A cold heart in front of a hot oven
By Lauren Li
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Mooncakes, eggrolls, kwong so pan, are all delicious Chinese pastries. Mr. Cheung Kwong Kuen, who has been making traditional Chinese pastry for 25 years, tells his story.
The 48-year-old Mr. Cheung learnt pastry-making in 1974. He entered the field as one of his relatives owned a Chinese pastry shop at that time.
Cold heart is a Chinese expression, meaning a lack of interest and enthusiasm for something.
Mr. Cheung has a cold heart towards traditional pastries.
A job is a job. I dont have the so-called interest in pastry-making.
But as I have entered this field, I try my best to do my job.
Of course some customers say that the pastry is delicious and authentic. But its only a job. I cant expect anyone to praise me, can I? he said.
Mr. Cheung said that when he was still a trainee, he had to do all the menial work.
He said: I had to do all the cleaning work at that time. Cleaning the pans the master used to bake the pastries, wiping the surface of the pastries with eggs and lifting heavy bags of flour, sugar and oil from the warehouse. All these are quite exhausting.
A master, as Mr. Cheung explained, is an expert in making the pastry who is qualified and experienced enough to teach pastry-making.
He said that talented trainees normally need about 1 year to become a master.
But those who learn slowly cannot become masters after 2 or 3 years.
Im an in-between. I took about one and a half years to learn the skills and become a master, he said.
Though Mr. Cheung used the word learn, he said that his master only taught him some elementary skills of pastry-making.
It depends more on how much a trainee can absorb what the master has taught.
At that time, I had to stand behind my master, watch him making the pastry and steal his secret formula of fermentation, he said.
Mr. Cheung is a master now, but he still finds the job exhausting.
He described Chinese pastry-making as one of the hardest jobs among those requiring physical strength.
He said that the job is no fun in summer.
I bake the pastries in ovens which are 6,000 volts each.
I switch on at least eight ovens each time.
You can calculate how hot it can be. I sweat even by just standing in front of the ovens, he said.
It is no better in winter, either.
In the kitchen where I make those pastries, flour is everywhere. So its impractical to wear long-sleeve shirts while Im working in winter.
It gets dirty easily and its very troublesome, he said.
It gets worse when he has to make one kind of pastry after another.
Said he: After making one type of pastry, I have to wash my hands before making another type.
The cold water can freeze my hands in winter, he added.
Mr. Cheung not only finds the job hard, but also dull.
Take me as an example. I stand behind this table making pastry every day. And all I can do is make pastry, he said.
Mr. Cheung said that boredom may be an important factor in the decline of the Chinese pastry-making business in Hong Kong.
Now the young people are only around 20 years old. But the masters are all quite old.
The young people may find it boring working with us older masters, he said.
According to Mr. Cheung, most masters in the field have to work from Monday to Saturday.
He said that there are no special holidays in this field.
And we have to work at least nine and a half hours a day, he said.
Though sometimes we can leave early when the sales are not good, he added.
The decline is also attributed to the reluctance of the masters to employ trainees.
I dont have any trainees because the cost is high, he said.
He added: A trainee will cost me about $10,000 a month.
I have to provide him with accommodation, three meals a day, holidays, salary and fringe benefits.
He pointed out that in face of the decline of the business, there is not much room to take in new trainees.
According to Mr. Cheung, some people have asked him to teach them to make Chinese pastry in the past 10 years.
This does not help the business much in view of the decline of the business, however.
Said Mr. Cheung: In the past, people learnt to make the pastry because they wanted to get more credits for emigration.
Mr. Cheung said that if the Chinese pastry-making business ever needs any new masters, it will be big enterprises like Kee Wah and Wing Wah which employ trainees.
This is because we are just family-based business. We cant afford the huge expenses of training new masters, he said.
Mr. Cheung said that he will not teach his children to make Chinese pastry.
Sometimes when my children come to visit me, they see how hard my work is. This scares them away, he said.
He added, I dare to say, nine out of 10 of bakers sons will not enter this field.
According to Mr. Cheung, the decline of this business is also due to a change in the tastes of the younger generation.
He described them as obsessed with foreign cultures.
Chinese pastry is not trendy among the youngsters in Hong Kong, he said.
Customers are mainly old people who love traditional pastry.
Another type of customer are those who have emigrated and returned. They miss traditional Chinese food like Chinese pastry, said he.
Mr. Cheung said that people in the business have tried to modify traditional Chinese pastry to suit the tastes and the needs of Hong Kong people.
Many Hong Kong people now make their health as the first priority when choosing what they eat.
People are scared by high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Therefore, we try to put less sugar in the pastry, he said.
However, if there is not enough sugar, I cant even make the pastry!
Mr. Cheung admitted that there are some weaknesses of Chinese pastry-making when compared with Western cakes, thus leading to its decline.
Western cakes are more artistic. Once you have the pastry done, you can make millions of changes with cream and milk.
You can make a bird, a flower, or a butterfly, as long as youve got the artistic sense, he said.
He said that it is almost impossible to make any changes to the appearance of the Chinese pastry.
The ingredients and appearance of each type of Chinese pastry is set.
Two types of pastries have two totally different equations, Cheung said.
Mr. Cheung himself does not have any preference for Chinese or Western pastry. He entered this field just because of his situation 25 years ago.
He said that at that time, many jobs employed people with at least Form 5 education and some knowledge of computers.
I have only received a primary school education. Without knowledge and without skills, what else can I do? he asked sarcastically.
He said that if there were any other options, he would not choose pastry-making as his career.
He admitted that it is impossible for him to change his job now.
Mr. Cheung, therefore, has thought about his future development.
Said he: Of course every master wants to set up his own business.
But he said that it whether or not he can set up his own business depends on chance and luck.
Some other masters and I have talked about setting up our own business together, he said.
He pointed out that there are many considerations to be weighed before setting up a business in this field.
How much capital we have to contribute to it and which production line we should follow are our considerations, he said.
Master Cheung with his rice biscuits. His Chinese pastry shop is located in Cheung Sha Wan.
(All photos by Lauren Li)