18 Jul Chun Nam Noodle Factory: first Shanghai noodle factory in Hong Kong
North Point has always been a magnet for immigrants. Many Shanghainese and Fujianese settled here in the years of Chinese civil war and they turned the neighbourhood into a leisure hotspot. This route traces the treasures they brought with them, the iconic State Theatre and a string of amusement parks, dance clubs and restaurants. Later many more South East Asians moved here, adding yet another flavour to North Point ‘s unique cultural landscape. We went into Chun Nam Noodle Factory and learn more about their stories.
“Chun Nam Noodle Factory was the first Shanghai noodle factory in Hong Kong”
First noodle factory
With a mechanical hum, the tram rolls through the outdoor market, parting the crowd as it passes. Before it even leaves the market, people are already merging back onto its tracks, chatting and negotiating with vendors. This is a common scene on Chun Yeung Street. A multitude of old neighbours live on the street, alongside plenty of well-established shops. But, like the tram, time moves forward, and with it comes change. Many of the original shop owners have already sold their properties to newcomers. Some have retired and others have relocated to other districts or countries. Among the old shops, Chun Nam Noodle Factory still maintains its operation as a staple of the Chun Yeung Street community for over half a century.
Chun Nam Noodle Factory’s receipt
Chun Nam Noodle Factory operated on Chun Yeung Street for over half a century
This unassuming noodle factory was a first-hand witness to much of Hong Kong’s history, and today still exists to tell the stories. Master Lee, who has worked at Zhan Nan since 1979, is now 60 years old. During his 40 years of working there, he never considered changing his job. He spoke about the history of the noodle factory with a smile and an engaging voice. “My boss is not a native of Shanghai, but the original owner had loyal connections to a Shanghai elite leader. Do you know who held the shortest presidential term in China? It was Yuan Shi-kai!” Master Lee is always ready to give you a history lesson.
In fact, the previous owner of Chun Nan worked under the Premier Tang Chao-yi, who was a significant ally to Yuan Shi-kai. In 1946, after Tang Chao-yi was assassinated, the owner moved to Hong Kong. At that time, Chun Yeung Street was nicknamed “Little Shanghai so our owner established Chun Nan Noodle Factory – the first factory making Shanghai noodles.” On the flyers, Chun Nan branded themselves as “the inventor of Shanghai Noodle”. Master Lee laughed and clarified, “But I was not yet born at that time.” When it came to the history of Chun Yeung Street, he became very enthusiastic. “Back then, there were lots of noodle shops along the street selling different kinds of noodles, including Shanghai and Guangdong versions. The Fujianese migrants haven’t arrived yet. There were stalls on both sides of the street and it’s buzzling day and night. It was indeed a very lively scene.”
“We don’t need promotions; customers will buy our products if they need to”
The glamorous Shanghai days
Master Lee recalled the intimate neighbourly relationships during the “Little Shanghai” days. “At that time, many Shanghainese lived here. Most of them were quite wealthy. When they went out, they would dress in meticulous cheongsams and high heels. Their children liked to visit our factory to play with the flour. They would be covered in flour! Those children have grown up, and now they bring their children here!” Some of the Shanghainese customers were well-known, including the wife of Tung Chee-hwa, Adam Cheng, and Lydia Shum Tin Ha. But the owner of Chun Nam still wanted to maintain a low profile, “we don’t need promotions; customers will buy our products if they need to.” he said, just like the Wulin martial arts masters – where heroes exhibit low profiles but extreme skills.
Master Lee, a long-time staff of Chun Nam, showing old photographs of the factory
Staff used to dry noodles on the rooftop of the factory
Mastering the skills
Chun Nam Noodle Factory exhibits the “front shop, back factory” shophouse orientation, common in the past but rare today. When Master Lee was an apprentice, he spent almost all his time in the factory, from morning until evening. Now, even at the age of 60, he wakes at 4am to begin preparation. “Everything needs to be done, and different kinds of noodle and wonton prepped, in order to open the shop at 7am everyday.” Does Master Lee take a small break in the mornings? “No time! I only spend two minutes to eat breakfast.” Seeing our wide eyes, he smiled mischievously, perhaps in jest.
Master Lee works more than 15 hours per day and only takes three holidays annually during Chinese New Year. He eats noodles for all his meals. To the younger generation, such a working environment is harsh. “The working environment of the past was different. There were not many job opportunities to choose from. Chun Nam provided food and a place to live for all our workers. Would you refuse that?” Master Lee has no complaints, no ill-will. He smiles without any regret, happy with his past of simple decisions and loyal work. Now, Chun Nam employs seven or eight employees, half of whom have been employees for more than 40 years.
“No time! I only spend two minutes to eat breakfast”
A lifelong commitment
When it comes to the production of noodles, Master Lee can list many different varieties: traditional vermicelli, shrimp noodles, spinach noodles. “Making noodles can be both a very simple and very complicated act. Noodles are essentially made of flour and water. The difference lies in the ingredients one adds to the production. For example, spinach noodles – some factories directly put spinach into the flour mixture. Chun Nam adds spinach to the mixture, but also uses the spinach juice to make the noodles. Although it requires extra work, the noodle texture is superior.” In the past, without the aid of machines, noodles were dried using traditional methods. “Our staff would take the noodles to the rooftop to dry in the sun.” Interestingly, people would also purchase “noodle vouchers” to give as presents, similar to today’s practice of buying cake vouchers!
Master Lee has spent most of his lifetime working hard at the noodle factory, without great fame or profit. But his devotion has resulted in his perfected skill to produce the finest noodles, a specialization not many can accomplish. Master Lee’s life is intimately linked to noodle production and the community of Chun Yeung Street. Gone are the old shops but the neighbourhood relationship and bonding still live on.
Master Lee works 15 hours a day, and only takes three holidays annually during Chinese New Year
Noodles are freshly made here every day
Chun Nam has a large variety of noodles: traditional vermicelli, shrimp noodles, spinach noodles, chicken noodles
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Words by Sally Chong
Sally Chong loves writing. Graduated from the School of Journalism, Chinese University of Hong Kong, she truly believes she’s a“pseudo-KOL”/ travel blogger/journalist/editor/content creator. Sally enjoyed strolling along the streets, listening to stories and searching for her true self. She published these stories online as travel blogs, as she still believes words is a powerful way of recording. Find her on Instagram walking_travel.
Photography by Bertha Wang
Bertha Wang is a photographer born and raised in Hong Kong. Her work is mainly focused on issues relating to identity and the urban landscape. She is interested in using photography to explore the impacts of different social interactions on urban cultures. She is also passionate in travel, believing that photography can serve as a wonderful means for communicating urban stories. www.berthawang.com