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Homegrown bakeries feel the heat

2021/8/14 11:41:51

Could the mushrooming of Western-style cafes and multinational chain coffee shops push traditional Chinese bakeries out of business? Joyce Yip finds out.

A scene from the bakery at Kee Wah's flagship establishment in Wan Chai. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)

It is 11 am on a Sunday and 35-year-old Naomi Suen has sent out the pastries to be sold at weekend markets in Kowloon Bay and Nam Tin. Bits of conversation — in English, Mandarin and Cantonese — are heard, as customers flit in and out of her Sai Wan shop. Most leave with some of the shop's specialty items — glutinous dumpling, century-egg pastry — in their shopping bags. Customers with birthdays in the current month are rewarded with a large cookie on which a congratulatory message is inscribed.

Suen is the owner of Wah Yee Tang Cake Shop, founded by her late father a year before her birth. She remembers a time when business was bustling and customers picked up bread for breakfast the previous night, assuming the supply might run out by the next morning. That was before Sai Wan's gentrification and the mushrooming of Western-style cafes and all-day breakfasts.

"Traditional Hong Kong bakeries are going obsolete. Couples go on dates in Instagrammable cafes; and plenty breakfast options mean people need not buy bread from us anymore," Suen says.

A file photo of Kee Wah’s confectionary store in Yau Ma Tei. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The mood is more upbeat at Hang Heung, a traditional bakery chain that celebrated its centenary up on Ngong Ping 360 during Easter this year. Aside from dishing out the seasonal goodies, like moon cakes and glutinous dumplings, the brand is well-known for its wife cakes and pastries packed with egg yolk, barbecue pork, century eggs or custard. All items are served fresh, produced on a daily basis in the company's Yuen Long factory.

"Hang Heung's ethos has always been: innovation with tradition. Some of our chefs have been with us for generations, so I can honestly say that our recipes and craftsmanship are truly legacies," says Desmond Wong, the enterprise's CEO since 2017.

His team is constantly coming up with new flavor combinations. "Our world is evolving, and we can't just keep making wife cakes forever," Wong says.

Making thoughts count

Homegrown traditional Chinese cafes in Hong Kong have been feeling the pressure for a while. Their customer base is growing older. The younger generations prefer Western-style cafes. The challenge before them is to adapt to the demands of the time, putting a spin on heritage, if need be.

Suen tried an unorthodox way of boosting sales — by stamping profane words and colloquial expressions on moon cakes.

It worked in the sense that the products were trending on the internet. Although some of the messages were rather staid — like "stay strong" or "let's have lunch sometime" — the move was seen as gimmicky by some.

"Look, a regular pastry is out of date, but add some cool words to it and it's completely new," Suen says.

She is aware that the aesthetic shift cost her some of the bakery's older customers. Then it was not as bad as messing with the timeless flavors of moon cakes, like some of her competitors were doing.

"Everyone else is playing with the filling, while I only wanted my customers to know about the history of moon cakes — that they once had red bean and lotus paste filling, rather than ice cream and custard," Suen says.

At Hang Heung, however, popular taste rules. Molten custard has replaced the traditional red bean, mung bean, egg yolk and century-egg filling inside the brand's signature pastries (su bing). Wife cakes are brimming with pineapple paste, aside from the usual winter melon. Egg rolls are laced with flavors of matcha, coffee, chocolate, pandan, and soon will include that of the Hong Kong milk tea. Low-sugar and gluten-free options are also on the horizon.

"I don't see a competition between Chinese and Western pastries as Chinese baked goods always have a place in society," says Wong, citing the example of Chinese wedding cakes — jovially colored pastries, gifted to the seniors in the family during the betrothal ceremony. "Nobody is going to use Western cakes for that."

He is all for moving in sync with the times though.

"We can continue making traditional pastries and also offer a variety made with less sugar. These things can co-exist. While we welcome new flavors, I won't let trends alter tradition," he adds.

Expanding bandwidth of customers

Trailblazing a completely new target segment is 85-year-old Kee Wah. In 2004, managing director Kevin Wong was playing golf with good friend and brand ambassador Eric Tsang when the idea of making Hong Kong-themed souvenirs dawned on them. Cut to panda-shaped cookies, packed in tin containers, designed after Hong Kong's double-decker buses, as well as gift boxes created by the local graphic artist, Ah Chung.

"My father did a market survey to find out what people associated Kee Wah with. Most replied it was moon cakes and Chinese wedding pastries," says Max Wong, Kevin's son and Kee Wah's executive director and general manager. "This is a double-edged sword: we are very specialized but it is also hard to break this mold. I believe we have a responsibility to push our culinary traditions while expanding the bandwidth of our customers."


So what started as a confectionary shop in Yau Ma Tei in 1938 now stocks fashionable products like peanut-and-coconut stuffed pork-floss egg rolls (Phoenix Egg Rolls) as well as 50 flavors of molten custard moon cakes, although it is the traditional double-yolk moon cake that remains the most popular. Max Wong admits he had his share of failed experiments, such as the strawberry-and-blueberry-flavored Taiwanese shortcake (fung-li su), traditionally filled with pineapple.

"Our constant challenge is to make the brand young, whether it's 85 years ago or now," he says, recalling an uncle's frustrations while trying to replace calligraphy brushes with ink pens and abacuses with calculators in the early days of the family business. His father introduced unconventional black packaging for moon cakes, and his grandfather — who founded the company — was convinced that it was a change for the better only after the sales figures shot up.

Since Max joined in 1997, Kee Wah has closed down 10 of its bakery-cum-shops due to escalating rents. They now run around 100 stores worldwide, including an impressive three-storied flagship establishment in a historical building in Wan Chai. On the street level is a shop with a mini bakery for signature items like egg tarts and glutinous dumplings. Above it are a cafe reminiscent of the Hong Kong bing-sutt and cooking studio where one could pick up the art of making traditional char-siu pastries and fruit-shaped steamed buns.


Tradition exists side by side with adapting to the demands of the time. While Kee Wah's Ocean Park outlet is designed after its Shanghai flagship store from back in the 1940s, the company now issues e-vouchers and QR codes instead of redemption coupons.

"Our mission is to make history appealing to the younger generation. This means that change is a never-ending process," says Max Wong.

Wong from Hang Heung agrees, hoping that the brand's revamped website will attract more international customers. His strategy seems to be working. Hang Heung's first shop in Singapore opened last year, in the middle of a pandemic.

Suen, who operates on a much smaller scale and commands far less star power, says her Wah Yee Tang Cake Shop will carry on the legacy of Hong Kong pastries for as long as she can.

"Luckily, business has been ok so far. Would it bring me riches? Definitely not. But we are doing okay." 

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