The “Five Treasures” of the HK Sauce Industry
York Lo: The “Five Treasures” of the HK Sauce Industry
While many industries and its players in HK have come and gone, the sauce industry is one where the players have particularly strong staying power and within the sauce industry, five firms – Pun Chun, Mee Chun, Tung Chun, Koon Chun and Pat Chun- collectively known as “Five Treasures” (as they all had “Chun 珍” the Chinese character for treasure in their names; treasure referring to the delicacies which their sauce complement) have been around for over or close to a century and continue to prosper under the management of the third or fourth generation of the founding families thanks to their secret sauces and loyal following.
Below are the five firms in chronological order of inception dates:
Pun Chun (品珍)
Left: Pun Chun founder Lai Yan-shan; Right: Lai Kwan-cheuk with Cantonese opera singer Lee Po-ying (李寶瑩) at a Pun Chun promotional event in the 1960s.
Pun Chun Sauce & Preserved Fruit Factory Ltd was incorporated in 1963 but was founded much earlier in the late 19th century (in the 1880s) as a small shop that sold soy sauce, bean paste and marinated ginger on Wellington Street in Central. A Shunde native by the name of Lai Yan-shan (黎仁山) joined the firm and took it over in 1898 (this date is now being listed as the year of establishment by Pun Chun) when his boss decided to retire. Lai primarily handled finance and marketing while a soy sauce master from Fukien was responsible for production. As the business grew, Lai moved Pun Chun to 6 Jubilee Street where he and his family lived above the store while the soy bean fermentation took place on the roof. This remained the head office of Pun Chun for decades and was re-developed into Pun Chun Building.
In the 1930s, Pun Chun built its first factory in Kowloon City and Lai’s son Lai Kwan-cheuk (黎君焯, 1921-) also joined the family business. A graduate of the University of Canton, KC Lai guided the firm through World War II and the turbulent 1950s and 1960s and built up its Triangle (品字牌), Deer (鹿牌) and Camel (駱駝牌) brands in both the domestic market and overseas (US, Canada, Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia). In 1961, Pun Chun relocated its plant to Hung Shui Kiu (洪水橋) in Yuen Long covering over 100,000 sq ft and a retail branch was added in North Point next to the Mercury Street market in 1964 (the retail branches also sold Chinese wine and other dried goods in addition to Pun Chun sauce products and had extended hours until midnight during Chinese New Year).
In the 1970s, Pun Chun launched its first TV commercial with a catchy jingle to promote its Triangle brand of soy sauce – “When it comes to Soy Sauce, which brand is the best? Pun Chun’s Triangle for sure is the best! High in nutrition, fresh in taste and when it comes to prices, it is the most reasonable!” (“食豉油，邊隻好，梗係品字牌鮮抽王真正好，營養高，味道鮮，價錢呢？最公道.”). The campaign was very successful and Pun Chun sauces were flying off the shelves. Outside of work, KC Lai was very active in the community having served as chairman of the Sauce & Preserved Fruit Amalgamated Employeees Association (香港九龍醬料凉果聯合商會, elected chairman in 1973 and stayed on as chairman until the 1980) and HK Amateur Fishing Society (elected chairman in 1974), vice chairman of Hung Hom Kaifong Association (elected 1965) and also director of Shun Tak Fraternal Association and headed up ticketing department for the 19th HK Products Expo.
KC’s son Lai Chiu-pang (黎昭鵬, second of seven siblings) joined the business in the early 1970s after a brief stint at a Japanese garment factory and eventually succeeded his father. He helped the firm expand its overseas business and turned chili sauce into one of the firm’s main products with significant market share overseas and in the restaurant market in northwestern New Territories. (Aside from soy and chili sauce, Pun Chun also makes oyster sauce, ground bean sauce, sesame oil and different types of vinegar and lye water). While many competitors had moved production up north, Pun Chun insists on manual production and natural brewing in HK for quality control and only the packing process is mechanical. Today the fourth generation is being groomed to take over the business.
