A Time-honoured Bakery Hustles To Bake Traditional Mooncakes, Mostly, By Hand

This story was first posted on T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore on 12 September 2020.

It’s early September and we find ourselves at Food Xchange, a seven-storey food manufacturing and production complex in the northern industrial tip of Singapore, where factories are aplenty. We make our way to the sixth storey, traipsing through sweltering rows of nondescript food suppliers and manufacturers, where we finally meet Ham Weng Seng, the third-generation owner of Tai Chong Kok, a bakery synonymous to its mooncakes and Cantonese pastries.

Even to Chinese Singaporean millennials, the name Tai Chong Kok, which translates to “Big China”, would ring a bell. The 85-year-old bakery, which was established by Ham’s late-grandfather in 1935, has withstood the test of time. Its well-known confectioneries includes the likes of traditional walnut cookies known as beh the soh (a flaky, hoove-shaped pastry with malt candy fillings). Although more prominently, Tai Chong Kok is best known for its traditional mooncakes — especially during the seasons leading up to Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
In the kitchen, two bakers follow Tai Chong Kok’s traditional recipe and are kneading the lotus seed paste.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Olive kernels are then added to the lotus seed paste.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Six bakers, standing around a long wooden table, begin to enrobe the four yolks into the lotus seed paste to make Tai Chong Kok’s signature “Si Huang” mooncakes.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Like clockwork, the doughy balls are passed to the baker at the end of the table (at the front, rightmost) to be pressed into a wooden mould.
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Four yolks are placed within a blob of lotus filling.

With roots that go as far back as the Zhou dynasty (1046 B.C.–256 B.C.), the Mid-Autumn Festival traditionally commemorates the end of the autumn harvest. Every year, most Chinese families would gather on the evening of the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, under the light of the year’s brightest full moon, over games of riddles, lantern carrying, or simply indulge in a pot of tea and sweet mooncakes, round pastries that are stuffed with fillings that run the gamut from red bean paste to lotus seeds. 

In the month right before the festival begins — often during the lunar seventh month or “The Hungry Ghost Month” — mooncakes become the quintessential seasonal gifts for families, colleagues and friends. Like the fruitcakes of the West, mooncakes have been anointed as gifts that some people love to hate. Yet there are also others who continue to relish in the gooey, sacchariferous treat on the palate. 

Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
This wooden mould, used for Tai Chong Kok’s signature “Si Huang” mooncake, has been with the bakery for more than 60 years.
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
A staff waits for the oven to heat up.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo

As we follow Ham on a tour through his baking facility, our olfactory senses are immediately overwhelmed: we are first greeted by the warm scent of fresh bakes and, from the corner of my eyes, I note trays of animal-shaped cookies removed from the oven and placed to cool down; then comes the distinctive whiff of caramelised sugar and dusted flour from the other end of the room. There, a group of bakers are preparing the lotus seed paste to be enrobed by the mooncake dough.

I tell Ham that mooncakes with lotus seed paste are, incidentally, my favourite, and we begin comparing notes. “While we have resorted to using a milling machine to mill the lotus seeds or using other machinery to remove its husk and shoots, we still cook our paste in a wok operated by our hands,” he says, referring to how doing so can ensure consistency in texture and taste. True enough, as I taste the brand’s lotus seed paste variant of mooncakes later in the evening, I am sold at its depth of flavour. 

Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
In the giant oven, the mooncakes are baked for 20 minutes.
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
A staff takes a tray of mooncakes out of the oven.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo

For the most part, Tai Chong Kok keeps true to its traditional roots. In the face of dwindling manpower, an older workforce, and younger generations who are unwilling to work amid the tight heat of the food and beverage industry, Ham has resorted to using machinery only in the packaging stage and the initial stages of production that involve the separation or filtering of ingredients. He rarely uses them to mould mooncakes. His team of experienced bakers, who have been with the brand for years, have always stuck to the traditional ways of moulding mooncakes and other confectioneries by hand. 

“No machine is perfect and they can never substitute the dexterity of the human hand,” he says. “We can tell the quality of the paste just by touching it. Plus, we need the tactile feedback when we roll the mooncakes by hand.” Ham notes that few bakeries can emulate Tai Chong Kok’s signature “Si Huang” (meaning “Four Yolks”) mooncake, which, as its name suggests, comprises four yolks and the brand’s signature lotus seed paste and olive kernel.

