Like any other calligraphy artist, Jay Ng works with a brush and ink, but she is unique: her ink is food colouring, and instead of paper, she writes on delicious mirror glaze cakes.
Ng’s Chinese calligraphy cake has become a bestseller on her Instagram cake shop BYJ.HK, which has attracted more than 59,000 followers since it was founded in May 2017. The 25-year-old calls herself an “artistic baker”, as she fuses different forms of art, such as oil painting, calligraphy and poetry, with cake making.
Ng explains she’s been into Chinese literature since she was in secondary school, but none of her friends shared the same interest. She hopes the underappreciated art form can gain a broader audience in Hong Kong through the universal platform of food. “If you’re not a well-known artist and you want to sell paintings or calligraphy works in Hong Kong, it is really hard to draw people’s attention,” Ng says. “That’s why I wanted to combine art with cakes. [It] makes art a lot more accessible because people shop for cakes all the time.”
In addition to decorating her cakes with Chinese quotes, Ng also attaches a card to the cake box bearing Chinese poems or verses, which have been well-received by her customers.
Promoting art and Chinese culture has been Ng’s goal since day one, but she couldn’t afford to do so in the first year because of the city’s skyrocketing rent. Ng, who was still in her final year as a Chinese major at Hong Kong Shue Yan University when the cake shop began to operate, had invested most of her hard-earned savings into her business.
Ng knew it was too risky to begin by selling out-of-the-box cake designs, so she started out making mainstream designs that were already popular in the market, such as floral buttercream cakes, before she started experimenting with other creative styles.
“I quickly realised those floral cakes were not what I wanted to make the most. I didn’t just want to make a profit, I wanted to make art,” Ng recalls.
She admits it took months of experimentation to find the most suitable brushes and tools, and countless hours of practice before she mastered how to paint on a canvas that allows no room for error. Another tricky part of drawing on a cake is that icing melts easily, so every product that Ng makes is a race against the clock.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I was very slow at first. But I’ve trained myself to complete the paintings within a certain period of time, and now most of my cake paintings are made freehand,” she says.
Ng notes that portrait cakes are the most time-consuming to paint; it takes at least five hours to make the facial features come alive. Still, nothing is more challenging than writing Chinese calligraphy, as each stroke has to be extremely precise, and the spacing of the characters must be planned accurately.
“Some customers don’t understand why our calligraphy cakes are so pricey, but they take so much effort to make,” says Ng, referring to her five-inch cakes that are marked at HK$1,080 or more.
Among her calligraphy cakes, the most highly requested ones feature a slogan that has been chanted around the city during the ongoing anti-government protests: “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
Ng says she has made more than 100 cakes with protest-related messages on them since the movement began in June. Although she has received many hate messages for her high-profile support for the protesters, Ng believes she has the freedom to express her discontent with the government through art.
“The past six months have been very hard on Hongkongers,” Ng says.
Entering the third year of running her online cake shop, Ng has decided to devote more resources to creating art.
She is set to launch a new studio in Kwun Tong next month, where she plans to collaborate with local artists to organise different workshops to share their skills with the public.
While it appears that Ng is on the right track, the baker admits that managing a business of her own at a young age has worn her out. In the run-up to her shop’s grand opening, she was only getting one hour of sleep every night. Although she now has a team of six to handle the orders, Ng still has a lot on her plate.
“When I’m the boss, it’s even harder to decide when [to take] time off,” says Ng, staring at her two work phones that would buzz all day with customer inquiries.
For this reason, Ng is thinking of exploring new avenues. She will wait and see what happens with her new studio in the coming year. If things go according to plan, and her art platform becomes a success, she may bow out of her cake-making business to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a social worker.
“Being a social worker is something I’ve always wanted to do, and the desire is still burning,” she says.