It was a humid day. The moist air nourished everything. An overlooked store, located in the middle of Western Street in the district of Sai Ying Pun, is so low-profile that seems unlikely that it has been surviving through furious storms over the past decades. Its name is Tak Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company. Stepping into the store, the first thing comes to mind is the fresh smell, along with the wetting air, which like being situated in the bamboo forest in southern Sichuan. The tapered store stacked to the ceiling with over a thousand of different bamboo steamers.
The company was established in early 1900s in China and it is the last remaining business of its kind right now in the city. It has not just simply witnessed the vast change of Sai Ying Pun, but also acts as a living evidence of Hong Kong history.
The 56-year-old shop keeper Lam Ying Hung is the fifth successor of the business. Despite his age, he is still in a good shape. Wearing a blue polo shirt and a pair loose jeans, Lam is sitting on a small wooden chair plunging bamboo strips with his strong arms and rough hands.
Originally, the company was located in Guangzhou, and moved to Hong Kong in late 1950s. Being located in the district of Sai Ying Pun, it is very convenient to deliver its bamboo steamers to the traditional Chinese restaurants nearby, mainly Sheung Wan and Central. Besides steamers, the store also sells other kitchen utensils including spoons, ladles and even cake moulds. Surprisingly, this store also upholds environmental concepts. All of the utensils are made from bamboo leftovers from those steamers. All of the products in the store is 100% hand-made.
‘With the immigration wave in 80s, a plenty of Hongkongers have moved to Europe and America. So, Chinese restaurants begun to emerge overseas. Thanks to them, we received a lot of orders from abroad and were able to spread our fame to foreign countries,’ Master Lam said.
In the 21st century, with ever-changing technology, even steamers are ‘evolving’. Factories started to use plastic or steel to manufacture steamers. However, connoisseurs believe that nothing can replace steamers made from bamboo. ‘Only bamboo steamers can preserve the scent and the moisture of the food because of its permeable properties. Steel and plastic steamers do not even come close,’ said Leung, a 66-year-old customer in Lin Heung Chinese Restaurant. With that being said, bamboo steamers still are able to retain their status in the market.
Due to the influx of Chinese traditional cultures to foreign countries, a lot of foreigners became fans of dim-sum. Therefore, bamboo steamers are not strangers to them. Majority of the retail customers of the store are tourists and foreigners who live in Hong Kong. ‘A lot of them came here to buy souvenirs. They think bamboo steamers are very distinctive of representing Hong Kong cultures,’ said Lam.
‘There is one encounter which a customer who wanted to use a bamboo steamer as a gift to marry his girlfriend. How hilarious is that!’ said Lam.
The store mainly relies on orders from those traditional Chinese restaurants and hotels. Famous restaurants like Lin Heung, Luk Yu and Dor Nam have been patronizing the store for over 10 years. ‘Although its steamers are twice as expensive as those from the mainland China, we are still loyal patrons of Tuck Chong Sum Kee because of its quality. All their steamers are made by hand and they are way more durable than others,’ said Wong, manager of Lin Heung Chinese Restaurant.
Tak Chong Sum Kee still managed to survive even after the emergence of stainless steel steamers. However, because of the ever-changing trend, Lam is so uncertain about the future. ‘I’ve been learning and making bamboo steamers for my entire life. We are just craftsmen. We don’t know creativity. Its nothing compared to machines and technology,’ said Lam.
Lam does not have any children and hence students to inherit this tradition. ‘In this well-developed city, everyone is chasing after knowledge and money. I believe that no youngsters would be willing to learn such craftsmanship,’ said Lam. He is very welcome and happy if anyone comes to be apprenticed to him.
‘When generation changes, everything follows to change as well. I feel very helpless about that. Perhaps one day I might invest on something else. Maybe plastic steamers?’ said Lam.