This is part of a series of stories on old places in Kennedy Town in Hong Kong. It is based on the anecdotes shared with me by the people who run Tung Hing in the summer of 2017, and the dates and ages of the people are per the notes I took back then.
Once upon a time, North Street in Kennedy Town (北街, 堅尼地城) was lined with open-air food stalls. All the “dai pai dong” 大排檔 — named for their large license plates — have since disappeared with some having moved into the nearby Smith Street Food Centre. Meanwhile, Tung Hing 東興 has remained a steady fixture on the street, churning out fishballs in its compact factory.
For more than 50 years, the crew at Tung Hing has been making fishballs in the same location, starting at 3am every day. They also manufacture other seafood products such as fishcakes, cuttlefish balls, and handmade fish dumplings 魚皮餃. While most of these are supplied to restaurants and shops, a small quantity of the freshly made items is sold at the front of the shop.
My favourite is the fried fish skin. Crisp and fragrant — though it probably has a hearty sprinkle of added MSG, I like it best with ice-cold beer. Most people in Hong Kong eat them with fishball noodles, either on the side or dunked into soup.
Mr Ma showed me the production area in the back. There were no tubs of smashed fish or guts on the ground. The factory area had been scrubbed dry with all equipment neatly set aside for the next morning.
Perhaps sensing my slight disappointment, he opened the freezer door and pulled out a hefty carton box which he deftly spliced open with a boxcutter. Inside, beneath the frosty vapours that emerged, was a bundle of eel, which is used to make their premium-quality balls.
At Tung Hing, they mostly use deep-sea fish from Malaysia, Vietnam and Myanmar; fish from Hainan are excellent but expensive while the quality of fish from Thailand is lacking. The fish from the shallow waters around Hong Kong are not suitable. Mr Ma added that there is not much of a fishing industry in Hong Kong these days compared to decades ago due to overfishing, pollution, and marine development projects.
Almost all parts of a fish, except for the bones and skin, is used to make fishballs. At Tung Hing, there are three grades of fishballs — regular, good, and superior, each made with different fish. Mr Ma was reluctant to say how many fishballs they make every day as it varies. Though he did confirm that everyone who works here eat fishballs and other items that they make for lunch every day.
Today, almost everything is made with machines. They used to shape the balls by hand but this is no longer the case as the machine-made balls look better. According to Mr Ma, there is no difference in taste nor texture between the two. Rather, it is the ingredients that make a difference — for instance, they use white pepper from Indonesia as it is more aromatic than that from Hainan.
Unlike some old-time businesses in Kennedy Town such as Sun Hing and Cheung Heung restaurants, Tung Hing owns the space where their shop stands. This means there is no pressure due to the astronomical rents that keep on rising. They also own the shop next door where they once ran a cha chaan teng (traditional Hong Kong-style cafe) and sold fishball noodles.
The challenge that Tung Hing faces in its future is succession. Some years back, its owners — which includes Mr Ma’s elder brother, had considered closing the factory and business as the sifu is getting old. Mr Ma has been working at Tung Hing for more than 30 years. This is his first and only job.
While his son helps out at the shop, he said that it is hard to attract younger people to join the fishball business, a common challenge amongst similar trades in Hong Kong that involve manual work. I suppose the promise of eating fishballs and crispy fish skin every day is not enough.
Tung Hing Food Company 東興食品公司 | G/F, 35 North Street, Kennedy Town, Sai Wan 西環堅尼地城北街35號地下