Third-generation owner, Kowloon Soy Co Ltd (Mee Chun Canning Co Ltd)
We’re sitting in Kowloon Soy Co Ltd’s last remaining store, a dingy shop behind the market on Graham Street in Central. Bottles are lined against the wall above massive glass urns filled with preserved fruit and sauces. If the last store standing is indicative of anything, it is that history matters more than money to third-generation owner Kenneth Wong.
Financially, it makes no sense to keep the store open. Local retail accounts for a mere 10 per cent of business for the family; the other 90 per cent is focused on exports, mainly to Europe and the UK, but also to South America, Southeast Asia and Australia.
Wong’s grandfather, originally from Foshan, founded Mee Chun Canning Co Ltd in 1917. He was rather particular about his sauce and “liked to eat”. He set out to make a superior soy sauce for himself – typically the top layer from the first press – later concentrating the first-press soy by adding another batch of freshly fermented beans to make double superior soy sauce.
“He wanted something premium. Nowadays, people sell double superior soy sauce but no one really does it that way – it’s too excessive,” Wong says.
During the Second World War, Mee Chun opened its first brickand-mortar store in Central. To appease the Japanese, the name was changed from Mee (meaning American) to Kowloon Soy Co Ltd. In the 1980s, Wong, who is the middle child and was the only unmarried brother at the time, returned from Vancouver and joined the family business. He knew nothing about soy sauce. He started from the bottom and learned from the sifus who’d been there for decades, though they never trusted him with the recipe.
“They never told me the formula, because they were afraid they wouldn’t be needed anymore. I learned it through observing them, gauging what goes into the formula. They showed me bits and pieces, but never everything. So I once took it to the labs to see what it was made of, to slowly investigate and through trial and error. Write it all down,” he chuckles. “It could’ve been much easier, of course, and it was very tiring.”
Today, Kowloon Soy is one of the few companies that continues to make its superior soy sauce the traditional way. In the drying yard, clay urns are filled to the brim with fermented soy beans submerged in salt water. When the sun is out, the covers are removed and the beans bronze under the sun. Underneath sits dark, glossy premium soy sauce. The process takes three months.
“I really don’t profit from our soy sauce. A bottle lasts a few months, so the turnover is very slow. So why do we continue this? Because of my father. I want to preserve my father’s products, as he is picky when it comes to food and is still quite traditional, wanting products with no additives. He knows our products are healthy. Despite the lack of profit, I wanted to continue producing,” he says.
“The younger generations don’t want to carry on in this field – it is too labour-intensive, under the sun in 30- to 40-degree heat. We need the younger generation to discover how to use modern and innovative methods to produce these traditional products while retaining the quality. I’m tired and too old for that.”