Wrapped in tradition

Hiong Kee Dumpling’s Mr Richard Lim learnt all he needed to learn about making dumplings from his mother. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Hiong Kee Dumpling’s Mr Richard Lim learnt all he needed to learn about making dumplings from his mother. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Despite competition from new flavours of dumplings, traditional ones are still going strong

For more than 10 years, Mr Ryk Chew would get to his parents' dumpling stall at 3am to marinate the pork filling and fry the glutinous rice, before heading home at 7am to prepare for his full-time job as an engineer in a telecommunications company.

He was torn between pursuing his career and managing Hoo Kee Bak Chang in Amoy Street Food Centre, the 67-year old business which his late grandfather started.

Back then, his late grandfather hawked dumplings in Amoy Street and relocated to Amoy Street Food Centre in the mid-1980s.

Mr Chew, 39, mulled over the dilemma for three years, before giving up his job, which paid about $3,000 monthly.

"My parents are getting older and when they retire, it will be a waste if the family's tradition does not get preserved," he says. "I want my children and future generations of my family to know about the legacy left behind by their predecessors."

Hoo Kee Bak Chang is one of the handful of shops that sell traditional rice dumplings; glutinous rice pyramids usually filled with pork, chestnuts and mushrooms.

Despite facing competition from the exotic dumplings filled with everything from black garlic to truffles put out by hotels and restaurants, these time-honoured shops are continuing their families' tradition with rice dumplings that have stood the test of time.

Rice dumplings, or zong zi, are eaten to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival or Duan Wu Jie. The festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, which is June 20 this year.

It commemorates the death of a famous Chinese poet called Qu Yuan, who is said to have drowned himself in a river to protest government corruption. Villagers threw rice dumplings into the river as food to prevent fish from eating his body.

Businesses that SundayLife! spoke to say that demand for traditional rice dumplings is still strong, with sales increasing up to five-fold in the lead-up to the Dragon Boat Festival. Most of the customers are middle-aged.

Mr Lim Cheng Hwee, 50, managing director of the Eastern Rice Dumpling chain, says: "These people have registered the taste and look of traditional dumplings that they grew up with, and may not accept new forms."

He adds that while the company has diversified its flavours, coming up with versions such as black pepper chicken and brown jasmine rice to cater to the health-conscious crowd in the past three years, these newer varieties only make up 5 per cent of its daily production of up to 4,000 dumplings. His brother-in-law, Mr Low Hong Peng, 61, who co-owns the Daun Pandan Rice Dumpling chain, which sells up to 3,000 dumplings daily, says the Dragon Boat Festival is primarily celebrated by the older generation.

He says: "Most youngsters are not aware of this festival as it is not an official public holiday."

Mr Richard Lim, 58, a second-generation owner of Hiong Kee Dumplings in Hong Lim Food Centre, thinks that the newfangled rice dumpling flavours are a gimmick to attract diners.

"Pork, chestnuts and mushrooms make the best flavour combination and it has lasted for hundreds of years. There is no point in changing something that has been proven to work."

The former hotel cook took over his mother's street stall in Hokkien Street in 1982, and says that some people "buy those seasonal fanciful dumplings from hotels" to impress friends and business clients.

Madam Yeoh Min Lin, 76, of Hainan Cuisine & Snacks in Toa Payoh Lorong 7, wants to preserve and showcase the rare dialect cuisine by selling up to 400 Hainanese-style rice dumplings made only in the three weeks leading up to the Dragon Boat Festival.

She says: "Hainanese delicacies are usually kept within families. By selling them, people who used to grew up with Hainanese friends and neighbours can relive their memories of this festive food."

While traditional dumplings are receiving healthy sales, some business owners point out that a lack of manpower prevents them from boosting production and introducing more flavours. Some businesses use industrial-size machines to marinate and fry the fillings in bulk, but the nifty skill of wrapping the parcels with bamboo or pandan leaves can only be done by hand.

Hiong Kee's Mr Lim says that the number of dumplings produced is dependent on his staff strength.

He says: "My main worry is the continuity of the business, as my workers are getting old with no one to pass their skills to." He adds that young people are turned off by the hard work. He starts frying the ingredients at 6am daily and takes up to seven hours to make a batch of dumplings.

At Kim Choo Kueh Chang in Joo Chiat Place, Mr Edmond Wong, 32, a third-generation assistant director, says a lean team of 12, including his family members, churns out up to 4,000 dumplings a day during the festive period. He says that it is difficult to get extra help.

"It can be labour-intensive so we incentivise workers with good pay," he says. "A seasoned dumpling wrapper can earn up to $5,000 a month during the festive period." The 70-year-old shop has also been reaching out to a wider range of customers through conducting talks and workshops on Peranakan culture over the past five years, mainly in primary schools.

He says: "These talks indirectly contribute to sales of our rice dumplings, as curious school children visit our shop with their families."

Singapore permanent residents from China, who live and work here, have become customers too.

Daun Pandan's Mr Low says they make up half of his customers on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival.

"They celebrate Dragon Boat Festival more elaborately back in their home country, and want to continue the tradition here," he says.

Businesswoman Alice Cheah, 50, who has been buying dumplings from Hoo Kee Bak Chang for the past 18 years, likes that the meat is not too fatty, and the smaller dumplings are not too filling.

She says: "I have tried new versions of dumplings, like those with fruit fillings, but I still prefer the traditional ones as they are what they should be."

Retired fund manager Tan Swee Leong, 64, who visits Hiong Kee Dumplings three times a week, says: "The fillings are generous and flavourful. Though they can be pricey, they are worth it as these hawkers have taken a lifetime to perfect their craft."

It is this skill of making rice dumplings that Hoo Kee's Mr Chew hopes to pass on to his 21/2-year-old son in the future.

He says: "If I can grow this business further, I would want him to continue it, or else that will be the end of a family tradition."

kengohsz@sph.com.sg