In a fast changing world in which there often are just little reminders of the past to cling on to, it is always good to come across old world traditions that have not been displaced by the new. One area in which we are able to see this is in the making of mooncakes by some of the established mooncake bakeries, one of which is Chop Tai Chong Kok. I was able to visit the bakery very recently just as the making of mooncakes was being ramped-up as the Chinese eight month, in which the Mooncake or Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated, approaches.
Having been in the business for some 77 years, the shop has long been one of the popular brands in traditional Cantonese style mooncakes, attracting long queues for the sweet delectable treats it produces in the lead-up to the Mid-Autumn festival. It now produces the mooncakes it is well-known for, as well as other Cantonese style pastries and confectionery, in a shop lot in Ubi Avenue 1, having had to move its business in 34 Sago Street when Chinatown was being cleaned-up during the conservation efforts which have given us the sanitised version of Chinatown we see today. The shop has since opened a retail outlet back in the shophouse in which the business started – one that is now rented.
Although now made in newer premises, little has changed in the production of Chop Tai Chong Kok mooncakes since the days of the late Mr Tham Kah Chee who arrived from China in 1935 and started his business at Sago Street. The preparation of the dough as well as the lotus and bean paste fillings to the pressing of dough wrapped balls of paste into the round shaped mooncakes in wooden moulds that the late Mr Tham himself would have used is still very much done by hand. I was able to observe part of this process which involved five persons standing around a wooden topped table, very quickly transforming flat pieces of dough and pre-prepared balls of paste into unbaked paler versions of the famous mooncakes. The sounds of wooden moulds on the wooden table top took me back to the days of my youth when I would wander around the old streets of Chinatown to catch a glimpse of shop fronts brightly coloured by cellophane lanterns and for a chance to watch unbaked mooncakes being made on tables lined along the five-foot ways as the Mid-Autumn Festival approached.
The business is now in the hands of the second and third generations of the late Mr Tham’s family, with a grandson, Weng Seng, now involved in the running of business. Facing many challenges including he arrival of many new players in the market, the introduction of newer variations of the traditional pastry, changing tastes, the small local market, as well as in employing people willing to labour in the bakery, their mooncakes continue to remain popular with Singaporeans due to their commitment to tradition and quality. Being one of a few organic businesses that has reclaimed a place in a Chinatown where many other businesses have found it hard to return to, the desire of the new generation taking over to maintain the relevance of the business in the face of new challenges does spell hope that they will, for some time to come, continue to serve as a reminder of a world that would otherwise have long been forgotten.