For more than 10 years, Mr Ryk Chew would get to his parents' dumpling stall at 3am to marinate the pork filling and fry the glutinous rice, before heading home at 7am to prepare for his full-time job as an engineer in a telecommunications company.
He was torn between pursuing his career and managing Hoo Kee Bak Chang in Amoy Street Food Centre, the 67-year old business which his late grandfather started.
Back then, his late grandfather hawked dumplings in Amoy Street and relocated to Amoy Street Food Centre in the mid-1980s.
Mr Chew, 39, mulled over the dilemma for three years, before giving up his job, which paid about $3,000 monthly.
"My parents are getting older and when they retire, it will be a waste if the family's tradition does not get preserved," he says. "I want my children and future generations of my family to know about the legacy left behind by their predecessors."
Hoo Kee Bak Chang is one of the handful of shops that sell traditional rice dumplings; glutinous rice pyramids usually filled with pork, chestnuts and mushrooms.
Despite facing competition from the exotic dumplings filled with everything from black garlic to truffles put out by hotels and restaurants, these time-honoured shops are continuing their families' tradition with rice dumplings that have stood the test of time.
Rice dumplings, or zong zi, are eaten to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival or Duan Wu Jie. The festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, which is June 20 this year.
It commemorates the death of a famous Chinese poet called Qu Yuan, who is said to have drowned himself in a river to protest government corruption. Villagers threw rice dumplings into the river as food to prevent fish from eating his body.
Businesses that SundayLife! spoke to say that demand for traditional rice dumplings is still strong, with sales increasing up to five-fold in the lead-up to the Dragon Boat Festival. Most of the customers are middle-aged.
Mr Lim Cheng Hwee, 50, managing director of the Eastern Rice Dumpling chain, says: "These people have registered the taste and look of traditional dumplings that they grew up with, and may not accept new forms."
He adds that while the company has diversified its flavours, coming up with versions such as black pepper chicken and brown jasmine rice to cater to the health-conscious crowd in the past three years, these newer varieties only make up 5 per cent of its daily production of up to 4,000 dumplings. His brother-in-law, Mr Low Hong Peng, 61, who co-owns the Daun Pandan Rice Dumpling chain, which sells up to 3,000 dumplings daily, says the Dragon Boat Festival is primarily celebrated by the older generation.
He says: "Most youngsters are not aware of this festival as it is not an official public holiday."
Mr Richard Lim, 58, a second-generation owner of Hiong Kee Dumplings in Hong Lim Food Centre, thinks that the newfangled rice dumpling flavours are a gimmick to attract diners.
"Pork, chestnuts and mushrooms make the best flavour combination and it has lasted for hundreds of years. There is no point in changing something that has been proven to work." The former hotel cook took over his mother's street stall in Hokkien Street in 1982, and says that some people "buy those seasonal fanciful dumplings from hotels" to impress friends and business clients.
Madam Yeoh Min Lin, 76, of Hainan Cuisine & Snacks in Toa Payoh Lorong 7, wants to preserve and showcase the rare dialect cuisine by selling up to 400 Hainanese-style rice dumplings made only in the three weeks leading up to the Dragon Boat Festival.
She says: "Hainanese delicacies are usually kept within families. By selling them, people who used to grew up with Hainanese friends and neighbours can relive their memories of this festive food."
While traditional dumplings are receiving healthy sales, some business owners point out that a lack of manpower prevents them from boosting production and introducing more flavours.
Some businesses use industrial-size machines to marinate and fry the fillings in bulk, but the nifty skill of wrapping the parcels with bamboo or pandan leaves can only be done by hand.
Hiong Kee's Mr Lim says that the number of dumplings produced is dependent on his staff strength.
He says: "My main worry is the continuity of the business, as my workers are getting old with no one to pass their skills to." He adds that young people are turned off by the hard work. He starts frying the ingredients at 6am daily and takes up to seven hours to make a batch of dumplings.
At Kim Choo Kueh Chang in Joo Chiat Place, Mr Edmond Wong, 32, a third-generation assistant director, says a lean team of 12, including his family members, churns out up to 4,000 dumplings a day during the festive period. He says that it is difficult to get extra help.
