KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 23 — What happens when a 113-year-old Chinese pastry shop decides to take a big leap and relocate into a modern cafe setting?
Social media is flooded with pictures of Fung Wong’s traditional Chinese pastries in a setting usually associated with croissants or even burnt cheese cake.
So what’s the story behind the brand’s move — although the physical move from Jalan Hang Lekir to Jalan Sultan is not that far — from making traditional biscuits to joining the hipster cafe scene?
Malay Mail spoke to the fourth-generation owner Melvin Chan Yuee Soon, 40, to find out more.
Making the leap
On December 21, 2021 which is also when the ethnic Chinese community celebrates the Winter Solstice Festival, Fung Wong officially opened for business at No. 85, Jalan Sultan — located between barbecued meat shop Bee Cheng Hiang and Hotel Nan Yeang.
The clean modern interior beckons to those weary from the hustle and bustle of city streets; step in and you are immediately transported into an oasis of calm.
All that needs to be done next is order a comforting cup of tea or coffee or even “cham” (a mix of tea and coffee) or Milo — all classic kopitiam drinks — to go with any of Fung Wong’s traditional pastries.
Wisma Chak Kai, where the cafe is located, also has a storied past. The cafe’s landlord is the Chak Kai Koong Kon Association Kuala Lumpur which was formed in 1885 for migrants from the predominantly Hakka area of Chak Kai in Guangdong, China.
The late Kapitan Yap Kwan Seng — who was a Hakka from Chak Kai — was the founder of the association and donated the No. 85 site where Wisma Chak Kai now sits. The association had in 1984 rebuilt its building into the five-storey Wisma Chak Kai, the association’s website states.
Looking to expand Fung Wong’s business and to provide a more comfortable space for customers, Melvin said he was walking around when he spotted the space in Wisma Chak Kai — which also offered a lower rental price per square foot than the shop’s former location.
In explaining the “big step” of moving and its new cafe concept, Melvin said he did not think he could continue using the old model at the former location as the rental was quite high and there wasn’t enough space for expansion.
“It’s quite a big jump, [it will] either work or fail,” he said, adding that it was better to make the change.
Melvin said he was grateful for the positive response to Fung Wong’s new cafe: “I would like to serve them better in the future. That’s why I have a better environment for them to come over and a better reason for them to visit us to have some biscuits and drinks in the shop.”
Story of the hidden alley
Another reason why Melvin chose this current location is because of a story which he learnt from Chak Kai Koong Kon Association’s president.
This is about an alley which is now part of Wisma Chak Kai. Melvin said the previous tenant made extensions to fully utilise the space including the alley, so he decided to restore the original structure of the building by removing the extensions and show the lane.
The lane inside the cafe is now clearly distinguished from the rest of the cafe with its different flooring, and now has three kedondong or umbra trees along it.
“No one knows this is actually the alley over here. So I demolished everything and just maintained the real structure. What you see here is the original structure, the alley is over here,” he said.
A natural and authentic experience
Melvin said part of the new cafe’s concept is to maintain or retain the “raw features” of the shop, and to also offer a more natural experience to city folks with transparent roofing to let sunlight in and trees planted throughout the space.
He shared his hope of eventually sharing the fruits from the trees planted in the Fung Wong space with customers.
There are mango and mangosteen trees and a cherry tree, with Melvin saying that there is no need to travel out of the city to see fruit trees as they can now be viewed at Fung Wong on Petaling Street itself.
Apart from the alley, another feature that Fung Wong has retained are the original white tiles on the pillars.
Melvin said he did not change the tiles but only touched them up and that he added two more rows of similar-coloured tiles on the pillar to comply with DBKL’s height regulations of at least four feet of tiles for food and beverage outlets.
With this bigger space which is more modern, Melvin considers it a “bonus” if it attracts a younger generation of customers to visit and take photos for Instagram.
“Once they come in, they are quite shocked, why Chinese pastries have so many types, they only know maybe siew bao, kaya kok (kaya puff), that’s all,” he said.
Fung Wong’s top-recommended pastry is the wedding pastry — the red-coloured pastry has a red bean paste filling while the yellow-coloured one has lotus paste — traditionally given out to guests at a Chinese wedding. They are still ordered for weddings to this day.
