Crave - - PEOPLE -

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.”

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