'I cannot bear to let go': Final days of 90-year Tan Hock Seng bakery filled with reluctant goodbyes

One of the last few independent, traditional pastries shops.

Fiona Tan | October 30, 2021, 04:16 PM

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Traditional Hokkien pastry shop Tan Hock Seng will be closing at the end of this month, after operating for 90 years.

Tan Boon Chai, the bakery's third generation owner. Image from @tanhocksengsg/Instagram.

Established in 1931

For those unfamiliar, here's a brief history of Tan Hock Seng bakery.

It all began with current owner Tan Boon Chai's grandfather Tan Tiam, a Chinese migrant from the Tong'an district in China's Fujian province.

The elder Tan set up shop at China Street and started hawking his Hokkien baked goods in 1931.

Image courtesy of Tan Boon Chai.

Old Tan Hock Seng paper bag with China Street address. Image from @bymyoldschool/Carousell.

Tan Hock Seng at China Street circa 1950. Image by Fiona Tan.

The bakery was later handed down to Tan's father, Tan Kar Teng, before Tan took over when he was only 20.

Tan picked up the trade by spending countless hours in the shop where he learnt and watched others make the pastries.

Tan Hock Seng bakery shop at China Street in September, the woman in green with arm on her shoulder is Boon Chai's mother. Image from @tanhocksengsg/Instagram.

The bakery's decorations that is unique to the month of September. Image courtesy of Tan Boon Chai.

Much of Chinatown, Tanjong Pagar and Telok Ayer was in for a major overhaul in the 1980s to the 1990s, and the bakery had to move from its initial address and eventually settled at the current location.

Since 2000, Tan has been running the business for the past 21 years at Far East Square.

Tan in a light blue polo shirt behind the lady in red in 1988. Image courtesy of Tan Boon Chai.

Tan Hock Seng at Far East Square on Sep. 27, 2021. Image by Fiona Tan.

After hearing about its closure, customers from all parts of Singapore came to get their hands on the bakery's famed pastries for one last time.

Some customers waited for more than an hour for the baked goods to emerge from the oven, and a kerfuffle apparently happened between two zealous aunties who were waiting in line, according to the bakery owner's wife.

I visited the traditional bakery at Telok Ayer twice in September to speak with the 71-year-old, and catch a glimpse of this heritage shop's final days.

Counting down to last few days

When I first visited Tan Hock Seng on Sep. 27, the unassuming storefront was quiet.

However, the kitchen at the back, where the pastries were produced, was abuzz with activities.

Tan was elbows deep in pastry preparation with three employees. They were in the midst of rolling, filling, and forming the bakery's final batches of tau sar piah.

At 71, Tan appeared to be robust for his age.

From preparing and baking the goods behind the kitchen, to meeting and greeting customers at the storefront's counter, he was always on the move.

Tan Boon Chai, in red, making Tau Sar Piah. Image by Fiona Tan.

The bakery, which used to retail as many as over 40 different types of baked goods, has now whittled its menu down to a few crowd favourites.

The savoury green bean filled pastry, along with the beh teh saw, pong piah, and mooncakes, are among some of the more popular items from the bakery.

Their tau sar piah's popularity was evident. Just three days later, on my subsequent visit to Tan Hock Seng on Sep. 3o, several customers were disappointed to learn that the pastry and many of its other offerings were sold out.

Tan shared that his plan is to finish up whatever raw ingredients that are left in the inventory.

Snaking hour-long queues by old-time customers

Tan Hock Seng bakery was only making beh teh saw, which literally translates to “horse hoof crispy biscuits", on my second visit.

Beh Teh Saw being made on Sep. 30. Image by Fiona Tan.

To ensure more customers can get to buy their beh teh saw, Tan Hock Seng had to limit each person to 10 pieces of the pastry.

To avoid making an empty trip, Tan and his wife, Yeo Ah Sui, also advised customers to arrive early at 11am.