Other highly recommended pastries are the wife biscuit, the husband biscuit, the piggy bun and the kaya roll.
Melvin believes Fung Wong is one of the rare few bakeries still making traditional Chinese pastries in the Petaling Street area, with Kam Lun Tai for example having moved out from the area while dim sum shop Yook Woo Hin shuttered after its shoplot was acquired for the MRT project.
A little bit of trivia
Throughout the cafe, you can see small green and white tiles covering the floor. While the renovation contractors were hacking through the floor’s mosaic, Melvin said they made the unexpected discovery of the original tiling underneath — a find he describes as a “jewel.”
“This one is the original tile, I think this one is not from the dim sum shop, but from the landlord,” he said, pointing to the similar tile pattern on the staircase of Wisma Chak Kai. He believes that this was already there before the place was rented out to its first tenant.
Fung Wong is the third tenant of this unit, with the first tenant being a dim sum shop and the second tenant being Yi Xin Craft & Gifts.
Can you spot these heritage items?
There are also other bits of the past displayed on the shelves of the cafe, including items from Melvin’s grandfather’s time — wooden moulds traditionally used to shape mooncakes and a traditional red and black basket that was typically used to carry wedding pastries as part of Chinese wedding customs.
Also on display is the last surviving tin box that was Fung Wong’s past packaging, with the box showing its original No. 28, Jalan Hang Lekir address and phone number written in Chinese characters read from right to left (unlike the modern arrangement of left to right).
The phone number printed on the box only had six digits, unlike current landline numbers which have eight.
There are also slightly bigger tins that recreate the original packaging and are virtually replicas except for minor details like Fung Wong’s former address — No. 21, Jalan Hang Lekir — and the phone number. These tin boxes were introduced in recent years as packaging for Fung Wong’s products.
A visit for memories old and new
Melvin said many older folks who had moved out of Petaling Street do not really want to come back because of the expensive parking or heavy traffic, but Fung Wong’s new cafe has enticed them to take a nostalgic walk down memory lane.
“They call their kids to drive them over. A lot of customers say ‘because of you, I come back to Petaling Street.’ Because Fung Wong already is more than 100 years old, I’m quite sure when they were young, they ate our biscuits and the memory is there,” he said.
Giving back to the community
Having rented both the ground floor and the first floor, Melvin plans to set up a community centre on the first floor to act as a mini museum of Petaling Street’s history.
Melvin also wants to set aside a corner for a community library to be managed voluntarily by teenagers such as his and his business partner’s sons, with the books to be sourced from donations.
Stacks of books for the planned community library can already be seen in the cafe.
About three months ago, Fung Wong started accepting culinary and baking course graduates from YWCA Vocational Training Opportunity Centre (VTOC) as interns.
Viewing Petaling Street as “home” and the community here as “family” as he and his father and late grandfather spent most of their time here, Melvin said he hired a chef to cook 300 packets of food every day from July to September 2021 to be given away to the public for free during tighter movement restrictions then due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Melvin and his father are the treasurer and president of the Petaling Street Rukun Tetangga, and both of them are committee members of the Kuala Lumpur hawkers association.
How it all started: A voyage, a love story and recipes handed down generations
Melvin said the Fung Wong (or Cantonese for the word “phoenix”) brand began around 1909. His great-grandfather Chan Seng “who loved to bake biscuits” initially made it for his own consumption in Guangdong, China before making extra to give to relatives and friends, and which then resulted in this becoming a business when they started ordering from him.
The recipes were then passed on to Melvin’s late grandfather Chan Weng, who left China during the Second World War years and travelled around — first to Indonesia, then Hong Kong, then Singapore — before finally deciding to settle down in Kuala Lumpur in then-Malaya. Chan Weng was the youngest son of Chan Seng.
Chan Weng started out in 1946 with just a rented stall in front of the Ban Heong Kopitiam at No. 28, Jalan Hang Lekir. The intersecting roads of Jalan Hang Lekir and Jalan Petaling form the main Petaling Street area or Chinatown as it is also known.
In 1953, Datuk Chan Kwok Chin — who is the youngest son of Chan Weng —- was born in Kuala Lumpur. He would later become the third-generation owner of Fung Wong.
Melvin said there is a “love story” tied to Fung Wong and its taking over of the entire No. 28 unit that was occupied by Ban Heong.
