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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of the city’s dried seafood trade

By Alisa Chau 10 November 2021

Header image courtesy of Claudio Zaccherini (via Shutterstock)

Spend time walking along the streets and passages of Western District and you’ll be sure to catch whiffs of it. The unmistakeable pungent aroma of the sea, laced with jarring twinges of salt and the subtle sulfuric scent that comes with preserved food—the air is thick with the smell of hoi mei (海味; dried seafood) all around. A fixture in Cantonese cooking, these dehydrated gems double as a tangible cultural treasure, every bite rich with history.

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Mercantile beginnings

It is a cliché at this point that one of the first stories many learn about the origins of the name of the city is that directly translates to “fragrant harbour,” which references Hong Kong’s humble beginnings as a rural collection of fishing villages. Fishing and harvesting seafood has always been deeply embedded into local history, acting not only as a main source of livelihood, but also serving as an important facet of our collective mythologies

All this allowed a firm foundation for the emergence of the local dried seafood industry, which first took shape in the mid-19th century. It was an era that marked the fringes of a progression that contributed to the city’s transformation into the metropolis that we know it to be today, having kickstarted one of the most successful fields of trade in Hong Kong.

Retrace the steps of the average pedestrian from over a half-century ago along Des Voeux Road West towards Wing Lok Street, and you might find that you would recognise, or at least notice, the same several handfuls of shop names as they would have. The neighbourhoods of Sai Wan, encompassing Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, have long been the spot where old name merchants (老字號; lou5 ji6 hou6) peddling dried seafood have settled, causing the street that tapers through the area to be informally bequeathed the alternate title of “dried seafood street” (海味街; hoi2 mei6 gaai1).

Given its perfect coastal location, Sai Ying Pun has long been a prime setting for fisherfolk to hone their supplies. Long before land reclamation extended the shoreline, Mui Fong Street was first known to dwellers as salted fish street (鹹魚街; haam4 yu4 gaai1), a place where lush bounties of Chinese herring, threadfin, and croaker were marinated in salt and hung to dry, then sold. Vendors would often occupy the three or four storey domestic buildings along the streets, making production plants out of their rooftops and selling their sun-treated goodies on the ground level. It was very much a family-run endeavour, setting the tone for how affairs would pan out.

Salted fish has been a pantry staple for a long time. Existing since ancient times, salt was used to prolong provisions, especially during months of poor harvest. The readily available supply of both its main ingredients in the local market made salted fish easy to mass produce in an urban setting, and in turn, kept its prices quite low. Offering a burst of umami and intense flavours for cheap, it further cemented its place as an essential part of Hong Kong cuisine for the common folk.

The first entrepreneurs to lay claim to Sheung Wan and Sai Wan were refugee merchants from mainland China, driven from their hometowns due to the dangers brought upon by the first opium war. A network of commerce known as Nam Bak Hong (南北行; naam4 bak1 hong4) threaded its way through Bonham East and West, Wing Lok Street, Des Voeux Road West, and Ko Shing Street. This was the intersection which saw goods being transferred to-and-from North Canton, with incoming sundries from Southeast Asia as well. As existing inhabitants established a firm footing in selling dried fish varieties, more expensive dried seafood varieties began to crop up.

Amongst the more lavish additions, a handful of items stood out as the most popular. Known as the “four treasures” (海味四寶; hoi2 mei6 sei3 bou2), the quartet includes abalone, shark fin, sea cucumber, and fish maw, all of which are revered as highly important ingredients in traditional Chinese cuisine for their health benefits and auspiciousness. Dried seafood is typically added to dishes enjoyed as part of festive feasts, their rarity making them a special treat reserved for celebratory times.

The bustling business resulted in principal players of the network to officially establish Nam Bak Hong as the first-ever locally-based business association in 1868, setting up guidelines and carrying out the ensuing checks and balances. A powerful force, the group also made headway in founding neighbourhood security and firefighting services for residents, helping the area develop into a self-sufficient enclave that thrived in tandem with the rising prosperity of the shops stationed in the area. This upwards trend continued way into the twentieth century, mirroring the steady advancement of the city as a whole.

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The golden age

At its peak, the number of dried goods vendors had totalled up to over 200, and with breakneck expansion came rapid changes. Despite the popularity of dried fish continuing all the way through to the 1950s, the conversion of local tenements into high-rise properties throughout the district made it difficult to sustain past modes of manufacturing. As an extra blow, dwindling catches and the movement of manpower into manufacturing meant a lessened supply of product and labour, making it even more alluring to convert to other forms of dried goods. Though the clusters of shops did shrink slightly, many vendors simply turned to other aquatic catches to adapt to the times.

And times were good. Throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, the city’s economy and social welfare entered a new stage that opened up the average person to a wealth of new lifestyle choices. The greater demand for premium dried seafood varieties was a sign that quality of life was on the rise. Its popularity is seen every year during Chinese New Year, when crowds would flock over to score their share of goodies to ring in the new year with some extra blessings.

Today’s legacy

Moving in leaps and bounds, the dried seafood industry in its heyday saw up to one billion in gross profit, marking the ultimate golden period of the trade. However, in the 1990s, over-saturation of the market plus mass expansion into chain stores quickly outpaced consumer demand. Piling onto that was the increased awareness and greater concern towards combating overfishing and catching endangered wild species. Shark fin in particular has been labelled as a critically threatened group, causing dips in the market.

Still, it did not stop the government from recognising both the economic impact and cultural significance of dried seafood in the city’s history. Dried seafood street is promoted as a must-visit tourist attraction, and the district has since been solidified as an important site of Hong Kong gastronomic culture and mercantile history.

Sellers still line the streets and alleys of Sai Wan today. Sticking to their longstanding gambit of adapting with the times, many of the stores have expanded product lines to include frozen seafood, dried fruit, Chinese medicinal goods, and cured red meats. Younger generations have taken on the old-name shops of their forebearers, bringing with them new-world strategies that keep business buzzing.

The changing course of the dried seafood trade has long run parallel to the growth of Hong Kong as a world city. From Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun serving as the entrepôts where wholly local businesses first took flight, to the vendors that kept on tweaking their recipe for success over the years, the evolution of the industry is one that squarely showcases how the city can bring about ingenious change and continue to thrive.

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Alisa Chau

Junior editor

Always down for an adventure, Alisa’s general approach to life (and anything, really) is to “just go with the flow.” She believes that the most unforgettable moments are the most spontaneous ones. One thing she will always be certain of, however, is her love for the band My Chemical Romance and potato-based food.

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