Every morning at three, lights and noises leak out from the rusty shutter of an old-styled Chinese restaurant.
The owners of Saam Hui Yaat, located in Sai Ying Pun, prepare the dim sums before five when they start the business. The three in their sixties and two more workers have been performing the same routine for more than 30 years. They knead the dough, chop the meat and fold the dumplings. All the delicate cuisines are then placed into bamboo baskets for steaming. Ten baskets are piled up as a stack. The stove on which a lid with five holes is put can hold a total of five stacks at once. There are three stoves in the kitchen.
“We make nearly 800 dim sums a day. I guess we use a hundred of steamers every day. We have a cleaner who keeps washing the steamers so that we can continue steaming other food,” said Lee Kwing-yiu, one of the owners of the eatery seating 40 customers.
Lee Kwing-yiu, 65, has run Saam Hui Yaat for since 1978 with another two owners. Saam Hui Yaat means “three minus one”. “Three” means the three owners while “one” implies one of the friend who backed out but he works in the eatery.
Apart from Chinese restaurants, Chinese bamboo steam baskets, the icon of Chinese traditional food, are commonly seen from street food stalls to banquet halls. They have been used for thousands of years since the Han dynasty. The usage and manufacture of the steam baskets had evolved over the historical years but it has come to a stand-still.
Steaming could be traced back to Yangshao culture during the Neolithic era (5000BC–3000BC). Zeng was invented for steaming food. Made of pottery, zeng consists of two parts: a cauldron with small holes underneath and a hollow tripod called li. The food inside the cauldron could be cooked by the steam from the boiling water in li. It can still be found in China but it is now in a barrel shape for distilling wine.
The pottery steamer had later appeared in different forms and shapes, on par with the improvement in craftsmanship. There had been steamers composed of porcelain thanks to the emergence of ceramics. The cookware did not change much until Han dynasty (221–206 BC) in which steamers made of bamboo were generated from folk wisdom. There was no accurate historic record but a popular anecdote. General Han Xin ordered his soldiers to make bamboo baskets. He knew that steaming food with the baskets would not let out smoke which would reveal their location in the battle. In addition, the food could be kept warm and tasty inside the baskets.
“People in the past were very clever. Bamboo steamers complement with dim sums so well that there are no better substitutes,” said Raymond Lam Ying-hung, the fifth generation of Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company, “The steamers can keep the dim sums from being dripped by condensation as bamboo absorbs moist. Who will eat a slimy cha siu bao?”
Raymond Lam Ying-hung, 54, has engaged in the handcraft industry since 1980s. To be a basket master, one has to learn at least three years, he said.
Master Lam, he is commonly called, has been making bamboo steamers in a traditional manner for more than 30 years. The company, operated for nearly a century, is the only remaining basket manufacturer in Hong Kong.
Each steamer is made of half of a bamboo. Immersing the bamboo into water for a day, Master Lam pares the hardest part with a Chinese machete. He soaks the pared bamboo for another half an hour to further soften the texture. The softened bamboo strip can be curled and form a circular shape.
“Each bamboo has its own quality and texture. That is why bamboo baskets cannot be mass-produced. Some bamboos are less flexible and would be easily cracked by machines. Therefore they must be hand-made,” said Master Lam.
Master Lam consolidates the basket by hammering every part of it.
Master Lam has several tools inherited from the past generation to make the bamboo steamers. An arm long wooden clip is used to position the bent strip before he fixes the shape with wires. Criss-crossing finger-long bamboo battens as the base, he embeds it to the bent strip. He then pierces holes in the strip by pulling and dragging the handle of the hand driller like he is playing erhu. Inserting bamboo nails to the holes, he hammers them to fixate the steamer with the base. The stool-like cutting board, used for more than five decades, supports the steamer when it is hammered. Weaving the base with wet straws, Master Lam finishes the bamboo baskets in an hour.
Master Lam can finish six to eight bamboo baskets a day, depending on the size and his condition.
“There is no breakthrough for steamer making. People accept only bamboo steamers,” he said.
Some steamers made of stainless steel were introduced in the 1980s. They disappeared within a year from the market.
“Though the metal steamers are more durable, they scald. They are also prone to collapse from the stack because of the glossy surface,” said Wong Charn-chee, another owner of Saam Hui Yaat.
Wong Charn-chee, 63, thinks the quality of dim sums does not solely rely on the use of bamboo baskets, but also on what they are made of and how they are made.
Master Lam welcomed any innovation on steamers and was willing to comply with it. “I am master and also a businessman. I have to act with the social development. If one day plastic steamer was favoured by most people, I would definitely include it in my business line. It could save human resources at the same time.”
Located just two blocks away, Saam Hui Yaat constantly buys the baskets from Tuck Chong Sum Kee. The two long-standing shops are icons in Sai Ying Pun. Without any renovation, they both keep metal fans from the last century on the ceiling.
At around 2.30 p.m. Saam Hui Yaat finally becomes less crowded. The three owners already prepare to close. Mr Lee wipes the grease off the baskets behind the back door while the cleaner rinses piles of baskets with a hose of hot water. Mr Wong sweeps the floor with a broom. Mr Law Shu Tak, one of the workers, brings out heaps of washed bamboo baskets to the catering tables to let them dry. He picks the baskets with nails showing, cracks and deeper colours out into a bin.
“The baskets wear out after two to three months. In the past there were people repaired old and torn baskets for living. Of course there are not anymore,” Mr Wong said.