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Mother-and-son duo keeping tradition alive with Hainanese mooncakes

SINGAPORE— Nestled among eateries and vacant shop spaces in MacPherson Mall is a humble little bakery. Called Chuan Ji Bakery, it sells a traditional pastry commonly known as su yan bing in Hainanese, which means flaky, salty biscuit. It is also sometimes known as salt-and-pepper mooncake.

Mother-and-son duo keeping tradition alive with Hainanese mooncakes

Mr Chong Suan (left) set up Chuan Ji bakery in 2017 with his mother Wong Chih Lian (right).

SINGAPORE— Nestled among eateries and vacant shop spaces in MacPherson Mall is a humble little bakery.

Called Chuan Ji Bakery, it sells a traditional pastry commonly known as su yan bing in Hainanese, which means flaky, salty biscuit. It is also sometimes known as salt-and-pepper mooncake.

The owner, 44-year-old Mr Chong Suan, set up the bakery in 2017 with his mother Wong Chih Lian, 79.

A third-generation descendant of the owner of the famed Nam Tong Lee Confectionery along Old Purvis Street, Mr Chong said: “We couldn’t let this tradition die.”

So determined was he about this “mission” that he left his job as a senior mechanical design engineer at Seagate to run the bakery full-time.

There was another reason.

“My mum is getting old and she’s the only one who knows how to bake this. I can’t let her man this shop all by herself,” he said.

RICH FLAVOURS, RICH HISTORY

Mr Chong’s grandmother took the signature flaky biscuit recipe to Singapore from Hainan island in 1926, and founded Nam Tong Lee.

Mr Chong’s grandfather died in the 1940s and his grandmother single-handedly raised her children with this business, Mr Chong said.

As a child, Mr Chong had fond memories of his mother helping out in Nam Tong Lee and he would frequently tag along as well. A highlight would be tasting freshly baked pastries whenever he went to the shop.

The former Purvis Street shop space was converted into a boutique hotel after Mr Chong’s grandmother died.

Mr Chong’s cousin was the only one who kept the legacy of Nam Tong Lee going, but he took the pastry production to Batam in Indonesia and baked only on festive occasions such as the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Thinking that it would be “a pity” if no one continued to make this pastry in Singapore, Mr Chong and his mother started making them at home in 2013 and took orders from friends and relatives.

“Nowadays, it’s hard to even find this back in Hainan,” he added.

Mr Chong would take leave during festive periods when there were more orders and help his mother in the kitchen of their former apartment in Toa Payoh.

“I had to step up and learn this (skill) from her,” he recalled.

After moving into a new flat in Sengkang with limited kitchen space, it was difficult to carry on the home business.

That was when Mr Chong decided to venture into this trade full-time and left his engineering job at Seagate.

“The stars were aligned. My friend was leasing this shop space as well, so everything just came together.”

FAMILY FIRST

Apart from keeping traditions alive, another good thing that came out of this decision is that Mr Chong and Madam Wong now spend more time together.

“We go to the shop together, we go home together, have dinner together,” he said.

“In the past, I spent the whole day at work, went home for dinner and rested for the next day. Then the cycle repeats.”

Since the shop is open from 11am to 6pm on weekdays, he can now take his son to school and fetch him back.

He added that the bakery has become a “gathering point” for his family, and other family members help out in packing the pastries or other aspects of the business.

“I’m happier now, but I face a different set of problems,” Mr Chong confessed.

He has yet to draw a salary from this business, tapping his savings to keep the shop going. His wife works as a personal assistant at a company in the Central Business District.

“Hopefully, it (the pastry) becomes a Singapore icon,” he said of the desire to promote this pastry to more Singaporeans and even reach out to international audience.

“It is an important part of my heritage and childhood, so this means a lot to me.”

‘MOONCAKE’ FOR ALL OCCASIONS

Mr Chong’s grandmother used to make this pastry only during the Mid-Autumn Festival, so it was commonly referred to as a “Hainanese mooncake”.

The traditional pastry is made up of 13 ingredients, including tangerine peels, fried shallots, sesame seeds and melon seeds.

Chuan Ji Bakery stayed mostly true to the family recipe, except that it replaced pork lard — used in the skin and filling — with peanut oil for health reasons.

The family recipe was passed down on a scribbled note, and it took many trials and feedback from older Hainanese relatives and friends before Mr Chong and his mother arrived at the formula they are using today, which is “as close as you can get to the old Nam Tong Lee flavour”.

These days, most of his customers are from the older set and they buy the pastries to relive the “good old times”, Mr Chong noticed.

“When old customers taste these biscuits, you can see their happy faces. They thank you for bringing this back, and that’s what keeps me going,” he said.

The Hainanese community has helped to spread the word about Chuan Ji Bakery, so much so that Mr Chong described his shop as “a hangout among the Hainanese”.

Apart from the flaky biscuits, customers may also order traditional Hainanese coffee, tea and food such as beef stew.

Mdm Wong still has other recipes, such as her Hainanese dishes and pastries, to impart to her son.

“Step by step, one by one. I’ll slowly teach him,” she said in Mandarin.

For regular customer and Hainanese Allan Lim, 66, he likes that he can converse in Hainanese at the bakery. 

“The Hainanese is a close-knitted community,” he said, using Hainanese phrase “ka ki nang”, which means “our own people”, to explain why he supports this food establishment.

His daily routine includes traditional kopi-O or teh-O and toast from Chuan Ji, added the Jalan Gembira resident, whose home is a five-minute walk away.

First-time customer Walter Lian, 50, was at the bakery to buy pastries for his wife after she chanced upon the shop’s Facebook page.

“She said it had good reviews, so I’m here to buy some for her to try,” he added.

Another customer, Mdm Joanne Lim, 58, is a family friend of the Chong family and has patronised the place ever since it was open.

“It’s like family here,” said the Hainanese, whose workplace is a 10-minute walk away along Tannery Road.

She adds that she would call owner Mr Chong beforehand to check on his daily special menu.

The bakery will be hosting a tour as part of the Singapore Heritage Festival 2019, where participants may try their hand in making the famed flaky biscuits.

The tour on Saturday, March 30 costs S$8 per person and tickets can be bought at https://shf2019chuanjitraditionalbakerytour.peatix.com

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