"It can be labour-intensive so we incentivise workers with good pay," he says. "A seasoned dumpling wrapper can earn up to $5,000 a month during the festive period." The 70-year-old shop has also been reaching out to a wider range of customers through conducting talks and workshops on Peranakan culture over the past five years, mainly in primary schools. He says: "These talks indirectly contribute to sales of our rice dumplings, as curious school children visit our shop with their families."
Singapore permanent residents from China, who live and work here, have become customers too.
Daun Pandan's Mr Low says they make up half of his customers on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival.
"They celebrate Dragon Boat Festival more elaborately back in their home country, and want to continue the tradition here," he says.
Businesswoman Alice Cheah, 50, who has been buying dumplings from Hoo Kee Bak Chang for the past 18 years, likes that the meat is not too fatty, and the smaller dumplings are not too filling.
She says: "I have tried new versions of dumplings, like those with fruit fillings, but I still prefer the traditional ones as they are what they should be."
Retired fund manager Tan Swee Leong, 64, who visits Hiong Kee Dumplings three times a week, says: "The fillings are generous and flavourful. Though they can be pricey, they are worth it as these hawkers have taken a lifetime to perfect their craft."
It is this skill of making rice dumplings that Hoo Kee's Mr Chew hopes to pass on to his 21/2-year-old son in the future.
He says: "If I can grow this business further, I would want him to continue it, or else that will be the end of a family tradition."
WHERE TO FIND TRADITIONAL RICE DUMPLINGS
Hiong Kee Dumplings
When he was 24, Mr Richard Lim, now 58, had to "learn the A to Z of making and wrapping rice dumplings" at his mother's street-side rice dumpling stall in Hokkien Street in 1982.
Over the years, he has mastered the craft and even tweaked his mother's recipe. For instance, he uses raw pork instead of boiled meat in the dumplings before cooking them, so the dumplings are juicy and flavourful.
He offers eight types of dumplings, including bak chang with salted egg ($3.30) and chicken chang ($2.70). Prices will increase from 50 cents to $1.50 from June 2 to 19.
Where: 02-37 Block 531A Upper Hokkien Street Hong Lim Food Centre
Open: 10am to 7.30pm daily except Sunday
Info: Call 6535-2783
EASTERN RICE DUMPLINGS
Started by former engineer Lim Cheng Hwee, this 16-year-old chain offers 13 varieties of rice dumplings, ranging from the classic Nyonya rice dumpling ($2.60) to black pepper chicken dumpling ($3). Mr Lim learnt to make dumplings from his father, who sold them from their home in Everitt Road.
These days, the dumplings are made in its 1,700 sq ft central kitchen in Aljunied Industrial Park and its main outlet in Balestier. Prices will increase by up to $1 from June 7 to 22.
Where: 10 outlets including B1-K1 Seletar Mall and B1-K16 Clementi Mall
Open: Various opening hours
Info: Go to dongyuan.com.sg (Dumplings can be ordered online)
DAUN PANDAN RICE DUMPLING
This 25-year-old chain was started by Madam Lim Chwee Khim, 61, the oldest sister of Eastern Rice Dumpling's owner, Mr Lim Cheng Hwee.
It started by selling Nyonya chang ($2.60), which is wrapped in pandan leaves, and features ingredients such as a mixture of lean and fatty pork and candied wintermelon; and bak chang ($2.60). It has extended its offerings to 12 types of dumplings, including Cantonese and Teochew-style ones and kee chang (starts at 90 cents).
The dumplings are made at its main branch in Guillemard Road and production goes on round-the-clock one week before the Dragon Boat Festival. Prices will increase by 20 cents to $1.30 from June 5 or 6 until a week after the festival.
Where: 10 outlets including B1-K3 Junction 8 and 01-K04 IMM Mall
Open: 10am to 10pm daily
Info: Call 6841-3412
HAINAN CUISINE & SNACKS
Owner Yeoh Min Lin, 76, started making Hainanese-style rice dumplings as prayer offerings for her ancestors. Word got around and the former street hawker started selling limited quantities of Hainanese-style bak zhang ($3.50 to $3.80) and kee zhang ($1.20).
According to her, Hainanese-style dumplings contain larger chunks of pork belly with the fatty layer intact. The meat filling is marinated with five-spice powder from her birthplace, Penang.
