Born in 1943, Zang Jianhe is a Qingdao native. Her first job was as a nurse in a local hospital, working together with her husband who was a doctor.
In 1974 her husband went to Thailand and never came back. Zang took her daughters with her to look for him, only to discover that he’d married again. So she emigrated to Hong Kong in 1977, a bold move for a single mother who couldn’t speak Cantonese or English.
To make ends meet, she began to sell Peking dumplings made from a family recipe at the exit to the Wanchai ferry terminal on the city’s harbour front.
Over the next five years Zang worked to improve the recipe, listening to customer comments and trying to combine tastes from both the south and north of China. Business picked up and people started to queue in front of her stall. Local media dubbed her the “Queen of Dumplings” and in 1985 she founded her own company: Wanchai Ferry Peking Dumpling.
Getting into the supermarkets was always likely to be a game-changer for Wanchai Ferry. But when the Japanese retailer Daimaru invited Zang to stock its supermarket chain in Hong Kong, she rejected the offer three times. The condition that she “repackage it as a product of Daimaru” meant she would lose her brand, Zang recalls. Eventually it was Daimaru that gave in, conceding not only to keep Zang’s brand in place but also agreeing to print her telephone number on the packaging in the event that customers had further comments.
By 1991 Wanchai Ferry had become the major local supplier of dumplings to most supermarkets in Hong Kong.
In 1997 Wanchai Ferry then formed a joint venture with Pillsbury, an American food company (later bought by General Mills), through which Zang’s dumplings entered the China market. The first plant in China, built for $10 million, opened in Shanghai in 1998. By 2002, Wanchai Ferry Dumplings had captured over half of frozen dumpling sales in southern China, despite charging a price premium to its domestic rivals, Sanquan and Synear.
Zang sped up her expansion efforts last year, with another large plant in Sanhe in Hebei province in which General Mills invested $100 million. The plan was to produce two million boxes of dumplings a year for annual sales of Rmb2 billion.
Last month, Wanchai Ferry was pulled into the wider frozen dumpling safety scare (see page 8) after some its products were found to contain golden staph, a bacteria which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Its partner General Mills responded that bacteria levels in the dumplings do not contravene international standards, which hasn’t gone down well with the Chinese media, who have contrasted the statement with the public apologies made by some of the domestic brands involved in the scare.
Need to know
Zang Jianhe’s first dream was to “make dumplings for 1.3 billion Chinese” but she upgraded her vision after joining forces with General Mills. Quite how that ambition survives the current food safety scare is unknown, although Zang’s ambitions remain to bring the dish to the international stage. “Dumplings are a traditional Chinese cuisine. I will make the world as familiar with them as burgers from America or pizza from Italy,” she has promised.
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