This story was part of Elephant Community Press' 2017 exhibition, "Hong Kong Farm to Table: Stories of Local Food Producers".
A five-minute walk away from one of Wan Chai’s busiest buildings, Hopewell Centre, a little shop is tucked away in a side alleyway. Its bright colours are a counterpoint to the grey automobile repair shops that surround it. Three potted plants stand at its entrance, indicative to the store’s focus on well-being.
All the store’s walls are lined with edible delicacies. Ranging from different oils to potted honey, there is an eclectic mix of foods. Groundworks, a local food shop more commonly known by its Chinese name 土作坊, sells a variety of organic products. A shop clerk sits quietly by the cash register; she is Kam Yuk Chun.
Kam is one of the staff at Groundworks’ Wan Chai branch. Like the warm colours of the painted shop, her personality is an extension of the atmosphere: friendly and welcoming as she offers a smile to customers. She is usually in charge of managing the cash and packing boxes of products, amongst other administrative duties. However, her understanding of Groundworks’ business is obvious—from the shop’s background to specific product knowledge. Kam says the staff together is like one family.
One of the cooking staff, hard at work whilst making sesame biscuits, says she started working here not only because her child’s school is in the neighbourhood but also because the hours are flexible, allowing her to take care of her child. As she cuts the cookies, she gestures to two seemingly similar bowls of cookie dough but explains the difference in texture between them. While kneading the dough, she enthusiastically demonstrates that one is too clumpy so the other batch that contains more oil will be used instead.
Shirley Wong, Groundworks’ officer-in-charge, elaborates that there are many talents in the district and one of them amongst the women is cooking. One of Groundworks’ main aims is to encourage community members to contribute by hand-making organic food products. However, she also adds, “Since these women are used to a home environment, they find it difficult to find jobs in the industry because of the set times to come in and leave and having to work every day.” So, having work hours determined by the staff themselves is one of Groundworks’ unique qualities. Factors that influence the number of hours employees work range from the employee’s health to whether they have other jobs as well.
Groundworks is most focused on its connection with the locals and the quality of its products. In reference to the vegetables around the store, Kam says, “The vegetables are grown by over ten Hong Kong farmers, harvested in the mornings, and delivered at 2:30pm every Monday and Thursday.” However, some administrative complications do arise. Although most of their foods are deemed organic by the farmers, Groundworks has to obtain an organic certificate for their goods every year to validate the products. Kam frustratingly reveals, “For the products that aren’t able to get this certificate, they cannot be labelled as organic and are named as ‘natural’ instead.” However, this doesn’t deter the shop from its aim of selling quality products.
Out of all these products, the peanut brittle, in the form of caramel-coloured cubes, is the most in-demand good. Kam particularly emphasises that it, like the shop’s other candies, has no preservatives. Kam explains in detail that this appetising treat uses peanuts from the Mainland and organic sugar from the Philippines and is produced in their own store’s kitchen. It requires hours of labour due to the many steps, but the tastiness of this particular candy reflects the dedication put into making it.
Since opening in 2007, the social enterprise has expanded to open shops in Sheung Shui and Mong Kok/Prince Edward as the business has grown mature. It is evident that Groundworks’ employees take pride in their work and with their support of local farming and agriculture, urban Hong Kong is becoming just a bit more green.