Lee Seng Heng (李成興魚露): King of Fish Sauce
York Lo: Lee Seng Heng (李成興魚露): King of Fish Sauce
Left: Lee Seng Heng’s Kingfisher trademark featuring medals it won in the 1920s and 1930s. (IP Australia); Right: recent ad for Lee Seng Heng fish sauce (Yue Yick Food Industries)
Earlier on the website, we covered many HK sauce makers which have a long history of over a century. Lee Seng Heng, the 128 years old leader in the fish sauce business best known for its Kingfisher (翡翠牌) brand of fish sauce is another example. The firm was also one of the first industrial enterprises in the Aberdeen district in HK, having established its factories there in the late 1920s and its second-generation leader was the head of the district’s kaifong association in the 1950s and 1960s.
The First Fifty Years (1892-1941)
Lee King-lam (right), founder of Lee Seng Heng HK receiving the chairman’s seal of the HK Lee Clansmen Association from the outgoing chairman Dr. Raymond H.S. Lee (left) while government official Li Chik-nung looked on in 1963 (WKYP, 1963-9-19)
Lee Seng Heng was founded in 1892 by Lee Beng-cheong (李炳昌) to brew fish sauce in Swatow, the city in the Chiuchow region where fish sauce (referred to as “fishy soup” or 腥湯 in the local dialect) made from small fish coated in salt and fermented for over a year in earthen jars, has been popular for generations as a condiment for its natives’ frugal diet. As Chiuchow residents migrated to countries in Southeast Asia, they brought their fish sauce with them and Tang Sang Hah (唐雙合), Thailand’s largest and first producer of fish sauce best known for their Tiparos brand of fish sauce (or nam pla in Thai) was founded in 1919 by Chiuchow native Laichaing Sae Tang (唐大展). As its products gained popularity, Lee Seng Heng established a 30,000 sq ft plant at 194 Customs Road in Swatow and its products were shipped across China and exported to overseas markets such as Malaya, Java, Philippines and San Francisco. In 1929, Lee Seng Heng received national acclaim when its fish sauce won a first-class award at the West Lake Exposition (西湖博覽會) in Hangzhou. This award (and other ones from 1928 and 1932) can still be seen on many of the company’s labels.
In 1927, Beng-cheong sent his son Lee King-lam (李景霖) to Hong Kong to establish a branch factory to better serve the overseas market. Born in 1911 and graduating from the Swatow Public Middle School, King-lam was just a teenager when he was tasked with this important project and he managed to lease 10,000 sq ft of land from the HK government and established his plant at 2 Island Road in Aberdeen, presumably picked for its proximity to the primary raw material for making fish sauce – fish. (Gang Ao Wen Ren Lu, 1957) Within a decade, the firm made enough profit to acquire the site from the government and combined it with a neighboring site to build a larger plant with new equipment on a combined lot of 25000 sq ft. At its peak before the War, Lee Seng Heng’s HK branch did over HK$1 million in export sales.
When the Japanese occupied Swatow in 1938, Lee Seng Heng’s plant and equipment were completely destroyed. After the Japanese took over Hong Kong, the Japanese Army took over Lee Seng Heng’s Aberdeen plant and looted all of its equipment, resulting in over HK$1 million in losses.
Lee Seng Heng factory in Aberdeen (www.kingfishersauces.com)
After the War, Lee Seng Heng rebuilt its plant in Swatow at its original site and refurbished its HK plant with new canning equipment from the UK. In the early post-War years, sales were only 20% of the pre-war volume and Lee Seng Heng had around 30 full-time workers in its HK plant, all of whom were Chiuchow natives and 50 part time workers, most of them local women being paid monthly wages of $50-300. The salt for fermenting the fish was imported from Thailand. (HK Factory Survey, 1948)
When the Communists came to power in the mainland in 1949, Lee Seng Heng’s Swatow plant was nationalized and later merged with other private fish sauce factories such as Yuen Fung (源豐) and Chin Fung (千豐) to become the state-owned Swatow Fish Sauce Factory (汕頭魚露廠) in 1956. Swatow Fish Sauce Factory remains the largest producer of fish sauce in China and its “Chaoshan” (潮汕) brand of fish sauce continues to have 60% market share of the Guangdong and Fujian market today.
