Header image courtesy of @irisangela (via Instagram)
Widely regarded as a unique cultural asset of Hong Kong, shrimp paste (蝦醬; haa1 zoeng3) is one of the most iconic condiments of Cantonese cuisine. Since its heyday in the 1970s, the signature aroma of shrimp paste—a putrid stench of salt and rotting seafood—has permeated the air of fishing villages across the city.
Its pungent smell still clings to the rocky shores of Tai O. During the summer, tiny rows of flat winnowing baskets bearing a rosy spread are scattered across wooden tables. The scene evokes an aching nostalgia as the making of shrimp paste is now a dying artisanal trade, becoming all but a footnote in the annals of history.
Read on to discover how the shrimp paste industry blossomed in the 1980s and where to find the last remaining holdouts of this unique trade in Hong Kong.
The oldest record of shrimp paste appeared in an ancient Malayo-Polynesian text from Java (present-day Indonesia). Known as trasi, Polynesian shrimp paste was a celebrated export that merchants delivered across the islands. Zheng He (鄭和; jeng6 wo4)—a celebrated Chinese mariner from the Ming dynasty—introduced the condiment to China, which inspired southeastern locals to formulate their own versions.
Long before krill oil gained popularity as a nutritional supplement, silver shrimp sold for little on the market and was regarded as a “poor man’s food.” Instead of sending the catches to waste, locals preserved it with salt to make into a paste. The paste not only provided villagers with calcium, phosphorus, and iodine, but it also became a staple ingredient often sautéed with rice or pork and, notably, water spinach.
Shrimp paste matured into a famed speciality found in Tai O, Ma Wan, and Lamma Island. Out of the three, Tai O and Ma Wan produced the highest quality and largest industrial output of shrimp paste due to their location near deep bays, which are free from mud particles and other sediments.
In the 1960s, Tai O was home to 10 shrimp paste factories ran by local Tanka families who mastered the art of making shrimp paste with just two ingredients. Today, less than a handful of these factories remain. Further along the coastline of Lantau, villagers in Ma Wan followed the steps of their distant relatives in Tai O and produced more than 36,000 kilogrammes of shrimp paste every year.
The rendition from Ma Wan was churned into large round boulders, from which parts were axed off and sold by the gram at tuck shops. While the tiny island was once home to dozens of artisans who produced Hong Kong’s best shrimp paste, every factory now lies derelict and abandoned.
In 1880, young Chinese immigrants settled along the tidal flats in Tai O. They built two-storey stilt houses, of which the ground floors were converted into a shop in the front and a factory in the back. It was from here that the villagers contributed to the birth of Hong Kong’s trademark shrimp paste, a condiment that would grow into an integral part of the city’s local cuisine.
At dusk, trawlers and their ships would head out to sea. Among various tasty sea treasures that the nets would catch—like groupers and prawns—there was also silver shrimp (銀蝦; ngan4 haa1), a type of planktonic krill the size of a fingertip. In the morning, trawlers loaded their hauls across town to factories, where workers would promptly get to work. As the trade blossomed—reaching its pinnacle in the 1980s—over 60 boats clustered within the Tai O Bay, so many that locals recalled that it was impossible to see the opposite shoreline.
Drying shrimp paste was often a fight against the sun. Humidity and sunlight were vital to the process and workers adjusted the salt level according to the weather; however, putting in the wrong amount could ruin an entire batch. Experienced workers had the ability to tell if the paste was under-fermented according to its aroma. Despite this rigorous process, there are no exact measurements and methods to making the paste, but the general steps are listed as follows:
Despite a wide misconception, shrimp paste and shrimp sauce are two very different condiments. While shrimp paste is sold dry, shrimp sauce takes on a liquid form and is sold in jars or bottles. Making shrimp sauce is a less labour-intensive process, as fresh silver shrimp is simply ground to bits and mixed with sea salt. It must then be fermented in a barrel for several months under the sun before it is poured into glass jars.
Shrimp paste was not only sold in Hong Kong—it was also exported to London and San Francisco for immigrants in the UK, the United States, and Canada. In the 1970s, the popularity of shrimp paste grew exponentially when Vietnamese refugees arrived in Hong Kong. By the millennia, local production dropped after nearby shorelines were replaced with residential estates and the Chek Lap Kok airport. Subsequently, the trawling ban in 2013 sent countless trawlers ashore when production lines shifted to Guangdong.
The last holdouts of the trade have survived in a small pocket in Hong Kong, but conceivably not for long. While several shrimp paste factories still occupy the shores of Tai O today, memories of the trade are slowly fading beneath the waves along with the glittery silver shrimp that once traversed the sea.
Humbly huddled amongst a row of village houses along the southern shores of Tai O, Cheng Cheung Hing (鄭祥興) is the oldest shrimp paste factory that still occupies this remote coastal village. Established in 1920, the factory is now owned by the founder’s grandson, who keeps it running. Despite its scanty space, Cheng Cheung Hing churns out hundreds of shrimp paste blocks and jars of shrimp sauce every year, drying them in rows on the concrete ground facing the sea—just like how it was a century ago.
Cheng Cheung Hing (鄭祥興), 17A Shek Tsai Po Street, Tai O | (+852) 2985 7347
For 80 years, Cheung Choi Kee (大澳張財記) has insisted on making shrimp sauce the traditional way—pulverising silver shrimp using a hand-manoeuvred grinder. Due to this labour-intensive process, the family-run shop produces only six bottles of shrimp sauce per day. Authentic handmade shrimp paste has an intense umami fragrance due to its perfect mix of shrimp and krill oil. Handmade shrimp paste is part of our local culture, but at Cheung Choi Kee, it signifies a sentiment that has been carried on through generations.
Cheung Choi Kee (大澳張財記), 41 Kut Hing Street, Tai O | (+852) 6351 1226
Established in 1938, Yick Cheong Ho (益昌號) is a variety store turned shrimp paste maker nestled in the centre of the Tai O village. The century-old business sold dried seafood delicacies and had a small shrimp paste factory behind the shopfront. In its heyday, Yick Cheong Ho sold hundreds of barrels of shrimp sauce per year! Today, the time-honoured shop only produces a small output for its own retail space, where you can find a tiny shelf dedicated to shrimp sauce, which sells for $35 per jar.
Yick Cheong Ho (益昌號), 48 Wing Kut Street, Tai O | (+852) 2985 5312
Another stalwart of the shrimp paste manufacturing industry in Tai O, Sing Lee (勝利香蝦廠) has been in operation for more than 80 years. Aside from producing shrimp paste, Sing Lee also specialises in salted fish and other dried seafood items. Using traditional, handmade methods and local ingredients, their shrimp paste is amongst the best available today, and is sold out of an unremarkable shopfront that nonetheless draws curious visitors.
Sing Lee (勝利香蝦廠), 10 Shek Tsai Po Street, Tai O | (+852) 2985 7330