Few neighbourhoods in Singapore display a marriage of old and new as beautifully as Everton Park does. Surrounded by pre-WW2 Straits Chinese shophouses, it is one of the country’s oldest neighbourhoods, located between Chinatown and the Central Business District (CBD).
The 51-year-old neighbourhood has been given a new lease of life in the past few years. Cosy cafes and quaint bakeries have mushroomed in the area, bringing with them a bevy of young office workers. Nestled amongst the ever popular Nylon Coffee Roasters, hip vintage barber A Few Good Men, and ice cream parlour Everton Creamery on the void decks of Blocks 4, 5 and 7 respectively, is a traditional confectionery in Block 1. Ji Xiang Confectionery, which mainly sells ang ku kueh, which has been there for as long as I have lived.
Mr Toh is the owner of the confectionery. The 69-year-old used to work in a shipyard as a welder for 15 years. As the sole breadwinner of the family, he took home just $60 a month. To supplement the household income, his wife took up baking classes at a community centre and started selling an assortment of kuehs (cakes). But she soon discovered her niche in making ang ku kueh, which literally translates to “Red Tortoise Cake”.
“My mother-in-law had a provision shop where my wife could sell her homemade ang ku kueh,” Mr Toh tells me. The response to her pastries was positively overwhelming and Mr Toh saw an opportunity to expand the business. In 1988, Ji Xiang Confectionery opened its doors.
Mr Toh and his wife often worked past midnight, hand making the pastries from scratch. Mixing machines were non-existent. Even today, they only use a mixing machine to mix the flour for the skin, and another machine for dividing the filling into equal portions. Every other component of the production process is done by hand, which Mr Toh claims is pretty easy. He lets me in on the fact that factory-made ang ku kuehs have thicker skins, resulting in a disproportionate skin-to-filling ratio. If the skin is too thin, the filling would be visible.
An outer layer of red sticky, chewy skin made of glutinous rice flour wraps around sweet mung bean or peanut paste filling. Another common variety of the pastry is the Black Tortoise Cake, which gets its greyish hue from the mugwort plant. The plant also imparts a herbaceous and slightly peppery aroma to the pastry’s skin.
The red colour of the tortoise-shaped pastry symbolises joy and happiness, while the tortoise represents longevity. The sweet pastry was originally considered to be auspicious in Chinese culture and was specially prepared for Chinese New Year, birthdays, and religious occasions. These days, red tortoise cakes can be eaten any time of the day. Mr Toh has even introduced newfangled flavours to attract the younger generations––to much success. In addition to the traditional peanut and mung bean, they now have corn, yam, sweet potato, chempedak, and coconut flavoured fillings, all of which are usually the first ones to sell out. You’ll even see durian-filled ones when the fruit is in season. However, to old school Mr Toh, the perfect ang ku kueh is still the traditional one.
“Chinese traditions have been going on for hundreds of years. It’s like when people pay respects to their ancestors during Qing Ming. It’s not a superstition; it’s tradition, and ang ku kueh is the same.”
With pricey Western pastries gaining popularity amongst the youths of today, the impending demise of traditional locally baked goods should be a cause for concern, but Mr Toh is confident that his traditional confectionery will enjoy longevity, just like the tortoise. “Chinese traditions have been going on for hundreds of years,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s like when people pay respects to their ancestors during Qing Ming. It’s not a superstition; it’s tradition, and the same goes for ang ku kueh.”
Even with 15 employees under his watch, Ji Xiang is still very much a family business. Mr Toh’s son, Kelvin, can be seen serving customers or getting hands-on alongside the staff in the production room, where they mould and shape the ang ku kuehs.
Having a younger, media savvy family member like Kelvin on board has propelled the business to new heights. He manages the shop’s Facebook page and has also helped set up a website with an e-commerce platform, where customers can place orders for the pastries online.
The staff come in at 7am to start working on the pastries. By 8:30am, a steady stream of customers starts flowing in. The regulars casually chat with the employees like old friends do. At lunchtime, a long line starts to form. A few customers even buy a couple of boxes, each containing six ang ku kuehs. They produce about 2500 to 3000 pastries a day and usually sell out by the time the shop closes at 5pm.
If this keeps up, then indeed, Mr Toh’s legacy – built on the back of the Red Tortoise Cake – will carry on for as long as it can.