This story was part of Elephant Community Press' 2017 exhibition, "Hong Kong Farm to Table: Stories of Local Food Producers".
A small pathway lined with small one-storey houses leads towards the low-rise concrete factory. The overwhelming smell of fermenting soybeans and sweet rice vinegar hangs in the air. Jack Pong, the factory’s assistant manager, smiles at each worker, often giving a nod in greeting. The sifus stand adjacent to large woks, stirring and tasting their creations over a large fire, blackening the ceiling above.
Pong joined Yuet Wo Sauces & Preserved Fruits Ltd. as the third generation in the family business. The grandson of Yiu Pong, the founder of the local brand, he has been the assistant manager for just three months and has already grown a close connection to the company and its people. Yiu Pong founded the business in 1945, making sauces at the age of 20 after working in a factory in China and then moving to Hong Kong during World War I. He still works at the age of 90 in the store in Tsuen Wan, talking to customers and being active in the business.
Unlike most sauce manufacturers in Hong Kong, Yuet Wo has no factories in China. The brand uses traditional methods for making sauces without any additives and chemicals. Making all the sauces and products in Hong Kong, Pong faces challenges to keep the traditional sauce industry alive with other mass-producing companies manufacturing in China and selling for a lower price.
After working as a manager for McDonald’s, Pong has developed ways to stimulate growth in the family business. “I went to McDonald’s to train my people skills,” the 28-year old says, believing that having interaction and relations with customers is important for any company to have regular consumers.
Pong walks through the room where the workers are stirring the beans, making packaging labels and shifting bags of yeast used in the fermentation process. “Not too many people can make soya sauce. This is an industry we are trying to keep for a longer time,” says Pong. “Most people here are above 50 years old. One of the masters for cooking is 70-something and still working.”
Some of Yuet Wo’s employees have only ever worked with this brand, and their experience in making soya sauce and knowing how the business works is what helps Pong in learning more about operations. Cherry Chen, the administration officer, has worked with Yuet Wo for 14 years. Her father is the master of fermentation at the factory. She was not the best at studying, so her father brought her to the factory to learn packaging, and when the company needed a clerk she volunteered. Through the years, she has built relationships with the people working here and knows the importance of being involved.
“He is very passionate in his work,” Chen says about Pong. “Sometimes different departments need help, and he is very eager to help in order to cultivate his experience as he may be the leader in the future. He’s the new blood.”
“Traditional, natural, sweet,” is how Pong describes their soya sauce, which is used by many different restaurants and companies such as Café de Coral and Maxim’s. “Our customers are usually families and chains or restaurants.” Pong mentions that quality consistency and listening to customer feedback are what keep customers regular.
“The recipe of the soya sauce keeps being modified to fit the people’s taste. Each bottle holds a different flavour,” adds Pong, as he looks through some of the bottles of soya sauce behind him. “Soya sauce is like red wine; you don’t usually like it on your first try, but when you try a little bit more, you will start liking it.”