The 37-year-old shop will be selling Hainanese Larp, a rarely seen rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves at the Singapore Food Festival in July.
Where: 01-35 Block 22 Toa Payoh Lorong 7
Open: 6am to 1pm daily except Monday Info: Call 9338-1903 or go to www.facebook.com/hainan.xiaochi
HOO KEE BAK CHANG
This popular shop specialises in Hokkien-style bak chang, with just three flavours - original (above), with salted eggs and with mushrooms (prices start at $2.80). While the parcels may be smaller than most versions, co-owner Ryk Chew, 39, says that the dumplings contain the right balance of rice and filling.
He uses Thai glutinous rice and pork thigh meat which is marinated with dark and light soy sauces, five-spice powder and salt, and roasted chestnuts. His father, Mr Chew Chin Peng, 70, still wraps the dumplings daily at the Bukit Merah outlet and is able to wrap 10 dumplings in five minutes.
Prices will increase by $1 from June 9 to 20.
Where: 01-18 Amoy Street Food Centre; 01-3735 Block 161 Bukit Merah Central
Open: 9.30am to 4pm (Amoy Street); 8.30am to 5pm (Bukit Merah), while stocks last, daily except SundayInfo: Call 6221-1155 (Amoy Street), 6222-7866 (Bukit Merah Central) or go to hookeebakchang.sg
KIM CHOO KUEH CHANG
Not to be confused with the Joo Chiat Kim Choo Traditional Rice Dumpling franchise in hawker centres and supermarkets, Kim Choo Kueh Chang was started by Madam Lee Kim Choo, 84, who learnt how to make Nonya-style dumplings from her grandmother. Making dumplings from a street stall helped support her family.
Today, the business is run by her three grandsons, Raymond, 36, Desmond, 35, and Edmond, 32. Popular flavours include the XO Chang ($7), which has dried oysters, mussels, scallops and shrimps, shiitake mushrooms, pork and salted egg; and Hokkien-style Salty Chang with salted egg ($4.50). Prices will increase by up to $2 till June 25.
Where: 60 Joo Chiat Place and 109/111 East Coast Road
Open: 10am to 10pm daily
Info: Call 6741-2125 (East Coast Road), 6344-0830 (Joo Chiat Place) or go to www.kimchoo.com
To celebrate the 50th year of Singapore's independence, some hotels have come up with rice dumplings based on popular local dishes.
CHILLI CRAB, BAK KUT TEH AND CHICKEN RICE DUMPLINGS
Savour three local dishes in rice dumpling form. The chilli crab dumpling ($8.80) is filled with shredded crab meat and crab claw meat, and comes with a piquant chilli crab sauce laced with egg white and crab meat.
Slow-cooked pork rib perfumed with more than 10 herbs, including wolfberries and star anise, makes up the filling for the bak kut teh dumpling ($12.80) and it comes with a bowl of herbal pork broth.
The chicken rice dumpling ($8.80) has steamed chicken nestled within the glutinous rice, which is fried with pandan leaves and lemongrass.
Where: Park Palace, Grand Park City Hall, 10 Coleman Street
When: Till June 20
Info: Call 6432-5543 or e-mail email@example.com
SG50 PANDAN CHICKEN RICE DUMPLING
To commemorate SG50, Shang Palace's chef Steven Ng turned to Hainanese chicken rice for inspiration.
This dumpling ($17.10) is packed with chicken drumstick meat, Chinese mushrooms and green beans, and is wrapped in a fragrant opeh leaf.
Where: Shang Palace, Shangri-La Singapore Hotel, 22 Orange Grove Road
When: From tomorrow to June 20
Info: Call 6213-4473 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
SPICY SAMBAL CHILLI MARINATED CHICKEN WITH TURMERIC RICE DUMPLING
This dumpling ($9.80) is inspired by Peranakan cuisine and stands out for the bright yellow hue from turmeric powder. The dumpling is stuffed with chicken marinated with fiery sambal chilli.
Where: Jade Restaurant; The Fullerton Cake Boutique, The Fullerton Hotel, 1 Fullerton Square
When: From tomorrow to June 20
Info: Call 6877-8188, 6877-8178 or e-mail email@example.com
This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.