Makers of Preserved Fruits – Wong Wing Kee, Lee Wah Mui, Hing Ah, Lee Sin Kee, Yam Hop Hing and Koon Wah
York Lo: Makers of Preserved Fruits – Wong Wing Kee, Lee Wah Mui, Hing Ah, Lee Sin Kee, Yam Hop Hing and Koon Wah
I wrote an article earlier on the website about the “Five Treasures” of the HK sauce industry. Another traditional Chinese food product industry which is closely associated with sauce is preserved fruit (eg. Dried plums) as both require drying under the sun and in fact some players such as Mee Chun and Pun Chun are involved in both lines of business and players from the two industries have shared a combined trade group – the HK& Kowloon Sauce and Preserved Fruits Amalgamated Employers Association (香港九龍醬料涼果聯合商會, SPAEA) since its inception in 1936. Many family members of the “Five Treasures” have served as director or chairman of the SPAEA over the past eight decades but the current chairman Dr. Leslie Wong came from the preserved fruits side. Below are the profiles of six makers of preserved fruits in the order of inception dates:
Wong Wing Kee (王榮記果子廠)
Four generations of Wong Wing Kee from left to right: founder Wong Wing, second generation Wong Yuk-cheung, third generation Wong Hing-kui and fourth generation Leslie Wong. (Wong Wing Kee website)
Wong Wing Kee was founded in 1901 by Wong Wing (王榮), a native of Dongguan who also went by the name of Wong Koon-nam (王冠南). Wong Wing worked as a coolie near the Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan and he started selling preserved fruits on the street in the neighborhood in his free time to augment his income. One day while he was peddling preserved fruits in Sheung Wan, he saved the scion of one of the Nam Pak Hong trading firms who accidentally fell off some steps. In return, the scion helped him established his first store and factory at 22-24 Square Street near Hollywood Road in 1912.
By the 1920s, Wong Wing’s son Wong Yuk-cheung (王煜祥) was at the helm of Wong Wing Kee and under his leadership, business soared to new heights. In 1924, Wong Wing Kee trademarked its “Aeroplane” brand (see below) with the HK government and began to export the firm’s preserved fruit to America where it became popular in the Chinese communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In 1927, Wong Wing Kee acquired 300,000 sq ft of land in Cheung Chau island and built a preserved fruit factory at Lot 765 Pak Sa Street where workers dried the fruits under the sun. This factory operated for over half a century. (There is a Gwulo post which stated that the Cheung Chau factory dated back to 1908 and was demolished in 1975; what I stated here is based on the company website and the firm’s interview with Apple Daily)
By the Japanese occupation (1941-45), Wong Yuk-cheung’s son Wong Hing-kui (王慶渠) had taken over and in 1943, Wong Wing Kee added a branch in its own property at 39 Gilman’s Bazaar in Central. In 1947, the firm conducted a charity sale to benefit the flood relief effort in the Wong family’s native Dongguan. In 1953, the firm registered its Gold Coin brand. By then, its product range had expanded to over 90 and its products were also popular in Southeast Asia. Sadly, Wong Hing-kui passed away at a young age due to kidney disease, leaving his widow Yip Wai-chun (葉惠珍,d. 2000) in charge of Wong Wing Kee in addition to the responsibility of raising 5 children.
At the request of his mother, Hing-kui’s son Leslie Wong Pak-yuen (王柏源) gave up his real estate business in Australia to join the family business. Leslie introduced PET packaging and UPC code at Wong Wing Kee in 1985, making them one of the first firms in HK to do so. In 1986, the firm moved its flagship store to 52 Jervois Street and relocated its production from Cheung Chau to Tuen Mun and Shenzhen. In 1990, Wong Wing Kee won an International Award for Food & Beverage in Barcelona. The firm also expanded into the Japanese market. The firm is particularly known for its preserved plum – Chan Pei Mui (陳皮梅) and Snowflake Plum (雪花梅, a favorite of the late Cantopop singer Leslie Cheung).
