Maria takes the biscuit

SELLING sweet pastries and other mouth-watering delights on a grand scale is how Maria Lee Tseng Chiu-kwan earned her name as Hong Kong's Queen of Cakes.

But finding a cure for her ruined teeth has turned out to be a much more difficult affair for the well-known entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Sitting at a quiet corner in her comfortable mansion near Kowloon Tong, she recalls with qualms her appearance at a Dental Council hearing last month in which she charged her dentist, Dr Vivian Ma, with losing her dental records.

At the hearing, the founder and owner of Maria's Cakes also claimed her dentist had failed to give proper treatment for her teeth.

She developed various problems as a result of a series of treatment she received from Dr Ma in 1990. The loss of the records, she said, made it difficult to treat the recurring problems with her teeth.

Dr Ma's professionalism came under scrutiny by the council as a result of Lee's complaints. But in the end, Lee failed to retrieve any of her records, which simply went missing with Dr Ma's move to the United States in 1991. The Dental Council also upheld Dr Ma's professionalism.

Saying the result is what she had expected, Lee is, nonetheless, still worried, though perhaps unduly. She is also concerned with media reports of her recent case.

Lee's complaint made headlines in both English and Chinese newspapers. In particular, she is upset over a front-page article in a Chinese evening newspaper published prior to the hearing.

'Its headline said I had burst out in anger, giving the impression that I am a ferocious person,' the 67-year-old says as she bites into one of her famous cakes and offers a plateful to her guest.

'I never wanted her to be struck off the list or subjected to any disciplinary action. I just wanted the council to help me get back my records.

'I just didn't expect the whole thing to generate so much news. The people I ran into in the States when I was there last month asked me about my teeth and the case.

'I didn't want to make a fuss. I just thought I had the rights to get my records back. I was under pressure too from the 'litigation'.' A household name for decades, Lee can be excused for being obsessed with her reputation. A housewife-turned-entrepreneur, she has long been seen by many as someone with a deep commitment to charity and artistic pursuits.

And her long association with former Cantonese opera star Fong Yim-fun, who has adopted a low profile since her retirement in the late 50s, makes her a widely-admired figure.

Besides being close friends, the pair have jointly set up a charity foundation providing funding for needy families, a home for the elderly, and Asian students studying in the States.

Fong was among the few friends the businesswoman had back in the early 50s in Hong Kong. Lee, who was born and raised in a banker's family in Shanghai, had come to Hong Kong following studies in the States, as her parents had also moved to the territory by then.

'I was married shortly after I came to Hong Kong; I wasn't working and had only a few friends then.' An old relative later invited her to Cantonese opera shows, then a very popular pastime, and Lee became mesmerised by Fong's beautiful voice.

By chance, she became acquainted with Fong's personal caretaker, and found out that the diva was living nearby. The two women's friendship grew with Lee's subsequent visits to the Fong home.

'I was the match-maker for Fong and her husband, who was then my family doctor,' Lee laughs, showing her bridge.

Strong-willed and optimistic, Lee takes most pride not in her personal strength, but in her three children. Two sons, one a doctor and the other a lawyer are married and living abroad, and a lawyer daughter lives in Hong Kong. A collection of photos of her children and four grandchildren is prominently displayed in the lounge.

In pursuing of her dental complaint, Lee was especially gratified by the support from one of her sons, an asthma expert practising in Britain. 'He told me even though I had lost the battle, my allegations might benefit many people,' she says, looking pleased.

Indeed, changes might be introduced to tighten dentists' practice. In the wake of Lee's allegations, the Dental Council has decided to consider laying down regulations on the keeping of patients' records. A council spokesman says the subject is to be discussed at a future meeting.

Elegantly dressed in a pastel-pink suit, Lee talks enthusiastically about her favourite hobbies of Chinese painting and calligraphy. Much more so than when she responds to questions on her business, which she now leaves mostly to her partner and former cookery student, Fung Lau Shun-kwan.

Beaming, she says her house in her hometown in Zhongshan, Guangdong, is filled with her artistic efforts.

'I'm so happy when the people there ask me to give them my paintings. It's very satisfying when people show appreciation for your works,' she says.

'I feel peaceful painting or writing. As for Cantonese opera, I only perform for charity. I did it also because Fong Yim-fun wanted me to be her partner. You know, I am tall and suitable for a male role.' As her response to the recent slump in her business profits shows, Lee is a woman who takes things in her stride. 'Profits have dropped a bit,' she notes carefully. 'But I am pleased that the business has survived to this day.' Lee started her first cake shop in the late 50s with an initial loan capital of $100,000. Although her husband urged her to give up when there seemed to be no profits in sight after six months, she insisted that the business should go on.

'I told him I had not tried my best yet,' she recalls. Lee was rewarded for her perseverance - at the peak of her business in the 80s, there were about 70 Maria's cake shops in the territory.

Although there are now only about 30 shops are in operation in Hong Kong, branches in Taiwan, North America, Shanghai and Zhongshan are going strong. As of a couple of months ago, Maria's cakes have begun to be distributed through supermarkets.

'The past few years have been the most difficult period for our business,' she laments. 'The shop rentals are way too high. We have seen 100 or 200 per cent increases in rents. But how much can we raise the price of cakes by?' So what expectations does she have for her bakery empire? 'Of course, I hope my trademark will linger on. It is very well-known now and is also largely associated with me. But I will pass away.

'All I hope is that it will linger on, even if it means being in the hands of a different group of people.' But Maria Lee has no plans to change her busy lifestyle. Staying busy, she says, keeps her from feeling bored and depressed. It also has to do with concern about her image, too. 'A depressed person ages more quickly.'