Back in Hong Kong, Lee King-lam continued to grow the Lee Seng Heng business with a focus on the export markets in the 1950s. According to a press interview given by Lee King-lam to a Singaporean journalist visiting his plant in 1955, the majority of Lee Seng Heng’s sales at the time were to overseas Chinese as fish sauce at the time was still pre-dominantly consumed by Chiuchow natives and had yet to catch on with the broader population, hence the firm did not bother to participate in the annual HK Products Expo. (Nanyang Siang Pao, 1955-1-19)
In 1956, the new factory buildings for Lee Seng Heng and affiliate Hung Hing Sing Kee were built at 2-10 Aberdeen Main Road. (WKYP, 1956-1-7) During this period, Lee Seng Heng also expanded beyond fish sauce to other Chinese sauces such as oyster sauce, plum sauce, hoisin sauce, taupan sauce, cha siu sauce and spicy king sauce and other non-sauce businesses through the establishment of Fung Nin Sea Products and Fertilizer Factory (豐年海產肥料廠), Wo Chun Shing Preserved Fruit Factory (和春盛菓子廠) and Hung Hing Sing Kee Preserved Fruit Factory (鴻興成記菓子廠). (WKYP, 1960-2-1)
Lee King-lam as part of the delegation to Southeast Asia comprised of heads of kaifong welfare associations across HK in 1954. Left to right: Seaker Chan (陳樹渠), N.F. Chen (陳能方), Li Chik-nung (李孑), Cheung Kam-tim (張錦添), Tse Shun-yu (謝遜儒) of Yan Wo Yuet Wine (see article), Li Shu-fan (李樹繁), Chan Cheung-chi (陳象池) of Hop Sing Lung Oyster Sauce (see article), Lee Chun-hung (李振雄), Lee King-lam, Yau Tze-tin (邱子田) of Yam Hop Hing Preserved Fruit Factory (see article), Cheung Yuen-hoi (張元海). (WKYP, 1954-8-10)
Outside of work, Lee King-lam was extremely active in community affairs in the 1950s and 1960s. When the Aberdeen Kaifong Welfare Association was formed in 1950, Lee King-lam as one of the leading industrialists in the district was elected its chairman. And when the Association was formally incorporated in 1967, and Lee was once again elected its chairman (KSDN, 1967-3-21)
Lee King-lam was also very involved with the Lee’s Clansmen Association and was elected its chairman in 1963, succeeding the physician and Urban Councilor Dr. Raymond Harry-Shoon Lee (李有璇). (WKYP, 1963-7-3) Perhaps through the connection of Dr. Raymond Lee, King-lam joined the political organization Reform Society and served as one of its vice chairmen. He was also a director of the HK Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce and when his second son Lee Hon-hang (李漢鏗) married Lau Lai-lee (劉麗梨), the daughter of Urban Services senior official Lau Yip-yuen (劉業源, Shatin native who worked for the HK government from 1930 to 1964) in 1962, the wedding was attended by the Who’s Who in the colonial administration and Chinese community. (WKYP, 1962-12-21)
Left: Lee King-lam and four workers of the Lee Seng Heng factory at the “Worker’s Paradise” radio program in 1957 (WKYP, 1957-6-19); Right: Lee King-lam and fellow leaders of the Lee’s Clansmen Association presenting to General Lee Han-yun, former KMT general and then restauranteur in the US in 1961. Left to right: Lee Keng-hin (李鏡衍), Dr. Raymond H.S. Lee, General Lee Han-yun (李漢魂), Lee King-lam. (WKYP, 1961-8-16)
As a firm, Lee Seng Heng Fish’s Gravy & Canning Factory Ltd (李成興魚露罐頭廠) was incorporated in 1973. By 1980, Mathew Li Hong-Loke was listed as managing director of Lee Seng Heng. At one point, Lee Seng Heng also had a sauce processing factory in Ho Chung in Sai Kung next to the site of fellow sauce maker Lee Kum Kee. A trading branch was also established in Australia.
In 1989, the Lee family through King Lam Investments Ltd (景霖投資有限公司, incorporated in 1980, dissolved in 1991) re-developed Lee Seng Heng’s factory site at 2-10 Aberdeen Main Road into Jing Hui Garden (景惠花園), named after Lee King-lam and his wife Cheung Wai-lan (張惠蘭). The project consists of two blocks of 24-story residential tower and a total of 192 residential units.
Since the 1990s, Lee Seng Heng has been operating out of the 21st floor of Jing Long Commercial Building at 52 Tang Lung Street in Causeway Bay. (Sino-US Trading Almanac, 1994) Today, Lee Seng Heng is controlled by Bashan Ltd (保而安有限公司, incorporated in 2004). It is no longer involved in the preserved fruit business but continues to produce a variety of sauce under the Kingfisher brand although it remains best known for its fish sauce.
Sources (other than those cited above):
This article was first posted on 10th July 2020.
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