Left: Wong Wing Kee’s factory in Cheung Chau which operated from 1927 to 1986; Right: the Airshow trademark of Wong Wing Kee registered in 1924 (HK Government Report)
Lee Wah Mui (李話梅)
Left: Lee Wah Mui; Middle:Lee Wah Mui factory (HK Factory Survey, late 1940s) Right: Lee Wah Mui trademark registered in 1931 (HK Government Reports)
Lee Wah Mui was one of the leading preserved fruit manufacturers in HK. “Wah Mui” or salted dried plum is one of the most popular preserved fruit and the founder of the firm Lee Woon-shung was so into the product that he adopt “Wah Mui” as his own name.
Lee Wah Mui the man studied law in Canton before moving to Canada at the age of 21. After making some money in business in Canada, Lee returned to China and established Wo Hing Cheung Preserved Fruit Factory in Toishan in Guangdong province with a number of business partners. However, due to mismanagement the business floundered and Lee ended up taking over the firm and renamed it Lee Wah Mui Preserved Fruit Factory in 1916. He instituted a number of changes – packaging the products in individual wrappings, adopting the strategy of low price large volume and sourcing the best ingredients and soon the business was turned around. In around 1929, Lee Wah Mui relocated to Hong Kong where it built its own factory at 269 Nam Cheong Street in Sham Shui Po. In 1931, Lee Wah Mui registered his trademark with the HK government. In 1934, the government took the site so the Lee Wah Mui factory was relocated to 520 Castle Peak Road in Cheung Sha Wan. By that time, the firm had capital of $110,000 and was doing $430,000 in business, which was four times the amount it did when it first arrived in HK. It had 250 workers, of which 200 were female part time workers who were paid 2 cents for packing every 100 pieces of preserved fruits, 50 were male full time workers handling production earning monthly salary of $40 each. Aside from Wah Mui, the firm manufactured several dozens varieties of preserved fruit and also had its own orchard in Tsuen Wan (several tens of thousands sq ft) before the War where it grew its own fruits. The peak annual sales of the firm before the War was HK$600,000 and its sales office was located at 494 Queen’s Road (in 1931 it was listed as 27 Des Voeux Road West).
During the Japanese occupation, Lee Wah Mui incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars of damages as its machines were destroyed and raw materials and finished products were looted. The business resumed after the War with 40 workers (10 male, 30 female) but business volume was only a tenth of what it was before the War and raw materials were hard to come by as the Civil War in China affected supply and the Tsuen Wan orchard was destroyed during the Japanese occupation.
Lee Wa Mui died In 1954 and not much info is available about the firm after that. According to company registry, “Lee Wah Mui International Investment Ltd” was incorporated in 1977 and dissolved in 1995 – given the uniqueness of the name there might be a connection to the preserved fruit company.
Article about Lee Wah Mui in 1934 (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1934-7-13)
Hing Ah (興亞涼果)
Scenes of Hing Ah plant in Castle Peak Road of Sheung Kwai Chung in 1961
Founded in 1918, Hing Ah is one of the oldest and largest preserved manufacturers in Hong Kong. The founders and early directors of the firm were all associated with the Wing On department store – many of them members of the Kwok family from Chungshan including Wing On chairman Philip Gockchin and his son Kwok Lam-po. Jackman To, a co-founder of Wing On and owner of Nam Koo Terrace in Wanchai was also a director and Wing On Bank was listed as one of its major bankers alongside HSBC. The management of the firm however was led by Kwok Hon-ting (郭漢庭) and Kwok Moon-hing (郭滿慶), two more distant relatives of the Wing On founders. Born in the 1900s, Kwok Hon-ting was head of the Chungshan Chamber of Commerce and was active with the war relief effort and resident relocation effort during WWII. The firm registered its trademark in 1927 and incorporated as The Hing Ah Co Ltd (興亞有限公司) in 1941 (this is according to company registry although one article listed 1939 as the date) with HK$50000 in registered capital.
