Back in the 1930s, Tai O was one of the four biggest fishing villages in Hong Kong, contributing about a quarter of the seafood supply to the local market.
And because refrigeration was limited in those days, the fishermen made use of sea salt to preserve their catch and also produce affordable gourmet food such as salted fish and shrimp paste.
Tai O is also the site of Yick Cheong Ho (益昌號), a renowned factory of seafood products.
Founded in 1938, the factory has witnessed the highs and lows of the industry.
Chui Chun-wah and his wife are the second-generation owners of Yick Cheong Ho who have dedicated their lives to preserving the traditions of the fishing village.
“Back in ’70s and ’80s, people were so fond of salted fish and shrimp paste,” Chui recalls. “Almost everything available in the market came from Tai O.
“During our busiest days, we handled over 10,000 catties of fish a day. Children would come over to help scrape off the fish scales and lay out the fish for drying under the sun so they could earn a little pocket money.”
Chui was among the kids who did chores at the factory.
His wife was also born and raised in Tai O, but she had no part in the industry until she got married.
“I just learned by doing,” Mrs. Chui said. “At first, I found it difficult as I had to work under the bright sun all the time. And since the odor of seafood was intense, my clothes, no matter how often I washed them, always had the smell of salted fish and shrimp paste.”
Making salted fish is more about perseverance than skills, Chui said, but ultimately it is the weather that determines the quality of the fish.
“The making of salted fish doesn’t require superior skills or some secret methods, but the weather has to be good. The temperature has to be over 25 degrees Celsius on average to encourage the fermentation of the fish,” he explained.
With the decline of agriculture and fisheries in Hong Kong, the production of salted fish and shrimp paste has also become a sunset industry. But the livelihood persists.
Production follows the cycle of seasons. Ilisha elongata (鰽白), a famous species for making salted fish, is normally caught at the start of the year, while silver shrimp thrive from May to September.
After the production of salted fish, the factory turns to making shrimp paste.
There’s a difference between shrimp paste and shrimp paste block.
One-tenth of the content of shrimp paste is water while it’s only 5 percent in the block. “As the latter has lower water content, the flavor is more intense,” Chui said.
“Meanwhile, it is quite challenging to manufacture shrimp paste block as the process is more complicated and it has to be done within one day.
“First, we have to ground the shrimps and add salt into a paste. The fermented paste is then repeatedly spread and turned over on flat bamboo baskets under the sun. Bright sunlight is a prerequisite,” he said.
“As for shrimp paste, we could take it slower.”
Following the decline of the local fishing industry, there is now only limited supply of salted fish like fourfinger threadfin (馬友), ilisha elongata and mackerel (鮫魚) in Hong Kong.
The government’s ban on trawling also makes the sourcing of local silver shrimps almost impossible.
In view of such changes, Mrs. Chui has come up with new products such as cooked shrimp sauce and fish roe sauce.
“When our son was studying aboard, he missed shrimp paste very much. I was afraid his roommates at the dorm might be turned off by the smell, so I prepared for him jars of cooked shrimp sauce, from which the shrimp paste was cooked and added with dried baby shrimps and chopped scallions,” she said.
“Fish roe sauce, another experimental product, is his second favorite.
“As for salted fish sauce, I got my inspiration from customers who were fond of eating salted fish but found it troublesome to handle the fish. The sauce is convenient and is best to go with fried rice, steamed minced pork, spicy minced pork with eggplants and many other dishes.”
And so the family business has passed through three generations, Mrs. Chui said proudly.
Since her son is now supervising the factory operation and product promotion, the husband and wife can concentrate on production and retailing.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 10.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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