80-year-old Teochew pastry baker holds same job for 67 years, passing the craft on before retiring
67 years is a lifetime.
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To most Singaporeans, traditional pastries are an occasional treat.
Man of few words
But for one Chua Cha Lai, such pastries, especially the tau sar piah, is the way of life.
We met the veteran baker of Thye Moh Chan at its Chinatown Point outlet.
Juxtaposed to the hustle and bustle of the mall filled with shoppers who were making purchases for the impending festivities, the 80-year-old was quiet and composed.
Chua is a man of very little words, especially since there was a jarring language barrier between us.
He can only speak Teochew, while I can’t converse in Mandarin or any dialect for the life of me.
But when his mentee, 54-year-old Tan Hoe Peng, started asking him about his life and tau sar piah, he became alert, attentive, reminiscing the good old days of how he started making Teochew pastries.
Started working at 13
At the tender age of 13, Chua set to work to support his family.
With no experience nor education, he started his first (and now, only) job as a baker at a traditional bakery.
He added that while other people his age resorted to doing odd labour jobs, he decided to become a baker as he thought it was important to have a stable income.
Back in the day, he was trained by more than 10 mentors, some of whom hailed from Tangshan, China.
After five years of hard work, he eventually promoted to become the head chef of the bakery.
One could imagine what a huge feat it was to take on a leadership role at the cusp of adulthood.
But he nonchalantly passed off his achievements as if it was no big deal.
“Anyone can do it. If you’re hardworking, you only need five years to be experienced.”
With years of experience, he shared that he can make up to 800 tau sar piahs in a day (with some help from machines, of course).
Same company for over 30 years
After the traditional bakery he worked at closed down, he began to work for Thye Moh Chan from 1985.
This was back when the bakery only had one outlet in Liang Seah Street.
Having been with the same company for over 30 years, he has seen it through its highs and lows, including its brief closure in 2011.
That year, the bakery shut its doors due to its ageing staff and a shortage of manpower.
In 2012, however, the brand was revived by the BreadTalk Group.
From what used to be just one heritage bakery, it has now expanded to have a total of four outlets all over Singapore.
The revival of Thye Moh Chan came as good news to Chua, who was later re-hired as a consultant chef at its Chinatown Point outlet.
“When I get to work, I am very happy. I get to pass down these skills to the other bakers and handmade traditional Teochew pastries will not disappear.”
Nowadays, as a semi-retiree, Chua no longer has to hold the fort as the head chef at the bakery.
Happy to pass down skills
But his new appointment is equally as important.
As the consultant chef, he goes down to the bakery three to four times a week and is responsible for training the younger bakers whom are affectionately labelled as disciples.
While he usually knocks off in the afternoon, sometimes he would stay a little longer to teach his students more.
This happens not just because he loves what he does, but also because he feels it is his responsibility to preserve the dying trade as much as he can.
“I will be worried (if tau sar piahs are gone one day). (It is) best if we can pass down the tradition.”
And it seems like his efforts have not gone to waste, especially to his mentee Tan, who is filled with respect for his senior:
“He is a very helpful mentor who’s always willing to pass on his skills and knowledge in pastry making.”
More leisure than work
Having dedicated most of his life to Teochew pastries, one wonders what he does in his free time.
His answer: “Sleep ah, just sleep at home.”
Chua doesn’t even go out for walks, describing it as “very sian (boring)”.
It seems like you can’t take work away from this man as going to work is like leisure to him.
“If I come down here, I can pass the time. If I just sit around at home, the time seems to pass very slowly.”
Even though he enjoys his job a lot, it is not a career he wishes any of his children or grandchildren to have:
“This pastry making not good money lah. Some more, the kitchen so hot.”
Hopes to retire soon
At 80 years old, Chua could be spending his retirement years to relax and spend time with his family.
In fact, his own family has asked him (on several occasions) to put down the rolling pin for good.
When we asked him the same question that has been asked by several others, we were met with a moment of silence.
After all, how can you suddenly leave a job that you truly love after more than 60 years?
Chua has made the call to retire after this year — news that his family must have been relieved to hear.
Of course, this will happen once he has successfully passed down his skills and knowledge to the next generation of Thye Moh Chan bakers.
“I plan to retire this year-end. Now, I am teaching my students. Once I have passed down my skills to them, then I will retire.”
You can watch him in action here:
Top image by Mandy How & Fasiha Nazren