Fourth-generation owner, Cheng Cheung Hing Shrimp Paste Factory
You can smell the shrimp paste from far away – a pungent salty, stinky odour that envelops visitors meandering through Tai O. The sleepy fishing village is eerily quiet on a summer’s morning, empty save for the occasional bicycle deliveryman wheezing through the narrow alleys. It took a while to find someone to ask for directions to Cheng Cheung Hing Shrimp Paste Factory. When I finally find someone, she says, “Turn right at the junction… or follow the smell. Can’t you smell it?”
The word “factory” turns out to be somewhat misleading.
The store is a no-frills, open space attached to the family home, where fourth-generation owner Cheng Kai-keung is having lunch with his wife and daughters. The neighbour’s children are playing with Lego on the floor. They’re not having any shrimp dishes. “Who can stand eating it when you work with the shrimp every day?” Cheng’s wife laughs. At the back of the house, creamy grey-purple shrimp paste dries in the sun on rows of round woven-bamboo trays. A gust of wind blows through. “Smell that?” he smiles. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
Cheng Cheung Hing is best known for its shrimp paste (ha goh) and shrimp sauce (ha cheung). Cheng’s great-grandfather started the company, in 1920. Cheng rejoined the family buiness in Tai O after working as a mechanic in Aberdeen, where he also helped out on the boats. He buys tiny silver shrimp from fishermen, from July to October. To prevent it spoiling, the shrimp meat is pulverised with salt: 100 jin of shrimp to seven jin of salt for shrimp paste, or 12 to 13 jin of salt for shrimp sauce. In a machine that resembles an enormous blender, the salted shrimp are ground until silky smooth, with a texture almost like ice cream, then poured into massive plastic barrels. Cheng uses a bamboo rod to mix the paste, allowing the wind to carry off some of the fishiness. The paste is dried, ground and shaped into bricks by hand – his wife’s – with a single rectangular mould, then dried again and bagged. The shrimp sauce is left to ferment for three to four days. During the sun-drying process, the shrimp sauce is mixed every 45 minutes for five hours a day. One batch typically takes three weeks to make.
It’s the same method Cheng has used for four decades. He’s made slight adjustments, such as lessening the salt levels and using machines to grind the shrimp. “It’s not only much more efficient but the paste is also much smoother,” he says.
But not everything can be done with a machine. “The sun is essential,” Cheng says. “My father once consulted a university professor who performed an experiment where they dehydrated squid with machines, and the fragrance just wasn’t there. Turns out, the UV rays break down the proteins in the shrimp and release the aroma. That’s why it’s so fragrant. Think about your clothes. They are softer when you dry them in the sun than in the drier. It’s the same concept.”
Shrimp paste is his life, Cheng says, and he plans on working until he can no longer do so. His daughters – the youngest is eight and the eldest 17 – have shown no interest in the business. “It’s not for them, so far as I can tell. This may leave with me but there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” he says.