They don’t rely on flashy advertisements, and their brands don’t have celebrity endorsements. But these longstanding, old school bakers of traditional Chinese kuehs have a strong following of loyal customers who have been enjoying their pastries since they were young.
Yong’s Teochew Kueh
Desmond Koh, 56, remembers the swine flu scare back then: the authorities suspended the import of pork and consumers avoided any food items with porcine products. Yong’s Teochew Kueh was one of the many businesses affected during that period. Without pork lard to cook the vegetables in, Koh could not make gu chai kueh (chives dumplings) and he would not skimp on quality by finding a substitute.
Producing kuehs that taste similar to homemade fare is paramount for the former general manager of a British company. “I have a lot of customers who say [our dumplings] are like what their mothers make,” he says. In fact, the recipes are his mother’s and he empathises with the feeling of nostalgia from his own memories of helping out in the kitchen when he was a boy. Today, dumpling-making is a more serious affair with his team starting at 4am to noon daily, making poon kueh (glutinous rice filling with mushrooms, dried shrimps and peanuts), soon kueh (stewed turnip and dried shrimp filling) and gu chai kueh on the spot to be eaten on the same day.
Making everything by hand is laborious but Koh remains open to finding a better alternative without affecting quality. Introducing a machine would help lighten the workload during their busiest periods but at present, most machines work on a hydraulic system and are too forceful when stamping on the soft ball of dough and fillings. He’s also open to getting business development advice from his daughter, who’s in her 20s, and whom he hopes will take over when he retires.
1022 Upper Serangoon Road. Tel: 6287 4328
Tan Hock Seng
Nestled discreetly on the first floor among a row of charming shop houses at Far East Square, Tan Hock Seng would not draw a backward glance. Stacks of colourful plastic trays and cardboard boxes containing plastic bags of Hokkien biscuits such as tau sar piah (flaky pastry with a sweet and salty mung bean filling) line the walkway and make up the shop’s modest store front.
Fans of Hokkien pastries will be familiar with the shop’s beh teh saw, which literally means ‘horse hoof biscuits’. It has its origins in Tong Wen, a town located in China’s Fujian province. Filled with sweet and salty sesame malt paste, this crisp and flaky pastry is available all-year round but is especially popular during the Lunar New Year period due to its sticky mouthfeel. Traditional festive sweets such as sticky peanut sticks and candied winter melon are also made in-house.
64-year-old Tan Poon Chai is the third-generation owner of this old-school confectionery. Its history dates back to more than 80 years ago, when his grandfather first started the business at China Street, opposite their current location. Tan inherited the bakery from his father about 30 years ago, but has no intentions of having his sons take over the shop. He cites reasons such as rising rents and shortage of manpower. Plus, most Singaporeans nowadays no longer want to put in the hours and effort required to acquire a skill, he notes. “They ask for weekends and public holidays off. On weekdays, working hours have to be fixed from 9am to 6pm,” he says of the younger applicants’ demands.
Tan Hock Seng closes only on the first day of the Lunar New Year and Tan and his colleagues are there the remaining 364 days. They have been supporting Tan since he took over the business. In three to five years, if no suitable person appears for a handover, Tan Hock Seng will become one of the many forgotten confectionaries in Singapore’s vanishing heritage of old school bakers.
86 Telok Ayer Street. Tel: 6533 1798
Dark green in colour and shaped to resemble a peach, the Teochew chi kak kueh is not a pastry that you will associate with the Lunar New Year celebrations. The kueh is also a rare sight in Singapore and only known by the older generation. Chan Kim Ho, 72, owner of Poh Guan Cake House, makes this snack available all-year round, too. Filled with a sweet mung bean paste which is made in store, the pastry is a reminder of poverty and signifies new hope for the coming New Year.
The kueh is also a rare sight in Singapore, as finding the key ingredient locally to make its dark colour is impossible. The deep green and grey hue is derived from the su ke cao, a plant that is now only found in China. Chan shares that his eldest sister, who lives in China, supplies him with large batches of the uncommon shrub, which have to be washed and sun-dried multiple times before storage for a maximum of five years. “It has detoxifying qualities and health benefits such as keeping skin supple and relieving rheumatism. When boiled and grounded into a powder, it is fragrant and has a peppery aftertaste,” he says.