Pun Chun plant in Yuen Long
Mee Chun (美珍)
Left: Mee Chun factory in Kowloon City; Right: Mee Chun soy sauce label
Left: Mee Chun founder Wong De-fong; Right: ad for Mee Chun Canning and its affiliate Kwong Sang Tea Co (A Century of Commerce, 1941)
Mee Chun Canning Co (美珍醬油菓子廠) was founded in 1917 by Nanhai native Wong De-fong (黃笛舫,also known as Wo-po 黃和甫) to make soy sauce and other sauce products. In addition to Mee Chun, Wong was also the proprietor of Kwong Sang Tea Company (廣生茶行). His 18 years old son Wong Hung (黃洪) joined him at Mee Chun in 1937 and started exporting overseas. When the Japanese occupied HK, the export market was disrupted so Mee Chun had no choice but to focus on the local market. Because the character “Mee” could mean America in Chinese and the Japanese occupiers were at War with the Americans, Mee Chun changed its name to Kowloon Sauce (九龍醬園).
Left: Kowloon Sauce delivery van in front of a Mee Chun store; Right: Mee Chun table tennis team in 1951 with management of Mee Chun from right to left in the back row: Tam Chi, Wong Lai-choi and Wong Hung. The trophy in the front became the logo of Mee Chun.
After the War, Mee Chun resumed its export business under the Mee Chun brand but the domestic business kept the Kowloon brand. The business was led by the founder’s sons – Wong Hung and Wong Lai-choy (黃勵材, graduate of Sun Yat Sen University in Canton) and a long-time associate Tam Chi (譚志). Business for sauces was great in the 1950s and 1960s as the population was still relatively poor and demand for sauce was high. To promote the brand, Kowloon and Mee Chun sponsored sports events such as table tennis and included free gifts such as vacuum flasks and bowls with purchases on special dates. At its peak, Kowloon had retail branches in Central, Sai Wan, Causeway Bay, Tin Hau and Shau Ki Wan and was doing millions in business every year. The firm’s soy sauce factory was originally located at 95 Main Street in Kowloon City but moved to its current location in Ping Shan in New Territories in 1963.
In the 1970s, machine made soy sauce disrupted the market as they are much cheaper and took much shorter time to produce (1 month of brewing vs 3 months for natural brewing). Refused to cut corners on quality, Mee Chun/Kowloon stuck with natural brewing and as a result gave up the mass market in HK (high end restaurants such as Luk Yu Tea House is a loyal customer) and mostly relied on exports (e.g. 2-3 containers were shipped to small countries like Suriname). The retail branch network in HK as a result has shrunk down to one store on Graham Street in Central.
Tung Chun (同珍)
Left: Wong Tok-lai and his wife; Right: Wong Chung-ming
Tung Chun Soy & Canning Co was founded in 1919 by Wong Tok-lai (王托賴) to produce soy sauce, crystallized ginger and other food products. A native of Dongguan, Wong was trained as a sauce maker and came to HK in the late 19th century. The Tung Chun business started in a small-scale family workshop in Nga Tsin Wai Road in Kowloon City and in 1931, Wong’s 24 years old son Wong Chung-ming (王仲銘, 1907-2010) took over the family business. In 1936, Wong Chung-ming co-founded the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Kowloon (九龍華商會) with other fellow businessmen in Kowloon City. During the Japanese occupation, the Tung Chun plant relocated to Mok Cheong Street in To Kwa Wan but returned to Kowloon City after the War was over. For many years, Tung Chun operated out of 68 Fook Lo Tsuen Road in Kowloon City.
Tung Chun’s Kwai Chung plant
After the War, Tung Chun expanded rapidly under the leadership of Wong Chung-ming. In terms of products, the firm expanded beyond soy sauce to other products such as preserved fruits, canned water chestnut and other canned goods with over 100 varieties by 1959. In terms of markets, Wong built up overseas distribution channels, resulting in Tung Chun products being exported to all corners of the world wherever there are Chinese communities. (Exports now represent 80% of the firm’s sauce business) Domestically Tung Chun was a staple at the annual HK Products Expo from the 1950s to the 1970s with large booths and a retail branch was added in Chun Yeung Street in North Point in 1965. To support the soaring demand, Tung Chun built a 350,000 sq ft plant at 520 Sheung Kwai Chung in Kwai Chung in the 1950s and later a 120,000 sq ft plant in Fanling was also added. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wong also diversified the group’s business into real estate, restaurants and others and over time built up a multi-billion dollars property portfolio which include hotel property in Tsim Sha Tsui, Wong Chung Ming Commercial House (王仲銘商業大廈) at 16 Wyndham Street in Central, Tung Chun Industrial Building (同珍工業大廈, built 1981) in Kwai Chung and its head office at Tung Chun Commercial Centre (同珍商業中心) at 438-444 Shanghai Street in Mongkok. Outside of work, Wong Chung-ming was active in philanthropy and as chairman of Lok Sin Tong sponsored the construction of the Lok Sin Tong Wong Chung Ming Secondary School in the late 1970s early 1980s. Today, Tung Chun remains a major player in the sauce industry under the leadership of Wong Chung-ming’s son Jimmy Wong Chi-Ho (王賜豪) but property now represents over 80 percent of the group’s income.
