Recalling the Smell of Salted Fish

By Wendy Chan





In the northern part of Coloane, there is an old dock. Along the road to the dock, rusty tin huts are built on the water. The smell of salted fish and shrimp sauce poignantly permeates the air. About 30 years ago, all the shops along the road were involved in the salted fish industry. Accordingly, the place was known as the "salted fish street". However, with the reclamation and development, the water became shallow. Ships could hardly anchor and the port was forced to close. Fishermen left this area and salted fish stores gradually disappeared. Now only two stores remain open.


Kio Lam, the owner of Ieng Lei salted fish store, has witnessed ups and downs in the salted fish business. From her father to her brother then to herself, this is already the second generation to maintain this store. She recalled the past: "30 years ago, there were more than 300 ships. Every day fishermen would go fishing at around 3:00a.m., and around 6:00p.m., they would come back and deliver fresh seafood to every store. The stores would then make salted fish and shrimp sauce."


The main job was simple: to cut and clean fresh fish first, put salt into it, a layer of fish, a layer of salt; after old salt sucked the water from the fish, replace it with new salt; repeat this process four to five times, until the salt did not become wet; then dry the fish in the sun. This was the main job that every salted fish store did. Lam said that in the past, there was no electricity and tap water in Coloane. "That was the hardest time in my life! No machines and no water. We needed to carry the fish to the sea to wash, after that we had to fetch plenty of clean water from far away to wash them again until they were all clean and ready for salt preservation. Everything had to be done by hand! Unlike now, if you have money you can have water, you can get it easily from the tap!" Lam said. Nowadays the salted fish and the shrimp sauce in the store come mainly from Bangladesh and Vietnam . They only need to simply wash and process them in order to maintain the best quality.


In the 1980's, the economy of Macau was not so prosperous, and salted fish was cheap and could be kept for a long time. Therefore, many people had salted fish as their main dish to go with rice. Sun-dried salted fish became very popular in Macau, Hong Kong and mainland China . However, as people became richer and richer, the new generations started to dislike the smell of the salted fish and think it was "outdated" as a dish; and there are medical reports which state that eating too much salted fish would cause nasopharyngeal carcinoma (a cancer originating in the nose and throat). The salted fish industry was gradually vanishing.

Lam indicated that her sons and daughters know the process of making salted fish, but none of them is willing to work in this business. "They prefer to go out to find other jobs as this business cannot make a living anymore! I've maintained this store because I still have energy to work. If I don't work, then the shop has to be closed," Lam said. Every month her sons and daughters will give her some "pocket money" which is enough for her living, and this shop for her is to keep her busy while recalling the good old times. Lam said, "I don't know whether my sons and daughters will inherit this shop or not in the future. If this industry becomes flourishing again, they may come back."


No promotions, fewer scenic spots, inconvenient transportation; this is just an isolated island. Lam said only old customers will come and buy her products. Occasionally, during the holidays, there may be one or two tourists who drop by to have a look and purchase something. During weekdays there won't be anyone passing by. Lam hopes that the Government can improve the transportation to the island and reconstruct this area so that it can become an attractive tourist spot and this traditional food can be promoted.


Sun-dried salted fish is a traditional business in Macau , and if we don't protect it, it will become extinct in this generation. The "salted fish street" will eventually become something in the history and our collective memory - a place which accompanied many Macau citizens when they were growing up.