Hing Ah’s factory was originally located in Mongkok but moved to Kowloon City (where many of the sauce factories were located as discussed in the Five Treasures article) until the Japanese occupation when they were forced to relocate to To Kwa Wan as part of the airport extension project. After the War, Hing Ah relocated to a 35000 sq ft site at KIL 2812, Wing Hong Street and Castle Peak Road which could dry up to 1500 trays of preserved fruits at the same time. To compete, Hing Ah focused on product quality with huge emphasis on cleanliness and procuring the best ingredients from Panyu and the proprietor’s native Chungshan. In the late 1940s, Hing Ah had about 20 workers with the masters (“sifu”) being paid HK$400 a month while the lesser skilled workers were paid HK$70-80 per month. Monthly production was 70000-80000 pounds with over 20 different types of products. In addition to HK and Shanghai, Hing Ah’s products were exported to North America and Southeast Asia with lot of shipments going to Hawaii.
Left: poster of Hing Ah with picture of its factory and samples of some of its products; Right: Kwok Hon-ting
In the later years, Hing Ah was managed by Kwok Chun-kuen (郭振權, born in the 1920s). Its office was located at 5 Hing Lung Street (later 39-41 Hing Lung Street) but currently operates out of an industrial building in Tsuen Wan. The firm has gone through a number of reorganizations and Hing Ah Co Ltd was dissolved in 2005 while The Hing Ah Preserved Fruit Co Ltd which was incorporated in 2003 has taken over the business. The firm’s products continue to be available in Wing On department stores and are also for sale at specialty stores like Yiu Fung and friendly competitor Pat Chun.
Lee Sin Kee (李善記)
Article about Lee Sin Kee in 1934 (Kung Sheung Daily News, 1934-7-14)
Founded in 1918, Lee Sin Kee was a neighbor in Nam Cheong Street in Sham Shui Po of Lee Wah Mui. Little info is available about the firm except for the 1934 article above. According to the article, its principal market was Southeast Asia with sales of over HK$200,000 and was doing well as there were no foreign competition in the business. The firm had 120 workers (most of them female) with monthly salary of $10-20 for the full time staff and earnings of 20-80 cents for the part time workers. Anyone who has more info on Lee Sin Kee is much appreciated.
Yam Hop Hing (任合興菓子廠)
Left: Yam Hop Hing factory in Ha Kwai Chung in 1961; Right: Yam Hop Hing ad with its Lion Globe logo (Next magazine)
Founded in the early 1930s, Yam Hop Hing was one of the most successful preserved fruit manufacturers in HK but had exited the business in the 1990s to focus on property investment.
The story of Yam Hop Hing could be traced to the village of Yung Shing (榕城) in Jieyang (揭陽) prefecture of the Chiuchow region where a young widower Yow Kam-yuen (邱金元, please note there are various versions of the English spelling of the family name including Yow, Yau and Yeo; this spelling is based on the school that is named after him) had a tough time taking care of his 5 sons and 2 daughters. The fourth son Yau Tze-tin (邱子田 1904-1962) and fifth son Yeo Chei-man (邱子文, 1912-2004) quit school at an early age and started making a living by making Chiuchow pickled vegetable (also known as “salty and sour vegetable”) in their hometown. In 1932, they moved to Hong Kong where they had no relatives and survived by doing various odd jobs. They scrapped together enough savings, rented a space at 53 Queen’s Road West to make Chiuchow pickles and started peddling them on the streets. Within a year, they started selling the pickles under the brand of Yam Hop Hing and the demand was so great that soon they were buying more pickles from Chiuchow and wholesaling them in HK. By the late 1930s, they were prosperous enough to build houses and schools in their hometown and contributed to the war relief effort.
During the Japanese occupation, business environment was tough in general but as pickles was a food staples for middle to low income population, Yam Hop Hing did relatively well. After the War, the Yau brothers entered the preserved fruit business with the help of a Cantonese preserved fruit expert and formed the Yam Hop Hing Preserved Fruit Factory with factory located in Ha Kwai Chung (Lower Kwai Chung). Business took off and Yam Hop Hing preserved fruit was sold throughout Southeast Asia.
