The world may be changing at warp speed these days, but not everyone is rushing headfirst into the future. Many young Malaysians are dedicating their lives to preserving their distinctive heritage. One of them is 35-year-old Melvin Chan Yuee Soon, the fourth-generation scion of Fung Wong Biscuits, a popular traditional Chinese bakery on Kuala Lumpur’s Petaling Street.
Growing up, he spent hours helping out in the hot and sweaty kitchen at the company’s flagship shop. He recalls: “The first cookie I learned to make was kong so peng. Shaped like a round disc, it looks simple, but the runny batter is a devil to manipulate. Your hand must be faster than the batter to achieve the desirable airiness. My father, Chan Kwok Chin, taught me each type of biscuit has its own temperament and requires a special sau kam (handling).”
Bitten by the baking bug, Chan rejected a chance to pursue tertiary studies to join his family business at 20 years old. The passion for baking clearly runs in the Chan veins: Chan’s great-grandfather, Chan Weng, learned it as a hobby in Guangdong, China so that he could make cookies for family and friends. He did so well that he eventually founded the Fung Wong brand – which means King of Phoenixes in Cantonese – in 1909. After the Second World War, the Chans migrated to Malaysia and sold their baked goods from a roadside stall outside a coffee shop.
In the 1950s, Fung Wong Biscuits became famous throughout Kuala Lumpur for retailing exclusive wedding biscuits. Explains Chan, “To stand out from the competition, we needed to specialise. And we chose wedding biscuits as they are in demand all year round, unlike other types of baked goods that are seasonal.”
Over time, the bakery expanded its repertoire to over a few dozen varieties of old-school Chinese snacks. Its charcoal-toasted egg sponge, walnut cookies, peanut candy, salted egg tarts and kong so biscuits have also earned them a devoted following. By the 1970s, the Chan family was confident enough in the company’s future to buy over the coffee shop, where its headquarters now stands.
Since taking over the business full-time, Chan has gradually introduced changes to boost revenue and open new markets. He reportedly shelled out RM3 million on the design of a new logo and packaging, advertising and promotion exercises, and a massive facelift of the original coffee shop. “Parts of the old building were rotting, so we had to replace them with steel and concrete, leaving only the façade.”
Additionally, Chan has introduced new flavours such as coconut, almond and peanut biscuits. In early 2016, he rolled out durian-based confections. “I asked myself, what is the one product that is unique to Malaysia that can’t be copied easily?” The thorny durian, Malaysia’s King of Fruits, was the obvious answer, he says.
Chan believes evolution is necessary to compete in the current marketplace. “I’ve noticed that customer behaviour is changing. In the old days, customers would buy biscuits in loose numbers. Nowadays many of them – especially the younger ones – like to buy them by the tray as souvenirs. With a more attractive packaging, the biscuits are easy to see and really pop on the shelf.”
Costly as rebranding might be, his innovative approach may be working. During peak seasons like Chinese New Year, at least three shifts work round the clock to churn out festive pastries. Fung Wong’s new outlet at Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore sells some 1,000 freshly baked egg tarts a day. Plans are afoot to tap new markets in Brisbane and China.
One thing hasn’t changed: since day one, every cake and pastry is painstakingly handmade in the Fung Wong kitchen. Because the biscuits are baked without preservatives, they have to be consumed fast – Chan recommends three days. “It is the only way to make sure the ingredients are evenly distributed and the dough perfectly kneaded,” says Chan.
“You don’t fix what’s not broken. You have to respect what’s been beloved for generations. And it’s the traditional taste that keeps customers coming back for more.”
21 Jalan Hang Lekir
50000 Kuala Lumpur