Preserving Tai Chong Kok's 80-year-old mooncake legacy

He may be retired, but traditional Chinese pastry shop Tai Chong Kok's 79-year-old patriarch Tham Wing Thong can still be seen pottering about the bakery which his father started more than 80 years ago.

Said Mr Tham: "I started (helping out in the business) in 1940, during the second world war.

"I was in Primary 4, helping my father cook the filling and make the mooncakes after school. We did everything by hand."

Mr Tham Wing Thong (left) and the freshly-made mooncakes before they are popped in the oven. Photo: AsiaOne

For someone who has held on to making the pastry the traditional way for years, it is a wonder that automation has crept into the manufacturing process of Tai Chong Kok's mooncakes. 

The company relocated its Ubi kitchen to a flatted factory in Jurong three years ago, where there are machines now to remove the husk and shoots of lotus seeds - a critical ingredient for the lotus seed paste. A milling machine mills the seeds while an industrial mixer combines the dough for the crust. The paste is still cooked in woks by hand. 

The use of machines was something which his son, third-generation owner Mr Ham Weng Seng, 55, implemented, due to "tight labour".

He explained: "My bakers are getting old, all my nieces and nephews are graduates, no one wants to be a baker, everyone wants to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer."

Mr Ham adds that machinisation "makes it easier to manage production, with more consistency and quality control". Stamping machines instead of wooden moulds are also used when a high volume of production is required, said Mr Ham. 

Modernisation is a tide that Mr Tham knows is hard to stem, especially when he is no longer in charge. Mr Tham handed over the reins to his son in 2012.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Tham told AsiaOne: "I'm retired, I must let go. I don't worry or meddle, it's not good. I leave it to them."

But that may be easier said than done.

On the day AsiaOne visited the Jurong kitchen, a team of seven were moulding the mooncakes by hand under the watchful eye of Mr Tham, who was showing a new worker the ropes.

Photo: AsiaOne

When asked how often he makes his visits, Mr Tham said with a laugh: "I come when I'm happy, and go as I please," adding that he gets bored "facing the four walls" at home.

Although the bakery can no longer claim to make their mooncakes completely by hand, introducing machines into the mix does not seem to have affected the taste - evidenced by how quickly a box of mooncakes vanished when it was brought back to the office.

More than just a confection

You won't find new-fangled flavours like jackfruit, truffle or green tea at Tai Chong Kok. 

The mooncakes still come with traditional fillings such as lotus seed and red bean paste, with or without yolks, and mixed nuts. And if you had the impression, as I did, that snow skin mooncakes are a relatively new invention, Mr Tham will be quick to correct you that they are not, and Tai Chong Kok has always sold them.

Tai Chong Kok's snowskin mooncakes. Photo: AsiaOne

"I like the mooncakes that we make, because I'm used to it. There are so many types now, I've tried them - not that I'm saying they're not tasty, but I'm just used to the taste of our mooncakes.

"Honestly, the older folks won't like the new flavours like jackfruit and ice cream mooncakes, but the younger ones may be curious to try them.

"If my son chooses to follow the trends in the future, it'll be up to him, I won't be around anymore." 

His advanced age is something that creeps up as well when talking about the future of the bakery.

"Young people have their new ideas. The way we did business last time was just to put our nose to the grind every day, but now the younger ones like to take risks.

"If it succeeds that's good, but if it fails, maybe it's their fate. I don't want to think too much."

Mr Tham acknowledges he has no control over whether any of his six grandchildren will be keen to take up the business, saying with a hint of resignation, "I won't live to see the day, either."

Photo: AsiaOne

While Tai Chong Kok is all about preserving tradition - from its flavours to the iconic boxes and paper bags they come in, Mr Tham says their customers have changed.

Mr Tham noted how before when he was managing the shop in Chinatown, he would allow the old or pregnant women who were in the queue to get their orders first.

"Nobody would complain then. Now, we can't do that, customers will say, 'I don't care, get in the queue.'"

And after so many years, mooncakes still has a special place in Mr Tham's heart.

To him, it is more than a confection, but a representation of tradition that he feels is gradually losing its place in society.

"A lot of traditional things have disappeared," Mr Tham lamented. "Food like char kway teow used to be so good, now we can't get that taste back."

Secret recipe: Skill and quality ingredients

So what's the secret to the enduring taste of Tai Chong Kok's mooncakes?

"There's no secret recipe," Mr Tham said, "the most important thing is the skill in how you make it and the use of quality, genuine ingredients."

Photo: TNP

Mr Tham says they use peanut oil - which is slightly more expensive than vegetable oil, to make the lotus seed paste.

When interviewed, his son also stressed that they are one of the few bakeries in Singapore to still make the paste from scratch, while many others source them from suppliers in Malaysia or China.

And what is Mr Tham's tip to enjoy a mooncake during mid-autumn festival?

As one would expect, the septuagenarian says that to really enjoy the flavour of the mooncake, a traditional pot of tea would still be the best.

candicec@sph.com.sg