Old School Bakeries in Singapore

Rediscovering the charm and heritage in traditional confectioneries from butter cream cakes to apple pies

By Huiqun Xie | 23 October, 2017 | Features, Food
2017-10-23 11:10:35 2018-05-18 06:49:47
Uncle Jee with Claire Ariela Shen at Sembawang Confectionery
Uncle Jee with Claire Ariela Shen at Sembawang Confectionery

When Wong Toon Aik started his career in baking in the 60s, old school classic butter cakes were all the rage. Plain, golden brown, unadorned, but rich, buttery and satisfying, he recalls fondly–none of these rainbow-coloured crazies, galaxy confections and fondant laden bakes. The 78-year-old senior baker of Sembawang Confectionery, also fondly known as Uncle Jee, was only 18 when he first became an apprentice. “The confectionery was called Wills and it was located near Tanjong Katong Girl’s School,” he says, “The old shifus (masters) in those days, they do not teach you. You really have to observe and pick up things by yourself.”

“During my time at Wills, we used to supply our famous chicken pies to the cinemas. The filling was substantial, with chunks of chicken, onions, carrots, but it takes too much work, so I do not make them anymore,” he shares. The family that owned Wills opened Sembawang Confectionery at Sembawang Hills Estate Jalan Leban, which eventually moved to its current location at Beach Road in 1978.

In 2015, the owners were looking to sell the business and, by chance, Claire Ariela Shen, second-generation owner of Cooking Art Industries, an established local dessert supplier to many top hotels in Singapore, came to know about it. She respected the owners very much and could not bear to let the shop close. Eventually, she took over Sembawang Confectionery and retained all the old staff. Moving forward, Shen will be looking to bring back more old school treats (cream horns and swan cream puffs, anyone?), run workshops on local traditional treats at the bakery and create more awareness on preserving heritage businesses.

Strawberry, lemon and kiwi 'traffic light' buttercream cakes by Uncle Jee - a taste of the good old days
Sembawang Confectionery: Strawberry, lemon and kiwi ‘traffic light’ buttercream cakes by Uncle Jee

These days, Uncle Jee still starts work at the ungodly hour of 4am, to prepare the buttercream and fillings. “I don’t like to buy pre-made supplies from factories as the taste is completely different. My old customers can tell the difference,”says Uncle Jee. He sticks to the traditional flavours here. Retro fruit cakes, rustic banana cakes, coconut tarts, breads, and the ever-popular “traffic light” buttercream cakes topped with brightly-hued jelly, are the order of day.

“It had green, yellow and red stripes, so the customers at Sembawang Confectiomery started calling it the ‘traffic light cakes’, and the name stuck,” he reveals, when asked how the “traffic light” name came about. “It is a traditional buttercream cake and the recipe has not changed. The brightly-coloured round cakes that you see, those are the ones I added to our offerings, but the taste is still old school –some things you just cannot change, especially when the customers are used to it.”

Sembawang Confectionery, Blk 6 Beach Road #01-4869, Singapore 190006. Tel: +65 6295 3965

The Pine Garden's Gula Melaka Attap Chee Cake
The Pine Garden’s Gula Melaka Attap Chee Cake

Taking over the reigns

When it comes to taking care of regular customers, Wei Chan, Managing Director of The Pine Garden, a heartland-boutique bakery in located Ang Mo Kio with more than 33 years of history, echoes similar sentiments.

“We pride ourselves on our range cakes featuring local flavours. We were known for our old school black forest cake and pandan cake since my mother opened the confectionery back in 1984, and these are still some of our best sellers today,” Chan says.

In 2003, the family, faced with a challenging economic environment, was on the verge of shuttering the business. Chan could not bear to see the fruits of family’s labour go to naught, and the former regional marketing manager of a U.S.-based multi national company traded in his jet-setting lifestyle for the bakery and took over the family business.

Chan shared that throughout the years, they have seen many challenges. The business has somewhat evolved, but celebrating local flavours is very much at the core of what The Pine Garden is about, and they want to be able to continue churning out quality cakes while keeping prices affordable for their regulars and younger customers. By doing so, Chan hopes to appeal to the next generation of customers and pique their interest in the nostaglic treats that their parents or grandparents have enjoyed in their younger days.

