KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 16 — It’s not easy to abandon a legacy. That’s how Leonard Lee Kim Fook felt about his family business, Seong Ying Chai, that has spanned almost 80 years.
After a two-year hiatus, Leonard who is the third generation, decided it was time to revive the mooncake making for this Mid-Autumn festival.
Started back in 1935 by Leonard’s grandfather, Lee Yat Chor, the restaurant located at Davidson Road (now Jalan Hang Jebat) was well known for its Cantonese fare.
The elder Lee was originally from Shunde, China. In the old days, it was a popular supper venue especially with those who used to frequent the dance halls.
Later in 1975, they opened a second branch in San Peng Road. There is also close ties with Hong Kong where Leonard’s grand uncle also opened a restaurant.
Influenced by the Hong Kong relatives, the family started to make and sell mooncakes about 60 years ago here.
Sadly about two years ago, the family decided to close the whole business since Leonard’s father, Lee Hup Ngoh, had to go for an operation.
This year, Leonard decided that it’s the right time to bring back the brand. “We came back as we want everyone to enjoy the old-time mooncakes,” he said.
Since the business shuttered, that decision had weighed heavily on Leonard’s mind. He even dreamt how disappointed his predecessors will be. “Sometimes I dream my ancestors will scold me... ‘why didn’t you continue the business?’”.
Planning started a year ago when Leonard decided to give it a try this festival. With the support of his wife Jaclyn and the whole family, he took a month off from his day job to start back the business. It worked well too for his family ties.
“It was an opportunity to see my parents often and it brings everyone together... we talk to each other so the time passes by when we’re making mooncakes.”
When he decided to restart the business, Leonard tweaked how the mooncakes would be produced. It’s no longer a large operation with workers and machines.
He had to scale back operations to become an artisanal one; small batches made by order and entirely by hand. “I want to bring back the old taste as using the machine and without it, the mooncake has a different taste,” he explained.
Aside from his family members, Leonard has also pulled back faithful workers from before like the 60-year old “Leng Jeh” or Liew Kuah Chan. The skilled woman started working for the restaurant when she was 17; she learned how to make dim sum, yee sang and mooncakes.
For Leonard, he tells us, since he was 12-years old, he was roped in to work at the restaurant. “If we didn’t do it, we will be caned!”
He is skilled in cooking fried rice... until the hair on his forearms were burnt away from the heat, he said! And of course, he learned how to cook the lotus paste filling and make mooncakes since young.
When he decided to re-start the business, he made a trip down to Singapore to visit his elder aunt who had migrated there. The 80-year-old woman was the one he consulted since she is extremely skilled in making mooncakes, right down to approving the texture of the snow skin for the mooncake.
Despite the hard work and sleepless nights, the results have been rewarding for Leonard. He recalled how a customer was so happy to discover they had re-opened as he has been eating their mooncakes since he was five years old and he is now 40!
He added, “Majority of the customers have been eating it for more than 20 years!” Some customers also keep ordering after they tasted their mooncakes.
Leonard hopes to continue this tradition of making mooncakes. “If you don’t take it up, the craft will be lost.” As his own children are too young to take over the business, he is willing to teach others how to make mooncakes.
“For me, I would like to have many generations doing it as this is our culture,” he explained. The participants are usually friends who will come in for an informal workshop where all they need to do is pay for their ingredients.
When operations started a few weeks ago, they started to make Kei Chee biscuits from the chewy mooncake crusts. It comes in various shapes from adorable piglets to fish and butterflies.
The piglet-shaped biscuits are also part of their special Seven Wonder Premier mooncake where they are served with a whopping seven salted egg yolk baked mooncake.
You also have their Shanghai mooncakes with their light, flaky pastry. These are filled with yam paste and salted egg yolk. Various lotus paste, red bean paste and yam paste mooncakes are also offered. They also have a fragrant pandan lotus paste. All the fillings are hand cooked in a huge wok.
It’s a small list of mooncakes at the moment but next year, Leonard hopes to introduce a Musang King durian mooncake. “We can do any kind of mooncakes, it depends on the customer’s needs.”
As they only take pre-orders, they can also tailor make to their customer’s requests. For instance, some ask for more salted egg yolks. There was even one that asked for a mixed version — half red bean paste and half lotus paste.
At first glance, the snow skin or ping pei mooncakes look ordinary — not fancy like the ones produced by the established brands. Even the pattern is not etched out sharply like others.
But after you try a piece of the mooncake, you understand why their regulars missed this taste so much. The skin is soft and supple. No hard, chewy bits. And best of all, it’s not overly sweet, making each bite of the mooncake incredibly enjoyable.
“It’s our home recipe that we mix by hand... kinda like practising tai chi for 15 minutes! It’s a secret recipe; the method and proportions,” shared Leonard.
Even for a practised hand like Leonard who used to make the mooncakes as a child, it’s not been easy to master the texture. This has resulted in many failed batches.
“If it’s not up to the quality, we will throw it away as it’ll spoil the image of the brand.” Most importantly, the snow skin texture must be approved by the mooncake master who is Leonard’s aunt.
That’s how dedicated the family is in keeping the tradition alive for their mooncakes.
Seong Ying Chai Mooncake
No. 191A, Jalan Hang Jebat
As they don’t keep stocks, the mooncakes are only made by pre-orders via WhatsApp.