Auntie Yeo getting ready for the sale of Beh Teh Saw. Each customer can only purchase ten pieces. Image by Fiona Tan.

And arrive early, they did.

First in line was a middle aged Singaporean couple, who reached before 10am with their young son in tow on Sep. 30.

Speaking to Mothership, the couple said that they took leave from work just so they could purchase Tan Hock Seng's beh teh saw, their family's favourite, for one last time.

While waiting in line, the wife disclosed that she has been eating the bakery's Beh Teh Saw since she was a child, and had later introduced the pastry to her husband and child.

Tan Hock Seng pastry box. Image by Fiona Tan.

Despite arriving just a few minutes later than the family of three, Sandy, who is in her 60s, was already standing behind a few more people.

Sandy is also an ardent supporter of the bakery. She told Mothership that she got to know this bakery after she started working in the vicinity of the bakery 34 years ago. She had purchased its baked goods and sweets on numerous occasions.

Occasionally, the lady boss was spotted doing down the line to ensure safe distancing between customers in the queue. When it comes to the regulars, she would stop to have a chat with them.

Yeo talking to people waiting in line. Image by Fiona Tan.

Yeo talking to people waiting in line. Image by Fiona Tan.

The wait for the beh teh saw to emerge fresh from the oven wound up to be more than an hour long on Sep. 30, yet the family of three, Sandy, and so many others stood in line patiently and did not kick up a fuss.

Farewell to old-time staff

The final days of Tan Hock Seng were definitely full of goodbyes.

It was the last day of work for three staff members, including two long-time employees, on Sep. 30.

One of them had worked in the bakery for more than 20 years.

To mark the special occasion, Tan's daughter-in-law brought a chocolate cake to be shared amongst the employees during their meal break, after the team finished making the last batch of beh teh saw.

Two of the bakery's long-standing employees. Image by Fiona Tan.

Like the chocolate cake, the moment was bittersweet for Tan and his wife.

Splitting ways with these old-time employees, who are almost like their family, is an emotional affair for Tan's daughter-in-law too.

She was on the verge of tears when I asked if she would like to share more about her thoughts.

Tan's daughter-in-law working alongside him. Image by Fiona Tan.

"No choice" but to close down

After helming the shop for 50 years, Tan had "no choice" but to throw in the towel for mainly three reasons.

Firstly, the bakery's lease with Far East Organisation will end in November.

Secondly, Tan and his employees were getting on in their years.

Tan admitted, albeit reluctantly, that he is not getting any younger and said, "I will be honest with you. I cannot stay in this line and continue any longer. I'll only have around one year left in my tank, two years tops."

In the past 50 years, Tan Hock Seng opened every day, except for the first day of Chinese New Year, Tan shared. He added regrettably, "I cannot bear to let go [of the bakery]."

Tan's children have no plans to take over the reins.

While his two sons and daughter do enjoy the pastries that he makes, Tan added that they have never learnt how to make the pastries.

Tan said, "They are not interested, and have their own careers."

In fact, they have been urging their 71-year-old father to retire for many years.

Potential buyer

To hone the craft of traditional pastry making takes at least 10 years, one of the employees shared.

There are not many people left in Singapore with the know-how, and those know how to do it are aging, like Tan and his employees.

Running a traditional bakery is also no easy feat, as the hours start as early as 4am.

However, not all might be lost for Tan Hock Seng bakery.

Tan is open to exploring alternate avenues to continue the bakery's legacy, and shared that negotiations are underway with a potential buyer.

Should an agreement be reached, Tan might return onboard to mentor the new owners.

The bakery may pivot to an online business too, Tan said.

While the future for Tan Hock Seng remains to be seen, what's certain is that Tan and his wife will be taking a break for now.

A break that is long overdue.

Image by Fiona Tan.

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Top image by Fiona Tan, courtesy of Tan Boon Chai and screenshot via HappyCat.黑皮猫's YouTube video. Quotes have been edited for clarity.