Bái Táng Gāo (Steamed rice cake), is named for its glittering white appearance, with a moist and smooth surface, and honeycomb-like air tunnels. Its historical roots can be traced from the Ming dynasty in Lunjiao sub district of Shunde city in Guangdong province, also known as Lunjiao cake, a traditional folk snack made from common ingredients. Firstly, rice is pressed into milk, added in flour and sugar, then steamed to be consumed. Steamed rice cake is popular for its velvety texture and sweet fragrance. Due to mass migration to Southeast Asia, steamed rice cake became widespread, and is sold in both morning markets and night markets across Malaysia.
In a home baking workshop at Cheras, 71-year-old Uncle Tan Ah Yew, 43-year-old Tan Lee Yong (Lennon) and family work together busily to produce various cakes for wholesale, including sponge cake, steamed buns, steamed cupcakes, the most renowned being white and brown steamed rice cakes. At 1.30A.M., Uncle Tan delivers cakes produced during the day to the Pudu wholesale market for customers to collect. He then returns home at 5A.M. to prepare ingredients together with his wife, his son takes over the fermentation process while they catch some sleep. As the fermentation completes around noon, father and son dash back and forth the custom-made long steam table, producing trays of cakes despite the lingering heat and vapour. The freshly made cakes require cooling down before slicing and packaging, only then the workday routine ends at 4P.M.
Initially a construction contractor, Uncle Tan’s company went out of business in the mid-80s due to the economic crisis. Despairing, he went to pray at a temple in Ulu Yam, and chanced to encounter an old master whose family business is producing steamed rice cakes, hence he requested to learn the trade. By luck, the old master granted an exception to teach Uncle Tan unreservedly. Steamed rice cakes seem ordinary, yet the procedures involved are complicated, a slight mistake may cause souring, hardening, or turning into a sticky mess. From a layman to mastering the skills of making steamed rice cakes, Uncle Tan devoted an entire year in learning and researching daily, to produce a soft and fluffy end product untainted by sourness. Being the fourth generation successor in the trade, he recovered from financial loss to establish a home baking workshop and paid off debts. Uncle Tan is grateful towards the old master for the favour conferred, always paying him a visit during festivals and giving him tokens of appreciation, until the old master passed away.
Even though under enormous pressure, Uncle Tan flourished in his second career, his journey over the past few decades has been challenging. Despite slow business during the early stages of his start up, he traveled around to sell his products and expand market reach. Uncle Tan’s cakes are vegetarian-friendly, made without eggs or lard, the soft texture neither hardens nor leaks moisture even after keeping overnight. Therefore he gained reputation and connections, building a stable customer base and order quantity. Most of his customers are school canteen operators, restaurants, and hawkers. During the first day and the 15th day of the lunar month, as well as traditional festivals such as the Hungry Ghosts festival, cakes demand soar due to offering usage. The consumer group of Tan Ah Yew steamed rice cakes range far and wide, from Batu 11 Cheras, Mahkota Cheras, Sungai Long, Kajang, Sungai Chua, Jinjang, to Klang Valley.
Uncle Tan’s workshop is firmly established, his sons will help out during their free time. His youngest son Lennon used to be a photographer, giving up his ambition due to family sustenance, taking over his father’s business full-time. Although the income from producing cakes would not make him a millionaire, it is enough to make ends meet. Lennon was worried that traditional delicacies may vanish in time, but became assured in carrying on his father’s legacy after meeting other young people in the industry. He aspires to try online marketing and delivery service, so that authentic flavours may still be enjoyed instead of dying out.
Steamed rice cakes produced with love, wrapped in transparent plastic sheets and old newspapers, deliver traditional flavours. They also contain the Tan family’s hard work and persistent spirit. Even though he has a successor, Uncle Tan has no plans to retire soon, and is still actively involved in cake production. He is still anxious about his inexperienced son whom he deemed unable to work independently, however he praised Lennon’s patience and cherished hopes for business improvement.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Video Editor : Evon Pang
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : The Romantic
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