Ban Heong had rented the unit but did not have the funds to buy it from the landlord when the latter wanted to sell the unit.
Melvin’s grandfather then bought the unit in 1968 — which remains as the brand’s primary bakery and business address until today, with Melvin saying that his father had taken out a personal loan to fund the purchase.
Kwok Chin later married the Ban Heong owner’s daughter Goh Swee Lian who was working as the cashier in the kopitiam. They had four children, with their second youngest son Melvin being born in 1981 later becoming the fourth-generation owner.
Melvin said the biscuit-making process was totally done by hand during his parents’ time, noting: “Actually last time they had no oven, my father told me they have to do something like a metal box, put all the wood to light the fire and put the biscuits inside and bake.” Subsequently they stopped using such wood-fired ovens and started using modern ones.
Now, Melvin — who personally bakes fresh pastries along with his team every day from 7am onwards — estimates that the pastries are 70 per cent hand made with 30 per cent of the work aided by machines.
But the recipes are still the same, and with only the sugar and oil levels reduced to fit the preference of customers nowadays.
While most of the ingredients are imported such as from US and China, Melvin said he has also tried his best to switch to ingredients that are made locally to support Malaysia, unless imported products are necessary to maintain the taste of the pastry.
Melvin spent his childhood at the bakery and recalls helping out during school holidays and weekends and “playing with the dough.”
To this day, he still recalls December 16, 1999 as the first day he started working full-time at Fung Wong at the age of 18.
Melvin started out with a salary of just RM1,000 per month with his mother keeping RM800 for him and giving him only RM200.
He has kept working since then with no “turning back” until he eventually took over the business about 10 years later when his father “retired.”
When asked if he had other plans in mind instead of working at Fung Wong, Melvin said “Actually no lah, I also love to bake biscuits.”
Melvin does not intend to “force” any of his four children to carry on the Fung Wong business. “In the future if they have a plan and wish to take over, I will give it to my children Let’s say in the future, if my children don’t want to, I will pass on to people who are willing to do and willing to carry my brand to a few more hundred years,” he said.
In 2013, Fung Wong moved from its very first outlet at No. 28 Jalan Hang Lekir to a rented shoplot at No. 21 directly across the street, in order to carry out renovations to the original outlet.
This was because the first outlet’s internal structure was too old. The No. 28 unit has since been rebuilt with its facade kept intact.
With a tenancy renewable every three years at No. 21, Melvin decided not to renew it when it expired at the end of June 2021 but was able to stay on while waiting to move to the new unit. Because of that, Fung Wong did not have to temporarily set up a stall in front of No. 21 — which was a possibility that Melvin had initially mooted last year as renovations at the new unit had to be deferred.
With business affected during the Covid-19 pandemic, Melvin had to use his savings to carry on and took out a bank loan to move to this current shop and shoulder the renovation costs — with both labour and material costs having increased in 2021 as compared to 2020.
A lockdown and various other restrictions caused renovations at No. 85 to be delayed to September 2021. After about three and a half months of renovation, Fung Wong’s last day of business at No. 21 was on December 19. They moved to the new unit on December 20 and opened for business on December 21.
“Recently, we figured that our principal shop at No. 28 was no longer spacious enough to cater to our expansion plan. We have then rented, renovated and moved to our current business address now at No. 85, Jalan Sultan,” he explained.
Malay Mail understands that two partners including Simon Ang -- who is involved in the management and marketing — joined the Fung Wong business when it shifted over to the current unit.
Currently, the only outlet that Fung Wong has in Malaysia is the No. 85 Jalan Sultan cafe which is open from 9am to 6pm daily, with plans to open its next outlet in Genting Highlands this month. It also has an outlet in Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore.
Carrying the same entrepreneurial spirit and the courage to take on risks like previous generations of Fung Wong’s owners, Melvin shared the message: “To create a business is not easy, but to maintain and do a big step in renovation is 10 times harder than that. So I would suggest that whatever the youngsters think they can do, they should have the strength and the positive mind to do it.
“Don’t feel scared. You don’t do, you don’t know. If let’s say once you do, if you fail, nevermind, at least you tried... this is very important. At least you tried, if you don’t try (you’ll) never succeed. But if you try, if you fail, you learn where is your mistake, so the next time, you will be a better person.”
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