In 1962, Yau Tze-tin died at the age of 61 (Chinese calendar) and was survived by 5 sons – Yau To-chun (邱陶椿), Yau To-wo (邱陶和), Yau To-hong (邱陶鴻), Francis Yau To-hay (邱陶熙) and Thomas Yau To-hung (邱陶雄) and 2 daughters. In his memory, his younger brother Yeo Chei-man donated the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Yau Tze-tin Memorial College in Tuen Mun which opened in 1982. Yau Tze-tin was a director of the Tsuen Wan Chamber of Commerce and Yeo Chei-man was involved with the founding of the Yan Chai Hospital (1973) and Tsuen Wan Chiu Chow Public School (1965) and made many charitable donations in conjunction with his fellow Jieyang industrialist Cheng Yick-chi of the Chiaphua Group.
Yeo Chei-man delivering a speech in 1991. Right: King Yin Lei
Starting in the 1960s, Yeo Chei-man re-directed a lot of his profits from preserved fruits into the real estate market. Over time, the Yam Hop Hing factory in Kwai Chung was re-developed into the Yam Hop Hing (KC) Industrial Building at 40-44 Kwai Wing Street in Kwai Chung and there was also Yam Hop Hing Industrial Building at 134-142 Yeung Uk Road in Tsuen Wan which was sold to Kwong Sang Hong for over $350 million. He also incorporated Yam Hop Hing Godown Co Ltd in 1973. In the later years, Yam Hop Hing’s retail outlet in Queen’s Road West was converted to an office and neighbors recalled Yeo being chauffeured in his Rolls Royce with “8888” license plates.
In 1978, Yeo acquired the palatial mansion at 45 Stubbs Road from the Shum family via Yeo Chei-man & Sons Ltd for HK$24 million and renamed it King Yin Lei. A collector of soapstones, Chinese furniture and penjing, Yeo housed his large collection in the mansion. Yeo was succeeded by his US educated eldest son Stephen Yow Mok-shing MBE JP (邱木城 1941-2015) who had served as vice chairman of Yan Chai Hospital and chairman of Tung Wah Group of Hospitals in 1979 (the TWGH Yow Kam Yuen College which opened in Sha Tin in 1985 is named after his grandfather; he also donated the VTC Yeo Chei-man Senior Secondary School in Tseung Kwan O in 2004). In 2004, Yeo Chei-man died of colon cancer and was survived by 4 sons and 1 daughter from his principal wife and additional children from his concubine. In 2007, Stephen Yow (who spent most of his time in Canada) sold King Yin Lei to a mainland developer who had plans to re-develop the property but at the end thanks to the efforts of conservationists the government stepped in to acquire the property and the building was preserved.
As a firm, Yam Hop Hing Preserved Fruit Factory & Enterprise Ltd was incorporated in 1964 and dissolved in 1997 shortly before the handover.
Koon Wah Food (冠華食品)
Although Koon Wah Food & Preserved Fruit Factory is almost 60 years old, it is the youngest of the six firms profiled in this article but it has been the most aggressive in terms of growing its local retail presence in addition to exporting to markets across the globe. The original Koon Wah Food factory and store was founded in Sham Shui Po in 1959. In the 1970s, its factory was relocated to Hung Shui Kiu in Yuen Long and a fleet of Benz delivery trucks was introduced. More shops were added in the Sham Shui Po area (Lai Chi Kok Road in 1977 and Yee Kuk Street in 1978). Starting in 1999, Koon Wah embarked on major expansion of its retail network, adding shops in Johnston Rd (1999), Mong Kok (2003), Hennessy Road (2006), Cheung Sha Wan (2007), Wong Tai Sin & Lok Fu (2009), Prince Edward Road (2011), Yau Ma Tei (2014) and Tsim Sha Tsui (2015). It also moved its production line to Kwai Fong in 2003 and participated in many trade shows such as the HKTDC Food Expo. The firm has been led by the Yip family since inception and it is currently managed by Vincent Yip (葉兆廣) from the third generation.
One of Koon Wah’s retail outfits
This article was first posted on 18th June 2018.
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