This article was first published on The New York Times Style Magazine (Singapore) on 7 May 2019.
If women were supposedly meant to take charge of the kitchen, why are there so few female faces in the culinary world?
Across the world, women have long been celebrities in the kitchen, whipping up scrumptious dishes — of soups, rotisserie numbers, pastries and desserts — and fuelling up hungry souls at home (and professional kitchens, too). Yet, in the foray of celebrated male chefs, who front the covers of food magazines or culinary journals, the sparse adulation of female chefs has become increasingly palpable.
Leafing through the pages of history, it is almost as if the culinary world is nothing but a boys’ club. The Time magazine’s “13 Gods of Food” controversy, which featured only four women and none of them were chefs, in 2013 is a testament to the dearth of media coverage on female chefs in the kitchen. While it is gratifying to bear witness to more female chefs voicing out over the years, cultural tastemakers, like food writers and food critics, are often known to diminish or sensationalise the achievements of those few who managed to break the mould.
Diving deep into Singapore’s vibrant hawker culture — where affordable, comfort food is a go-getter, and where heritage and gastronomical wonders coalesce — female figures are as much the trailblazers as their male counterparts. These are women who grew up amid the tight heat of a hawker stall, who gave up their comfortable white-collar jobs to carry on family legacies, and who move the needle to bring sumptuous food to the table.
Speaking to three locally-owned establishments whose kitchens are spearheaded by such female trailblazers, it would not take long for one to be admired by their unabashed furore for preserving their predecessors’ craft.
The making of traditional Cantonese and Chinese pastry is a serious business. From baby showers to marriage rituals, festive treats to birthday celebrations, ceremonious Cantonese and Chinese pastries are ubiquitous and pervasive in many Southeast-Asian countries. Singapore, too, has a fair share of bakeries which proffer these traditional pastries.
Yet, in an era so focused on relying on machinery for mass production, many have veered away from the revered tradition of hand-making these traditional pastries (or any pastries for that matter). Those who are adamant about sticking to its roots are far and few between. Long-standing pastry shop Tong Heng, whose egg tarts remain as perennial favourites today, is one of those who relied on few types of machinery.
With roots that go as far back as the early 1920s, Tong Heng was once a pushcart hawker selling beverage and pastries. It wasn’t until 1935, when the founder, Mr. Fong Chee Heng, founded a brick-and-mortar outlet along Smith Street in the Chinatown district. Today, the outlet is manned by the third and fourth-generation owners.
“My great-grandfather was the one who started Tong Heng. The wives and daughters (and sons) often worked in the kitchen. We were a big family and we didn’t need to engage everyone,” says Ana Fong, the fourth-generation family member who operates the present-day flagship store on South Bridge Road. “When the third-generation — my aunties — wanted to take over, my grandfather, who had taken over, was against it. It was tough work and my grandfather wanted my aunties to get married.”
People back in the days, Fong says, knew their food well. “They were very thrifty and they would not pay for things that are not tasty,” she says as she nimbly kneads the dough onto the rhombus mould, cautiously thumbing down on uneven surfaces and spreading excess dough towards the edges on the kitchen’s metallic table. “This table is where we eat every day. During Chinese New Year, we would pull a huge cling wrap over and toss our yusheng [a festive salad comprising raw salmon, sliced vegetables and different sauces] here. This table is where we work, celebrate birthdays and eat together,” says Fong.
For the third-generation owners of the time-honoured brand, sisters Madam Rebecca and Madam Constance Fong are innovators at heart. Displaying the steely virtues of the fairer sex, the sister-duo transformed the former cha shi (or traditional Chinese café) into a full-fledged pastry shop while expanding the brand’s menu over the years. “People know about us,” Madam Constance Fong declares in Cantonese. “They know that we have been helping out for the longest time, and they know what we can do with our egg tarts. We even have people singing praises to us that we do it better than our dad.”
For decades, Tong Hong continues to become a brand synonymous with retaining traditions and heritage. And perhaps it is in this spirit of continuing the family’s legacy that spurred the niece of Madam Rebecca and Madam Constance Fong to learn the nuts and bolts of the trade.
“I decided to return despite having turned them down once. I have seen that they have aged and that no one is keen to learn the craft. And I guess, that was what my bosses wanted. They wanted someone to know the craft like the back of her hand,” says Fong. “But words are cheap, actions need to prove it. So, for the first three years, I committed at least 10 hours daily. I started from scratch and placed a lot of effort.”
Like her female predecessors, Fong is both inquisitive and ambitious. Noticing how Tong Heng’s customers belonged to the older generation, she proposed a facelift, aimed at targeting the younger generations with modern-day designs, for the brand. When her predecessors eventually came to an agreement, the bakery underwent a five-week long renovation, the first in three decades.
Now equipped with a white terrazzo island counter, which displays a selection of pastries on polished marble, several cushioned seats and table, and sparsely adorned with brass elements and motifs from the brands’ signature pastries, stepping into the brightly-lit bakery is akin to stepping into a hipster café. There is a sense of duality in this space, one steeped in tradition and imbued with modernity. “I did not anticipate I would get the green light to do the rebranding. I regard this facelift as an achievement,” says Fong.
If there is anything that can be learnt from observing Fong’s interactions over the island counter, it is that locals return not only because Tong Heng’s confections are delicious, but it is because Fong, her aunties, and their workers are constantly reminding customers of their roots, and perhaps a memory of their mom feeding them egg tarts.
Photography by Tung Pham