The filling is first prepared with four yolks placed at the centre of a luscious blob, made of lotus seed paste and olive kernel, before being enrobed once more in a thin layer of dough. This delicate process requires finesse to prevent unnecessary ruptures or uneven baking in the oven. 

Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
As the mooncakes rest and cool down, the carvings on their surface become clearer. On each of the mooncakes, the Chinese characters for “Tai Chong Kok” and “Si Huang” can be seen amid the intricate details.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
In boxes, the packed mooncakes are stacked atop one another. There are a myriad of traditional flavours, running the gamut from lotus seed paste to red bean paste.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo

Like Tai Chong Kok, other bakeries, hotels and restaurants typically scramble to produce mooncakes in the month prior to the Mid-Autumn Festival to meet the surge of demands. Under pre-pandemic circumstances, these retailers would flock to carnivals and fairs in the heartland malls to market and sell their confections. But with stricter regulations against the pandemic — including a ban on food samplings of any forms — these players, who rely on in-person interactions with consumers, have inevitably taken a hard hit.

Ham, however, reveals that Tai Chong Kok is largely unaffected by the prohibition on food sampling. In all his years retailing mooncakes, he says, Tai Chong Kok has never offered food samples to entice customers. In fact, he thinks giving out food samples is “unhygienic”. Even so, Ham admits that the lack of carnivals, fairs and roadshows during the pandemic have hampered the way the bakery operates. As someone who grew up in the late ’70s, witnessing rowdy customers jostling around and bantering aloud in the brick-and-mortar outlet in Chinatown, the dearth of interaction today with consumers is worrying to Ham.

Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Occupying one corner in the packaging area, packers plop the fish cookies into their wrappers on a metal table.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo
Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
Meanwhile, the freshly baked fish cookies are sorted into their packaging by hand. Each package comprises two fish cookies.
Photo Credits: Bianca Husodo

“For the very first time, we will be doing online sales,” he says. “We have refurbished our website and are accepting online orders now. Our mooncakes are also stocked off the webpages of the various mega departmental stores, including Takashimaya, Robinsons, Isetan and Tangs.”

At its core, mooncakes with their rounded frames symbolise unity. Be that as it may, mooncakes have also become emblems of corruption. In China, the holiday turns out to the perfect opportunity for those in state-owned enterprise and government bureau to curry favours with their superiors with lavishly packaged mooncakes that have been purchased with public fund. Oftentimes, additional bribes can be found stashed in between too. 

In Singapore, the allure of traditional mooncake is more palpable among Chinese elders. Younger people in general tend to veer toward modern variants with flavours that run the gamut from durian and chocolate to jackfruit and truffle. At Tai Chong Kok, 6,000 to 8,000 pieces of mooncakes are produced daily. But novelty flavours are ostensibly absent. The bakery has been a stickler for the traditional, only offering staple flavours like red bean paste, green bean paste, mixed nuts, and lotus paste. 

Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok

When asked if he intends to expand the bakery’s catalogue of flavours, Ham considers it for a moment before replying matter-of-factly, “We won’t. We’re one of the largest and definitely the oldest traditional mooncake manufacturers here. We don’t sell chocolate, ice-cream or durian mooncakes. We sell traditional mooncakes. That’s it.” 

At its core, mooncakes with their rounded frames symbolise unity. Be that as it may, mooncakes have also become emblems of corruption. In China, the holiday turns out to the perfect opportunity for those in state-owned enterprise and government bureau to curry favours with their superiors with lavishly packaged mooncakes that have been purchased with public fund. Oftentimes, additional bribes can be found stashed in between too. 

In Singapore, the allure of traditional mooncake is more palpable among Chinese elders. Younger people in general tend to veer toward modern variants with flavours that run the gamut from durian and chocolate to jackfruit and truffle. At Tai Chong Kok, 6,000 to 8,000 pieces of mooncakes are produced daily. But novelty flavours are ostensibly absent. The bakery has been a stickler for the traditional, only offering staple flavours like red bean paste, green bean paste, mixed nuts, and lotus paste. 

Mooncakes, Tai Chong Kok
In a modern outlet in Hougang Mall, rows of mooncakes are neatly stacked against a contemporary setting.

When asked if he intends to expand the bakery’s catalogue of flavours, Ham considers it for a moment before replying matter-of-factly, “We won’t. We’re one of the largest and definitely the oldest traditional mooncake manufacturers here. We don’t sell chocolate, ice-cream or durian mooncakes. We sell traditional mooncakes. That’s it.” 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: