Salted fish was a staple in the diet of almost every Hongkonger back in the days when canned food was unaffordable for most families.
But the business is still around. Once you set foot in Sai Ying Pun, you will be greeted by the pungent scent of salted fish.
Established since 1956, Hop Lee Ho (合利號) on Des Voeux Road West has long been the city’s largest salted fish maker and distributor.
Having been that long in the business, it has witnessed the industry’s ups and downs.
“In the 1960s, the entire neighborhood was the market. Those were the good old days,” recalls Au Chun-pang, the second-generation owner of the family business.
“Store keepers didn’t mind if the street hawkers were selling salted fish in front of their doorsteps. People then were more understanding and kind, knowing that everyone was doing their best to make ends meet.”
Up to now, salted fish is traded by auction. Dried seafood retailers from Des Voeux Road West gather at Hop Lee Ho, where boxes of salted fish of different species, origins and quantities are stacked on top of each other.
After inspecting the goods, each retailer enters a bid into the abacus so that only Au the distributor knows all the offers.
Au then cries out the highest bidder, and tells the losers they should have been more aggressive.
In its heyday, the store held five auctions a week and buyers could have at least 10 catties each.
Like other primary production businesses, the weather spells the difference between a profit and a loss.
When the weather is humid, the quality of salted fish suffers and so does the sale.
Rising sea pollution also makes quality salted fish rare.
Don’t get the wrong impression that the older the salted fish, the better the quality.
“The fish can never be completely dried up even after prolonged drying. With the presence of moisture, even if there is salt, the natural preservative, there’s a chance the salted fish will eventually rot,” Au explains.
Those made of fresh fish could be kept in room temperature for two weeks at most.
Those made of frozen fish have to be stored in the fridge and to be consumed as soon as possible because the freezer will further dry up the fish, making it overly salty.
Fish that has turned black or moldy is unfit for consumption.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 25.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
– Contact us at [email protected]