion (“It was quite hard for her, she really enjoyed it,” admits Hui) and did just that.
“Food manufacturing, especially making fish balls, is a bit of a sunset industry,” Tang says. “People relate it to the mess of wet markets, so it was our goal to modernise it.”
The shops – two in Cheung Sha Wan and one each in North Point and Kennedy Town – are fashioned as quality neighbourhood grocery stores. Aside from its own products, Hui Kee stocks grocery items as well as hot-pot ingredients.
“Everything we sell here I’ve personally tried and would feed my family,” Tang says.
Sustainable products are becoming more important. Hui says, “It’s a no-brainer for people like us in the fishing industry. We see first-hand how overfishing affects our supply chain.”
Another key to growing the company is the hiring of young talent.
“In order for an industry to thrive, we need younger people, and we need to make it an attractive place to work, where they can see a future,” Tang says.
All of Hui Kee’s managers are in their 20s and 30s.
Last month, the couple completed the biggest project since Hui took over the company, moving manufacturing into an industrial building in Kwai Chung.
“Most fish balls on the market are made using machinery, and have been for a long time,” Hui says. “The only part some people still do by hand is moulding the fish paste into spheres. In reality, there aren’t many who know how to make fish balls by hand any more, and you need to look into the future. Good machinery is now available.”
Tang adds that most of their machinery is custom made for their production with more delicate products, such as fish dumplings, still made by hand in one of the Cheung Sha Wan shops.
Much of Hong Kong’s food manufacturing has moved to China, but, says Hui, “Quality control is a big concern of ours. We want to be able to check on the product constantly to make sure it meets our standards. We live in Hong Kong; our family is here – it just makes more sense [to be here].
“We’re proud to be making a quality product in Hong Kong.”