Thursday, March 30

Chawan Moon Cakes of Miri


In the early 8th month, only 60 pieces of moon cakes are made but when the Festival draws nearer, machines will be used to speed up production. Chin Leong still believes in producing cakes and pastries by hand.

TOWNS and cities with a big Chinese population will have their home-grown moon cake enterprise, some with more than 70 years of history — or maybe even 100 years.

Moon cakes have a historical and very political origin in China.

According to Chinese history and legends, the first appearance of these cakes was associated with secret messages, passed along to start a rebellion to overthrow the foreign Mongols rulers of the Yuan Dynasty.

Some legends said the coded messages were actually on the surface of the pastry while others proffered the secret messages were in the fillings.

Was the fall of the huge Mongol Empire caused by moon cakes? Again legends abound.

The Chinese immigrants to South East Asia brought their culture along with them.

Chin Leong managing director Kapitan Chan Soon Tiong runs the family business.

In Miri, the first commercial moon cakes were made by the Chawan Chop Chin Leong more than 70 years ago.


Early history

When oil was discovered at Oil Well No.1, many Chinese from Southern China migrated to Miri via Singapore, Hong Kong and the then Jesselton.

Some came through official labour agents, others in their junks! While most worked for the oil company, others those settled down as farmers along Sungei Krokop, now Krokop Lorong 3.

The Sungei Krokop and the wells dug by the Chinese supplied water to the new settlers.

In those days, monkeys and wild boars still roamed around. The latter were often seen swimming across the Miri River. Those Chinese farmers with guns hunted them for food.

Farmsteads were few and far between, according to Kho Thian Boo, now 90, an honorary advisor of the Chawan Association of Miri.

He told thesundaypost there were probably about 100 families by the 1940s and the population slowly increased after the war as could be seen from the number of students enrolled in the Krokop Chung Hua Primary School and Kindergarten.

Kapitan Chan’s brother who has been working for the Chin Leong company since young.

Kho commented: “The Krokop Kindergarten helped many families look after the children. The older ones would go to the primary school and help bring the smaller ones to the kindergarten. While the kids were being educated, the parents were able to make a living. It was overall a good thing.”


One dirt road

At first, there were no roads beyond Krokop 2 — only one dirt road to Krokop 1 and 2. Many people living outside Krokop were afraid to visit their friends in Krokop beyond Krokop 1 or the cemetery area, known as No.23 (oil well No.23)

As the farmers prospered, shops were set up. Retail shops increased in Miri town to serve the farmers and the Malays in the kampungs as well as the foreign workers.

When the influx of Chinese and other ethnic groups increased, the need for food stalls, bread and biscuits increased in tandem. Supply of sand, concrete and other hardware were also in demand besides other building materials.

The abattoir was started at Krokop 2 as most pig farmers needed one to pass the town council’s health regulations.

Thus, Krokop became a small suburban centre by the 1960s — from attap and wooden houses to concrete town shops.

Over the past 30 years, Krokop changed rapidly into an industrial enclave of Miri and a very respectable residential area.

After the Hungry Ghost Festival, 60 fresh moon cakes are hand-made and sold at the counter every day.

The first mobile hawker, known as Mr Chan, another Chawan man, born in Marudi, and still operating at Krokop 1, started with baskets on his bicycle. Later, he upgraded to a four-wheel pushcart.

He served mainly the wharf labourers of Miri port and the students of Krokop Chung Hua Primary School in the 1950s. Today, his son operates an F and B outlet, serving excellent laksa.


First Chawan pastry shop

The Lunar month of the Eighth Moon sees the Chinese community busy preparing for the Mid- Autumn Festival.

Mooncakes are in demand, especially from Chop Chin Leong. People from all walks of life and different races, find it convenient to call at the shop and buy some from the traditional display cabinets.

Miri-born J Yang who loves mooncakes, told thesundaypost: “There’re many different kinds of moon cake. Not all are like those seen in advertisements which come in nice tins and oblong gift boxes and a pricy tag.

“I like the old simple sesame Chawan moon cake with a red word ‘MIDDLE’ (Zhong) imprinted on it. Zhong represents Mid- Autumn.”

A school teacher who wished to remain anonymous said in the past, people were poor and could only buy simple affordable biscuits, share a few pieces with relatives, organise a family reunion and gather for some ritual worshipping.

