Mid-Autumn Festival is always a busy time for Tai Thong Cake Shop in Chinatown. The 73-year-old Cantonese bakery is well-loved for being one of the few remaining shops in Singapore that still makes traditional mooncakes by hand.
But this year, the bustling, convivial mood at the shophouse had a slightly different feel. The longtime staff knew it was the last time they would be kneading lotus paste at their longtime location, as they were closing soon after the festival.
Tai Thong (not to be confused with a same-named Malaysian mooncake brand or the local confectionery chain Tai Chong Kok) was founded in 1950, and has been operating at Mosque Street since 1958. Other than its Chinatown shop, it has no other outlets.
SHOCK CLOSURE ANNOUNCEMENT
On Oct 11, Tai Thong shocked its regulars when it announced on social media that it was ceasing operations at its current premises “until further notice” and taking “an extended break to recharge”.
The announcement also indicated that it’s not goodbye, as it promised: “Look out for exciting news in time to come via our website and Facebook pages. We look forward to seeing you again soon with renewed vigour.”
Tai Thong is now run by second-gen owner Kwok Sow Lan, 77, whose father migrated from Hong Kong and started a cake shop here. He then passed his business to Kwok and her brother who passed away in 2014.
It was named “Tai Thong” (which means ‘majority agreement’ in Cantonese) as many people agreed that it served superb pastries. Other than mooncakes, the bakery also sold Chinese New Year goodies and egg tarts, all handmade from scratch in-house as it yielded more delicate and tasty pastries compared to machine-made ones.
As for why the bakery only announced its closure after shutting its doors, Kwok’s niece, Dr Sylvie Kwok, 34, told 8days.sg: “It was an intentional decision, even though my aunt had decided on her retirement a few months ago. We did not want a mad rush that could overwhelm the shop and affect the staff’s state of mind, as it was already a very stressful period for them.”
KEEPING MOONCAKE BOXES TRADITIONAL
Instead of elaborate jewellery boxes, Tai Thong Cake Shop packages its mooncakes in a simple paper box decorated with an image of moon goddess Chang Er. The vintage design, which was created by Dr Kwok’s father and uncle, was a familiar sight at the shop for decades.
She pointed out: “We didn’t and couldn’t jump on the bandwagon of creating fancy packaging, because we didn’t have the resources. I once asked my late uncle why we didn’t make nicer boxes, and he was insistent that we must not pass on packaging costs to our customers. He and my aunt would rather (re-invest) the revenue into procuring ingredients that were up to their standards.”
TAI THONG CAKE SHOP’S FATE
As there are no firm plans to reopen Tai Thong Cake Shop at the moment, Dr Kwok shared that her family is considering all options to keep their business going.
“With my aunt’s artisanal trade and the many decades that she and her small staff have spent honing their skills, we are envisioning that they will continue to play a role in training and mentoring new blood,” she said. “I think that many of them would also like to take a break because this is an incredibly manual, back-breaking trade.”
The family is also open to letting a non-family owner take over.
She highlighted: “In the immediate future, it would be ideal if a suitable F&B operator expresses interest (in buying the brand and its recipes). But of course, we don’t want to jump at just any offer as it’s important to us to protect our grandfather’s legacy and the 73-year-old branding that my family has worked so hard to build.”