華僑日報, 1959-12-17, 1965-08-03
Koon Chun (冠珍)
Koon Chun Hing Kee factory in Yuen Long
Koon Chun Sauce Factory, also known as Koon Chun Hing Kee Soy & Sauce Factory (冠珍興記), was founded in 1928 on Main Street in Kowloon City, not far from Mee Chun and Tung Chun. The firm manufactures soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce and chili sauce and is managed by the Chan and Tam families. During the Japanese occupation, Koon Chun relocated to Ta Tit Street in Kowloon City as the Main Street site was taken over by the Japanese as part of airport extension. The Korean War created a huge opportunity for HK sauce makers as overseas Chinese restaurants could no longer import Chinese sauces from the mainland due to the trade embargo and Koon Chun took advantage of this opportunity and became an export driven business. Because of its export focus, the brand had a lower profile domestically compare to the other “Four Treasures” and only briefly had a retail branch in Sheung Wan in the 1980s.
In 1968, Koon Chun relocated to Yuen Long where maintains its 300,000 sq ft production facility to this day. In recent years, Koon Chun re-entered the local market with a store within the Yuen Long Joint Publishing store and having its products available in premier supermarkets such as Citysuper.
Pat Chun (八珍)
Pat Chun founder Ng Wai-sum (with sunglasses) holding Fung Bo-Bo, the Shirley Temple of HK cinema at the store opening of the Pat Chun store in North Point in 1958.
Pat Chun (named after the line “eight delicious dishes worthy of the Emperor” from the Zhou Dynasty annuls) was founded in 1932 by Toishan native Ng Wai-sum (伍偉森 1909-1983) who came to HK at the age of 10 and started out working as an assistant for a vegetable vendor in the wet market. Ng started Pat Chun as a small grocery store in Nullah Street in Mongkok and he spent four months working with his father who was a chef in the back of the grocery store to perfect his first bottle of soy sauce. Early on, Pat Chun already manufactured a variety of sauces ranging from chu hou paste (柱侯醬) to hoisin and miso and competed on product quality rather than price. Thanks to his excellent product quality and customer service, very soon Pat Chun built up a great reputation in the Mongkok neighborhood. During the Japanese occupation, the Mongkok store was looted but the firm survived the War selling oil and other items.
After the War, the entrepreneurial Ng came up with several marketing innovations which helped propelled Pat Chun to the forefront of the sauce business. Pat Chun became one of the first sauce companies to actively advertise, the first to do free home delivery and the first to boil sweetened vinegar for customers to deliver more convenience. Over time, Pat Chun became best known for its sweetened vinegar which are used to prepare pork knuckle and ginger stew, a popular post-natal dish for Chinese families.
Ng also set up stores all over HK and to promote his stores, he insisted on bright lighting and signage to attract shoppers, At the time, electricity was heavily rationed due to scarcity of resources so Ng set up bike powered generators in his stores. By the late 1950s, the Mongkok plant could no longer accommodate the demand so Pat Chun relocated to a larger site in Kwai Chung. In 1965, the Pat Chun plant moved again to Sai Kung. Outside of work, Ng Wai-sum was active in community affairs having served as chairman of the Ching Chung Koon Taoist temple in Tuen Mun and Ng’s Clansmen Association and director of Pok Oi Hospital. According to his 1983 obituary, Ng Wai-sum had 3 wives, 8 sons and 8 daughters (of which 1 son and 2 daughters predeceased him). His second son Ng Kam-hong (伍錦康) took over the family business after retiring from nuclear engineering and today Pat Chun is managed by its third generation.
Today, Pat Chun maintains its flagship store on Fa Yuen Street in Mongkok where it has been for over 35 years and has branches in Central, Shau Kei Wan and Yau Ma Tei in HK and China Town in Singapore. While it has a plant in Dongguan for logistics and transportation purpose, Pat Chun products are primarily brewed and packaged in Hong Kong in a Tseung Kwan O facility which it moved into several years ago.
The original Pat Chun store in Mongkok.
This article was first posted on 15th June 2018.
- Secrets of a US$35 soy sauce sun-dried and double fermented in Hong Kong the old-fashioned way – Tai Ma Sauce SCMP 14th July 2018
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