“In the old days, a big family lived together in Krokop in a single house, standing on short stilts of about three feet to prevent being inundated during flooding.

“Most of our houses were not big, so when our relatives gathered in the kitchen area on the ground floor, separate from the main house, we could have two or three round tables.

The much loved five kernels or mixed nuts Chawan moon cake.

“We would have simple food after worshipping the deities. The children would be given sweets and small slices of the Chin Leong mooncakes.

“My grandparents would buy just enough for worshipping and sharing. We were never excessive. Today, even good food is thrown away. What a pity.”

Ms Bernice Lim reminisced that when she was young, her mother would always send her to buy some flour Chop Chin Leong to make kuih.

The kind proprietors were always ready to accommodate their neighbours as the town was far away. Back then, kids didn’t have much money to buy extra pastry — much less, spend as they liked.

Chin Leong also makes pastries (moon cakes) shaped like fish, rabbit and pig, usually for ancestral worship.

One Chawan who loves Chin Leong pastries told thesundaypost:

“Having our own pastry shop with people speaking our dialect is something really good. For those from afar, when they hear the Chawan dialect being spoken, they would come to the shop.”


Moon cakes during Covid-19

This year, it’s likely Chinese school teachers would encourage their students to make and play with lanterns when the moon is full and bright during the Mid Autumn Festival which falls on Oct 1.

The fish moon cake, a favourite of children, and also a part of Chawan ritual worship and temple food.

Due to the pandemic, parents will not allow their children to play in the streets. Elders would probably not gather in associations to celebrate.

According to Sio Bee Chan, the staff makes one type of cake each morning and by two in the afternoon, freshly baked cakes are ready.

To ensure freshness, Chin Leong moon cakes are only made immediately after producing pik gow (a white steamed cupcake) for Ghost Festival.

Chin Leong is the only factory that produces pik gow once a year. Orders have to be made in advance ahead and the product is sold by weight.

Chin Leong makes a wide range of moon cakes, comprising lotus paste, lotus paste single yolk, lotus paste double yolk, durian paste, chocolate lotus paste, pandan lotus paste, green tea lotus, mixed nuts, red bean paste single yolk, green bean paste and red bean paste.

Initially, Chin Leong biscuits were shipped to Brunei, Lawas, Limbang and even Kota Kinabalu by coastal boats, and the Baram by smaller boats in the 1950s.

Chin Leong managing director Kapitan Chan Soon Tiong’s late father, who started it all, brought all the recipes from China. Today, his old table and many of the antiquated equipment such as moulds are still being used.


Hand vs machine

Most of the staff has been with Chin Leong company for many decades. On ordinary days, all the products are hand-made — from cooking the ingredients and baking to packaging.

Younger workers are needed to carry the heavy kuali and the hot and almost boiling peanut mixtures in big containers.

The staff have their positions at the tables for the various biscuits of the day.

On other days, they might have to be elsewhere but they are independent and need not be instructed every day.

Machinery now helps with some parts of the pastry making to speed up production. But where possible, human touch and labour are still the best.

This well was dug during the time of Kapitan Chan’s father when the family first settled in Krokop 3.

Mooncake season

On the packaging, Chin Leong managing director Kapitan Chan said they tried to cut cost by importing ready-made paper boxes.

Most of their moon cakes are still sold in traditional red wrappings which reduces a lot of costs. For now, the company is not thinking of getting beautiful tins for their moon cakes.

Chan also said due to Covid-19, he was not increasing production.

Customers would walk in to buy and some come every day for freshly baked pastries.

Presently, Chin Leong only makes 60 double egg yolk moon cakes a day. As there has been heightened awareness on healthy eating, Chan said their pastries now contain less sugar and lard — no preservatives since the time of his parents.

He advised that all pastries bought from Chin Leong should be consumed within a week if not kept in a fridge.

As Kapitan, Chan has a lot of commitments as he can be called to attend a funeral or help solve some social problems.

As Chawan Association of Miri chairman and serving in many other associations and societies, he has to attend a lot of meetings.

Chan is assisted by his younger brother in the company.

He is happy with his loyal staff, saying even with the pandemic, the factory will ensure there are enough moon cakes for the Mid Autumn Festival in Miri.