A facelift for tradition

PHOTO: The New Paper

At a time when businesses are encouraged to make use of automation to increase efficiency, one of Singapore's oldest pastry shops, Tong Heng, is sticking to its roots.

Tong Heng, which opened in the late 1920s, started incorporating modern equipment - a mixer and an encrusting machine - to its kitchen only in the 80s and 90s. Its employees continue to roll and mould the pastries by hand.

Why is Tong Heng so adamant on keeping this cost- and labour-intensive tradition?

Miss Ana Fong, who is in charge of the flagship outlet in South Bridge Road, said: "We had put in a lot of time and money to try to automate the production line, but we realised the taste of the pastries was altered when we used a machine to make them.

"For instance, the crust of our egg tart tasted more like a biscuit and not as crumbly soft. It was not the kind of result we wanted."

Miss Fong, who is in her 40s, is a fourth-generation family member. Tong Heng was founded by her great-grandfather Fong Chee Heng, who started out as a pushcart hawker selling hot drinks and pastries.

Tong Heng has been based along South Bridge Road for the past 32 years. But despite honouring its traditions, the brand faces an uncertain future.

Miss Fong is one of the few who are interested in learning how to make the pastries and run the business from her two aunts, Madam Rebecca and Madam Constance Fong, who are both in their 60s.

"It is not easy to get workers, especially locals. Thus, many a time, we have to resort to employing foreigners," she said.

Tong Heng hopes revamp will steady uncertain future

  • At a time when businesses are encouraged to make use of automation to increase efficiency, one of Singapore's oldest pastry shops, Tong Heng, is sticking to its roots.
  • Tong Heng, which opened in the late 1920s, started incorporating modern equipment - a mixer and an encrusting machine - to its kitchen only in the 80s and 90s.
  • Its employees continue to roll and mould the pastries by hand.
  • Why is Tong Heng so adamant on keeping this cost- and labour-intensive tradition?
  • Miss Ana Fong, who is in charge of the flagship outlet in South Bridge Road, said: "We had put in a lot of time and money to try to automate the production line, but we realised the taste of the pastries was altered when we used a machine to make them.
  • "For instance, the crust of our egg tart tasted more like a biscuit and not as crumbly soft. It was not the kind of result we wanted."
  • Tong Heng has been based along South Bridge Road for the past 32 years. But despite honouring its traditions, the brand faces an uncertain future.
  • Miss Fong is one of the few who are interested in learning how to make the pastries and run the business from her two aunts, Madam Rebecca and Madam Constance Fong, who are both in their 60s.
  • "It is not easy to get workers, especially locals. Thus, many a time, we have to resort to employing foreigners," she said.
  • Miss Fong hopes to revamp the brand to attract the younger generation and tourists. (Pictured is a mock-up of Tong Heng at the Chinatown Heritage Centre.)

Miss Fong hopes to revamp the brand to attract the younger generation and tourists.

She said: "I have plans to give the brand a facelift, to make it look traditional yet contemporary. But one thing my aunts insisted on was keeping the authentic taste of the pastries.

"(Using) dairy products, which is commonly used by Westerners, will not be an option."

Tong Heng had seven branches islandwide 12 years ago. But due to difficulties, only the flagship store and one other outlet, which is in the basement of Jurong Point, remain.

Miss Fong said: "We have no plans of expanding in the next three to five years."

What is Tong Heng's best-selling product?

"It's our egg tart. We churn out up to 5,000 pieces a day," she said.

It is not just the pastries that are handmade.

The brand name and Chinese characters printed on the boxes used to contain the pastries were written by Madam Rebecca Fong. The characters mean "exquisite traditional Chinese pastries... egg tarts".

FAVOURITES

A regular customer, Madam Pauline Lee, 60, who is self-employed, said: "I have been visiting Tong Heng since I was a child, probably about 50 years ago.

"My favourites are the original and coconut egg tarts. I can eat four pieces by myself."

Mr George Chan, 33, a senior sourcing manager who works near the South Bridge Road outlet, said: "My kids are very picky eaters, but they love the pastries here."

Madam Hau Lai Eng, 46, a receiving officer, said she would love to see Tong Heng stay in business.

"After all, we don't see many traditional shops nowadays," she said.

Auditor Long Hian Peng, 26, agreed, saying: "I hope they will continue to preserve the vintage feel of the place."

Tong Heng gets its fair share of tourists buying its products, too.

Japanese flight attendant Taico Saito, 26, started visiting Tong Heng three months ago.

She said: "I was walking along the street when I saw this shop. Since then, I've been visiting it. I love the original egg tart.

"My father loves the mini moon cake with lotus paste. I always buy them back for him."

Public relations executive Vanishaa Doshi, 22, said: "I don't usually explore Chinese shops, but I fell in love with their egg tarts the moment I tasted them."

Founder's granddaughters worked hard on brand

It is not easy to find someone who is willing to toil in the kitchen for at least 12 hours a day.

But Madam Constance Fong, who is in her 60s, has been doing so for half her life, dedicated to her late grandfather's brand, Tong Heng.

Her father initially objected to having her and her sister Rebecca continue the business.

Madam Fong said in Mandarin: "My father felt that (the food and beverage industry) was too tough due to the long hours and the effort it takes to produce the pastries.

"But my sister and I thought it would be a waste not to take over. We didn't want to see the brand disappear just like that."

When asked how things have changed since she took over the business, Madam Fong said it is the spending habits of consumers.

"In the past, even when the economy was good, people were very thrifty. Nowadays, people are more willing to splurge.

"For instance, last time, we see a huge crowd during the Moon Cake Festival. But there will be fewer people after the season. It's different now. Even after the festive period, we still see many people coming over to buy our pastries."

Being two very determined and creative individuals, Madam Fong and her sister never stopped trying to improve the business.

"When we took over, we wanted to innovate, and decided to launch new products such as baked curry puff and barbecue pork crisp.

"Also, we always want to make our pastries better. So if it doesn't taste good, we will try until we get it right."

She described her experience in Tong Heng in a simple sentence: "It's like a big family to me."


This article was first published on October 17, 2016.
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