A second-generation owner, Chan took over the business from his father when he was 15. Poh Guan first started in 1930 and sold only gong tng (peanut brittle candy) and tau sar piah. To expand its speciality products, Chan had to apprentice under various chefs before he was able to master the skills of kueh-making. “To date, there are recipes that only I am able to handle, as I want to protect those skills and ensure they stay within the family,” he shares. Both Chan’s son and youngest daughter have intentions to take over the business but have yet to learn all the techniques from their father. He still has big plans for Poh Guan and intends to throw a huge celebration to mark the store’s 90-year anniversary in five years.
#01-57 Hong Lim Complex, 531 Upper Cross Street. Tel: 6534 0136
Waking up at 5am every morning to prepare the Hokkien pastries and colourful ang ku kuehs (cakes with sweet mung bean filling) that line the small transparent panel of Poh Cheu has been the unbroken routine of Neo Poh Cheu, 73, and his wife, Lim Kim Noi, 65, since the store’s humble beginnings in 1985. Before moving to their current location some 16 years ago, the elderly couple was operating out of a mobile hawker cart across various locations in Singapore. Neo shared that “in the past, we could only bake from home. But as our business grew, we needed to increase operations”.
Poh Cheu now occupies the space of two stalls in a hawker centre at Bukit Merah. Today, you can spot several younger faces in the shop: Esther is the daughter of Neo and Lim and has dedicated herself to helping her parents’ business for over 20 years. Working relentlessly alongside them are her husband, Kim Sing and cousin, Lay Hoon.
“Our children as well as Lay Hoon’s son all plan to take over the business as third-generation owners,” says Esther, with pride in her voice. Since young, they have been helping out at the stall and are already skilled in the art of pastry making. Eschewing machinery, Esther is firm that they will continue rolling out the kuehs by hand and a complete handover will take place only when their kids are ready to invest 100% of their time and effort into the stall.
Poh Cheu is at its busiest during the two weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year. That is when they need all hands on board and the young ones will take leave from their respective career commitments to help the business. The ang ku kueh becomes one of the most sought after items due to its bright red appearance which signifies good luck, a yellow filling that represents prosperity and good fortune, and a tortoise shape that symbolises longevity because of the creature’s slow-moving nature.
127 Bukit Merah Lane 1. Tel: 6276 2287
Persisting with tradition is not just essential to maintain the quality of nian gao (sticky rice cake) over three generations but also a part of the inheritance. The recipes are passed down from Tham Wing Thong’s father who migrated from China before World War II. For the most part, Chop Tai Chong Kok continues getting their ingredients from the same suppliers; the lotus seeds and salted eggs are imported from China.
Keeping the same staff, however, has proven more challenging. Tham recounts how all members of the family used to be involved in baking and selling of their mooncakes and nian gao but as time went by, most of his colleagues have passed away, so he has to look for new staff: the oldest worker is in her 60s and the youngest in his 20s. Labour, he says, is hard to find in Singapore.
Although the 78-year-old semi-retiree is now an advisor to the company, he takes it upon himself to drive down to the food processing centre at Admiralty to teach the new hires and help out where he can. Managed by his daughter-in-law, the making of nian gao starts from an able-bodied young man mixing the dry and wet ingredients to circular containers lined with banana leaves, which are left to cook for eight hours in the steamer.
34 Sago Street. Tel: 6227 5701
More than 80 years old, Tong Heng confectionary remains ahead of the competition with their drive to keep up with changing times. After the Japanese Occupation, sisters Constance and Rebecca Fong from the second generation took over from their father when they saw the growing affluence of Singaporeans as an opportunity for business growth. They decided to produce only diamond-shaped egg tarts, leading to what is now their signature pastry.
Since then, the sisters have expanded the range of confectionary offered with the likes of Chinese Cake Red Bean, Lotus Seed Paste Crisp and mooncakes. Now in their 60s, they leave most of the day-to-day operations to their niece, Ana Fong, who recalls spending after-scool hours at the shop 40 years ago. Having grown up right in the heart of the business, Fong is used to waking up at 8am to prepare the pastries, and the rush that comes a month before Chinese New Year. Together with a close-knit team of bakers, some of whom have been at their jobs for more than 10 years, they are able to produce 1,000 egg tarts in a morning.
Recognising the importance of an online presence, Fong created a website and an email address for Tong Heng in 2013, as well as installing a digital accounting system. She also hosts talks and demonstrations on the traditional Chinese wedding ceremony for secondary school students. “Our brand is established among seniors but for the younger ones, I’ve to work hard [to educate them] because eventually they’ll be the ones buying,” she adds.
285 South Bridge Road. Tel: 6223 3649
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s February 2015 issue – Chinese New Year Special