Malaysia artisanal mooncake makers keep baking into old age for the love of the job
They launched chocolate and butter mooncakes in Malaysia and at their peak turned out 100,000 a year; now couple and their daughter work at a smaller scale, hand-making the seasonal treats in batches as small as four dozen
Upstairs in a nondescript shophouse in the Sentul neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur is where Goh Kean, his wife W.Y. Shue and their daughter Rebecca Goh operate Fook Pan Food Industries.
September is a busy time for the family because Fook Pan specialises in making mooncakes, which are eaten and given as gifts by ethnic Chinese people around the world in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which this year falls on September 24.
The couple, both in their 70s, founded the business more than four decades ago as a bakery school to teach the art of making various types of popular Chinese pastry, particularly mooncakes. Both had parents who ran traditional coffee shops – known as kopitiams in Malaysia – where they learned the necessary skills.
Before long the couple’s students were asking if they could buy ready-made mooncakes to take home, and their food-producing business was born. Shue chose the name Fook Pan, which is Chinese for “Food in Prosperity”.
In the 1980s, 10 years after setting up the bakery school, the Gohs opened their first factory and began producing mooncakes on a far larger scale. The most common traditional varieties of mooncake have a filling of red bean or lotus seed paste, with the yolk of a salted duck egg in the middle, representing the full autumnal moon. Legend has it that they were used by spies who would hide secret messages inside them in 14th century China, or were originally made as offerings to the moon goddess.
They represent a time of togetherness in Chinese culture in China and wherever diaspora communities are found, including Malaysia.
By the mid-1990s, the Gohs were selling mooncakes to a growing number of regular customers, and supplying supermarkets and companies that gave them to clients as seasonal gifts. At its peak, Fook Pan was producing an average of 100,000 mooncakes a year. However, Fook Pan was not a stickler for tradition; the Gohs were also pioneers and became known for creating Malaysia’s first chocolate and butter mooncakes.
Rebecca Goh says she used to take mooncakes to school to share with her friends, whose feedback helped in the creation of Fook Pan’s signature product. The chocolate mooncakes became a big hit among the Gohs’ customers, and copycat versions soon proliferated throughout Malaysia.
Still, the Gohs are proud of their invention and continue to focus on maintaining the quality of their products. Other chocolate mooncakes are made using cocoa powder, which produces an uneven result, Rebecca Goh says. Fook Pan uses melted chocolate chips mixed in with a lotus paste base for a richer experience.
Goh says he got the idea of making mooncakes with new fillings as a way of catering to the tastes of non-Chinese. That way they may be more appealing to other ethnic groups in Malaysia, but also friends of Malaysians living overseas who sometimes buy Fook Pan’s mooncakes to take home when they visit.
“The gweilos don’t know how to appreciate the traditional flavours of mooncakes, not because they don’t like it but because they’ve never had it before,” Goh says, using a Chinese term for Western people that translates as “ghost person”.
Though traditional mooncakes are still popular in Malaysia, as is the case in some other places, such as Hong Kong, a wide variety of alternative flavours and styles have appeared on the market in the past few decades to appeal to the country’s multicultural make-up.
Durian mooncakes filled with the creamy, pungent fruit are one example of a distinctly Southeast Asian take on the confection, while last year the Liangxian Food Co produced the most expensive mooncake in Malaysia – an extra-large one costing 3,888 ringgit (US$937). It contained some of the most highly coveted ingredients, such as the cordyceps fungus, bird’s nest, ginseng, saffron and other Chinese herbs – not to mention flakes of 24-carat edible gold.
“Compared to the more traditional mooncakes, we have a much bigger variety of flavours here [in Malaysia], from chocolate mooncakes to pandan mooncakes, and so on,” says Tang Ah Chai, chief executive officer of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, a resource centre.
Tang says mooncakes were brought to Malaysia and Singapore by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. The different Chinese dialect groups in the country each brought their own versions of the mooncake they traditionally made, such as the yam paste Chiu Chow mooncakes, he says.
Rebecca Goh says some of Fook Pan’s customers request fillings with ingredients that are difficult to obtain. In that case they will be expected to make a minimum order of 12 boxes, with four cakes in a box.
Among the traditional flavours that Fook Pan still makes are red date mooncakes, which are considered a rarity these days. Though their origins are unknown, Rebecca Goh says her parents first tasted them in Taiwan in the 1990s.
Goh Kean shows how he makes the mooncakes, deftly kneading together the ingredients for the pastry with his fingers. He uses a couple of moulds to shape the cakes, which he can exert pressure on with his hands or an air pump. The making of red date mooncakes is particularly laborious, because of the length of time it takes to fry the jujube fruit for the paste, he says.
Customers tell them that there is a distinct difference in taste between mooncakes churned out by a factory and those made by hand, Rebecca Goh says.
“When you use the machine, the lotus paste has to be firmer because it’s going through a machine, whereas ours tends to be softer because we can make them by hand,” she says.
Fook Pan’s mooncakes are made without the use of preservatives, and taste much more delicate than those made in a factory. It’s all a part of Fook Pan’s artisanal selling point, she says.
The Gohs have fostered close relationships with their former cooking school students, and many still patronise the business, she says. They’ve also built close ties with universities and Chinese associations, supplying them with mooncakes and other pastries for traditional festivals and events.
However, as age has caught up with the elderly Gohs, “they had no choice but to go back to small scale [business]”, their daughter says. In the four weeks leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival, the couple used to run weekend cooking classes for up to 12 students at a time. However, they now prefer instead to host one-on-one classes.
Rebecca Goh says the younger generation of Chinese Malaysians are not as enthusiastic as older generations when it comes to tradition, but maybe that is because they are spoiled for choice.
“When we were younger, we didn’t get to eat all these [different types of] mooncake,” she says.
“There was less stuff to eat, less variety. Nowadays there are a lot more brands around … there’s Japanese cheesecakes and cheese tarts coming in, whereas back in our time, there was fewer of these overseas things coming in, less choice.
“But of course you’ll go back to your childhood memories and so, though young people are less enthusiastic, somehow or other this is still a festive event for them,” she says of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a time when young couples traditionally spend a romantic evening outside gazing at the moon.
The march of modernity can be hard on old-style family businesses such as Fook Pan, but Rebecca Goh does not see that as a problem: for her, the business is still doing well financially. Her elderly parents still enjoy baking, and their daughter has helped turn the factory into a place where they can work and be close to people they know.
“They have always worked, so I just want them to enjoy what they are doing and help them to keep in touch with their customers,” she says.