Assortment of cakes from Pine Garden
Assortment of cakes from Pine Garden

“Rising ingredient cost is one challenge that we face, but we have continued to use top notch butter for the buttercream that we produce at the shop – it is the same Australian butter that we have been using for years. When butter prices went up some 30-50% earlier this year, we did try to explore options in a bid to control operational cost. We did a round of buttercream tasting using different butters, but we decided not to change a thing as other butters did not give us the same depth, taste, colour and flavour. However, that resulted in us having to adjust our prices, so, for example, cakes that sell for $0.80 per slice last year may now be priced over a dollar.”

For Chan, moving along with the times is key to the growth of the business, but he prefers to be a step ahead of the competition. “I have always yearned to be different. If the mainstream crowd is going one way, I will go the other. For example, if both of us are selling char kway teow, and neither of of us make any changes to our product, then we will be stuck competing in this $2.50-$3.00 plate of char kway teow forever. The question here is how to do take the flavours of char kway teow and elevate it.”

“Throughout the years, we have introduced many new flavours that have since become our signatures, In 2005, we are the first to come up with Lychee Martini Cakes. Subsequently, we introduced other hits like pulut hitam cake, Kyoho white chocolate, Nuttymisu, Bailey’s chocolate crunch and Mao Shan Wang durian cream cake – this was before the whole ‘mod-sin’ trend kicked in,” Chan says.

The Pine Garden, Blk 529 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 #01-2369, Singapore 560529. Tel: +65 6459 5507

Uncle Seng's apple pie from Old Seng Choong
Uncle Seng’s apple pie from Old Seng Choong

Keeping up with the times

While technology and the proliferation of online retail has brought its fair share of challenges to traditional brick and mortar businesses, local entrepreneurs, such as Daniel Tay, has turned it into an advantage. The founder of Foodgnostic (which specialises in private label food manufacturing) launched online cheesecake shop Cat & The Fiddle in 2013, and online traditional bakery Old Seng Choong in 2016.

“Bringing the business online increases the brand visibility and also opens up opportunities, as the Internet is borderless,” explains Tay.

The Old Seng Choong online shop even offers festive collections, with products such as Chinese yam cake and radish cake in time for Chinese New Year, and mooncakes for the Mid Autumn Festival.

Old Seng Choong was named after Tay’s father’s now-defunct confectionery shop, Seng Choong Confectionery, which started in (what we now know as) Jalan Alsagoff in 1965 and moved to Marine Parade in the 1970s. The shop, which closed in 1996, specialised in old school butter cakes, buttercream cakes, black forest cakes, and baked goods. It was especially famous for its apple pies – these crusty golden brown pies, generously filled with chunks of green and red apples, were not displayed at the shop front, but regular customers knew to ask for it. Now it is available for pre-ordering online.

Old Seng Choong's Gu You Gek (butter cake)
Old Seng Choong’s Gu You Gek (butter cake)

“I wanted to bring back these heritage recipes, in part to honour my dad, and in part to preserve these food memories of the older generation. I also find that there is a lack of food products to represent Singapore, and these time-honoured goodies, such as old school butter cakes, can fill the gap,” Tay says, who observes a upward trend in nostalgic flavours and demand for local old school eats.

True to his style of combining Western pastry techniques with his penchant for local flavours, Tay has come up with a Gu You Gek (Hokkien for butter cake) series that includes modern twists on the classic butter cake such as red date and walnut butter cake, and yuzu and winter melon butter cake. The response has been very encouraging so far.

And already, the pastry maestro has moved on to his next projects. In the pipeline are cookies inspired by local dishes (we hear whispers of cereal prawns and satay) and also a brick-and-mortar store for the increasingly popular Old Seng Choong brand. Things have certainly come full circle, and the future is clicks plus bricks. 

A version of this story appeared in SALT’s Aug/Sep 2017 issue

Freelance food writer and editor Xie Huiqun counts eating and cooking as two of the most fulfilling activities in life. Her current research interests are in the areas of traditional Chinese dishes, and Chinese herbal cuisine.