[South China Morning Post]
By bringing new ideas to their family businesses, Connie Ko and her siblings, and graduates Jason Wong and Miru Wong have not only ensured their survival but improved their prospects.
If family-controlled conglomerates have trouble getting someone from the clan to take up the reins after a couple of generations, things are even worse for small, traditional businesses. After all, the enterprise that grandad or great-grandad established isn’t likely to offer a glamorous, high-flying career. Better-educated scions see their future elsewhere. Even so, a few are driven to keep their family legacy alive.
Wah Fung, a traditional siu mei (roast meat) shop that opened on Queen’s Road Central in 1941, would have closed several years ago were it not for Connie Ko Hong-ying and her two siblings.
Their grandfather Ko Lo-wah established the business, but despite having survived the Japanese occupation, Wah Fung was struggling in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 and Ko’s parents figured it was time to call it a day.
Raised on char siu from their shop, the Ko siblings couldn’t bear the thought of having to order their roast meat from rivals. Despite having little experience running a company (Connie, an advertising professional, was a partner in the Backstage Live restaurant), the siblings decided to take a shot at rebuilding the family business.
“When I was little, the sifus always treated me to a piece of Jinhua ham when I visited [the shop], and dinners at home often included char siu that my grandfather brought back,” Connie Ko recalls. “When I studied abroad, I would take a box of roast goose to enjoy on the flight. It would be a shame to allow the Wah Fung name to become history without putting up a fight.”
They reckoned its woes were rooted in its old and unprofitable takeaway model, so and each chipped in additional funds to relaunch Wah Fung as a restaurant in 2009. Taking up spacious new premises on Wellington Street, its layout, combining traditional motifs with modern decor, helped attract younger customers.
The siblings each have different roles: Ko takes care of the administration, her brother oversees the finances, while their younger sister supervises food production. The restaurant has done well enough that they were able to open a branch in Kennedy Town last month.
“Traditional siu mei shops are usually dirty and messy,” she says. “We want our restaurant to provide quality food that diners can enjoy in a comfortable environment.”
And although the menu has been tweaked a little, the restaurant remains faithful to her grandfather’s char siu recipe, marinating prime cuts of pork with a layer of salt then a layer of sugar. “It still tastes the same as it did 70 years ago,” Ko says.
Still, the overhaul was far from smooth.
As novices in the food and beverage business, the siblings found the experience very stressful. Besides hiring more people to run the new restaurant, they had to win the trust of senior staff and establish their authority as new bosses.
Among other things, they had to learn to make siu mei. “It is important to know what happens in the kitchen so we can troubleshoot when dishes are below par,” Ko says.
Despite the struggle, she is gratified that they have been able to carry on her grandfather’s legacy and even see the business grow.
At Kei O, a traditional Chinese confectioner in Yuen Long, a second-generation heir has taken over.
The shop was on the brink of closure in 2011 because founder Wong Ngok-wing felt he no longer had the stamina to produce its handmade sweets. Well into his 60s, he was finding the process too exhausting, especially the popular peanut confection the shop was famed for – a strenuous process that requires cooking pots of thick syrup and folding toasted peanuts into the viscous liquid quickly and evenly before it hardens.
To Wong’s relief, his son Jason Wong Kwon-pang, a newly minted mechanical engineer, decided take on the challenge. The elder Wong spent two years teaching Jason the ins and outs of the business – from the art of making confectionery to accounting and inventory – before handing over the reins.
“Making peanut candy takes time to master,” says the younger Wong. “If the syrup is under-cooked even by one minute, it will be too thin and won’t set. In contrast, when slightly overcooked, our sweets – prized for their balanced texture – will have a bitter tinge and stick to the teeth.”
The father’s winning recipe combined with the son’s efforts to streamline operations have enabled Kei O to thrive.
“Before I was in charge, our shop was quite chaotic during peak periods; there were trays of candy waiting to be cut and packaged, ingredients to be fetched from the storeroom, and customers waiting to be served,” says Wong. “It was frustrating to see customers impatient at the delay, leaving to find their sugar fix elsewhere.”
He stepped up to instil order, redefining each worker’s duties and prioritising tasks for more efficiency.
But father and son did not always see eye to eye. “My father was adamant about following old routines. I had to stand my ground and show that my ideas worked. Now he has trust in me and gives me a free hand in executing my ideas.”
Among other things, 27-year-old Wong will be revamping their packaging to give it character and hopes to open another shop before too long.
Newfound responsibilities, however, have meant longer hours. Typically working an 11-hour day, it was not until recently that he was able to give himself a day off.
“In the early days, my fingers were so sore [by the time the shop closed] I had to use ointment. It’s been hard work but I believe I am over the hump now,” he says.
Not surprisingly, there have been many naysayers who reckon he is jeopardising his future and letting his degree go to waste, but Wong has no such qualms after deciding that engineering won’t suit him.
“I love what I do and I believe I will become successful as long as I persevere,” he says.
Elsewhere, Miru Wong Ka-lam is playing to her strengths in taking over her grandfather’s embroidered shoe and slipper business.
The family’s Sindart shoe venture began as a little stall tucked under a staircase in a Jordan tenement building – a place where she played as a child and which provided plenty of inspiration as she was studying design at Polytechnic University.
For her honours project, Wong developed a grand scheme to update the business by diversifying the selection of footwear, providing custom services, offering DIY workshops and kits, and harnessing social media for promotion.
“Many think Chinese-style shoes, typically in scarlet or black, belong to a bygone era,” she says. “For the business to survive, we need to tap into the younger market and make our footwear fashionable again.”
No armchair strategist, she was able realise her ideas after graduating in 2012.
Her father, who had been running the business after her grandfather died in 2005, was delighted to have her take charge.
Now, customers visiting their shops in Causeway Bay and on The Peak are spoiled for choice. The stores are lined from floor to ceiling with slippers, ballet flats, peep-toe heels and wedding shoes in a full range of colours. These can be matched with straw insoles for breathability or cushioned soles for greater comfort.
While Wong enjoys decorating the footwear with new motifs such as pandas and berries, some classic patterns are here to stay.
“As much as I like to put my own spin on the designs, it is important to preserve traditions,” she says. “Too radical a makeover would drive loyal customers away and undermine the spirit of the business. For example, motifs such as peacocks and peonies, which signify elegance and nobility respectively, are staples in the decoration.
Three years after taking over, Wong is proud that she has been able to check off all the items on her proposal.
Now she is helping a dozen of her top students to create their own collections; and writing the tale of her family business and the process of shoemaking into a book.
“I hope that by cultivating new talent and providing students with a channel to sell their products, I can promote this craft and make it sustainable,” she says. “It’s a labour of love and my students know it – it takes weeks to create four pairs of embroidered shoes from scratch.”