Koon Yick (冠益) – King of Chili Sauce
York Lo: Koon Yick (冠益) – King of Chili Sauce
Earlier in the group, I have written an article about several sauce makers (see article on “Five Treasures” and Hop Sing Lung) that have close to or over a century of history. Koon Yick, which is best known for its chilli sauce, is another leading sauce maker which traced its history back to 1891.
The Founding Brothers
Left: Koon Yick co-founder Tam Kit-sang (A Century of Commerce, 1940);Right: registered trademark of Koon Yick in 1916 (HK Government Report)
The story of Koon Yick began with two brothers – Tam Kit-sang (譚傑生, not to be confused with the Korean Chinese tycoon of the exact same Chinese name) and Tam Tat-sang (譚達生1877-1963), who were natives of Kam Chuk village (甘竹) in Shun Tak prefecture in Guangdong province. The brothers are proud of their roots and as a result, Koon Yick for many years marketed itself as “Kam Chuk Koon Yick Food Factory” (廣東甘竹冠益食品廠). Born in around 1874, Tam Kit-sang was allegedly the one who invented a new process of manufacturing chili sauce which established Koon Yick as a leading manufacturer of chili sauce in Hong Kong and Canton. Over time, the firm expanded into the production of other condiments such as tomato sauce, oyster sauce, fermented tofu (腐乳) and curry powder and its line of products eventually grew to over 100 variety. By the 1910s, Koon Yick which was operating out of 17 Gage Street in Hong Kong had annual sales of HK$100,000, which was ten times the sales volume when it first started.
By the 1920s, Koon Yick had achieved recognition at the national and international level. In 1924, Koon Yick sent some of its products to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and won several medals and awards. In 1929, Koon Yick received a certificate of merit from President Lin Sen and Sit Tuk-pat, the Minister of Public Health of the KMT government in Nanking. In 1925, Koon Yick & Co’s HK address was listed as 180 Des Voeux Road Central and was also making preserved fruits and vegetables in addition to sauce. (Comacrib Directory) The firm also opened its factory in Kowloon City in the early 1920s.
By the early 1930s, Koon Yick was doing over HK$500,000 in annual sales and had added a large factory in Shanghai in 1933. According to the 1934 HK factory survey, the firm’s HK factory had 100 workers with average monthly wages of HK$10-20. The HK factory was equipped with many machinery – including a ketchup machine which had production capacity of 40 workers, six noodle machines which could produce 600 pounds of noodle per hour, a curry powder machine capable of making 20 pounds of curry powder per hour, meat slicers, canning and bottle washing equipment.
Outside of business, Tam Kit-sang was very involved in community affairs, having served as the chairman of the Kowloon City charity Lok Sin Tong for at least four terms and was also a director of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals when it was formed in 1931. During the severe flood of the North, East and West Rivers in the Guangdong province, he served as chairman of the Flood Relief Committee. He even started two free schools in Kowloon – one for boys and one for girls with combined student population of over 200 in the 1930s.
Left: Koon Yick’s 50th anniversary ad in 1941 which highlighted the awards it received in the 1920s from the Chinese and British governments. (HK Memory) Right: Tam Kit-sang and fellow directors of Lok Sin Tong on a grave sweeping trip in 1955. Right to left: Chow Yau (周有), Ma Yik-kui (馬亦駒), Chan Lap (陳立), Tam, Kwong Ming-kwong, Yu Pak-kau (余伯玖), Cheung Wo (張和), Lo Chi-lok (盧子樂). WKYP, 1955-11-7
The Next Generations
The second generation of Koon Yick included the three sons of Tam Tat-sang – Tam Kam-fong (譚琴仿), who started and managed the Shanghai factory in the 1930s and the 1940s, Tam Suk-ping (譚叔平) and Tam Siu-wah (譚少華, 1923-2015), who established Koon Yick Wah Kee (冠益華記) in Hong Kong in 1951 which opened its factory in Sai Kung. “Wah Kee” was added to the firm’s name perhaps to highlight the fact that it was controlled by Tam Siu-wah and also differentiate it from a rival firm by the name of Koon Yick Hang Kee Food Co (冠益行記), which was active in the 1960s and as a firm was incorporated in 1975 but dissolved in 1997.
By the early 1960s, Koon Yick had two factories in Hong Kong – one in Lung Chun Road (龍津路) in Kowloon City and other in Yuen Long. In 1964, Koon Yick opened a branch factory in Macau to manufacture curry powder, pepper and glutinous rice powder (糯米粉) and opened a retail outlet at 89 Fook Lo Tsuen Road in Kowloon City. (KSDN, 1964-2-11, 1964-10-19). Koon Yick Wah Kee also participated in the popular HK Products Expo organized by the Chinese Manufacturers Association in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1989, Tam Siu-wah’s son Tam Wai-kan (譚惠根) established Koon Yick Food Ltd (深圳冠益食品有限公司) in Shenzhen to manufacture Koon Yick brand of sauce and fermented tofu in the mainland. The firm relocated its plant from Shenzhen to Huizhou in 2012.
The Shanghai operations of Koon Yick merged with 35 other firms in 1956 during the public private enterprise movement and in 1966 registered the “Weijia” brand and ultimately evolved into the Shanghai Haoweijia Food Ltd (上海好唯加食品).
Left: Koon Yick Wah Kee factory in Sai Kung; Right: Koon Yick Wah Kee’s booth at the 1971 HK Products Expo (HK Memory)
Handbook of Chinese manufactures, Foreign Trade Association of China, 1949
This article was first posted on 17th January 2020.
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