The scent hangs in the air like a trail of cookie crumbs; a whiff of sugar, eggs and milk folded into soft white flour, then stirred and pounded and baked till golden. Walk past the antique stores, haberdasheries and juice stalls of Queen’s Road East in Wan Chai and you’ll soon find the source of this delicious aroma: the Happy Cake Shop, a family-run bakery.
Inside the tiny shop, coral-coloured flowers painted onto old square wall tiles match the green squares lining the floor. In between them stands a classic family ancestral shrine and rows and rows of freshly baked buns. Hong Kong-style buns. There are pineapple buns, cocktails buns, ham and egg buns, tuna fish buns, coconut cream buns and piggy buns. Many of them have misleading names: the pineapple bun contains no pineapple, the cocktail bun no alcohol and the piggy bun no pork, but most customers who come in know exactly what they want anyway.
The Happy Cake Shop is unlike the myriad of Maxims, Saint Honorés or Taipans you see in MTR stations around the city. This is not a chain or franchise bakery where stacks of plastic trays are laid out at the entrance waiting for customers to self-select from numerous shelves. Baked goods here are not accompanied by clearly labelled bilingual signs; there are no names. The buns and pastries are laid out on trays according to what just came out fresh from the oven. You have to recognise your favourite or take your chances and go with one of the recommendations of the owner, Wong Siu-ping. Judging by the constant flow of customers coming in and out of the bakery though, you can’t really go wrong.
Wong opened the bakery almost 40 years ago in 1979 after doing an apprenticeship at a bakery in To Kwa Wan. It wasn’t an obvious choice for a new arrival from Bao’an, a then-rural district across the border in Shenzhen. “I had never made bread before, let alone used an oven,” he says. “When a relative introduced me to a baker in Hong Kong, I though why not try something new and learn a skill?”
Nowadays, the small bakery runs nearly round the clock to fulfil the demands of its customers. “We start the first shift at midnight, then work till eight in the morning,” says Wong. “The 7am shift replaces the night shift and on we go.” The front of shop opens at 6am for those wanting to grab breakfast on their way to work and closes at 8:30pm for those needing something to tide them over till dinner. The busiest time starts around 11am and continues throughout most of the day. Customers point and gesture for a hot dog topped with cucumbers, tomatoes and a slather of mayonnaise, or a carton of chocolate milk from the side fridge. One customer asks for a bag of mini cupcakes, which Wong grabs from behind the counter. “I come all the way here especially for these cupcakes,” explains the customer, Mrs. Chan. “They are small in size and not too sweet, so it is perfect for children.”
Most of Wong’s customers are regulars from the neighbourhood – the gaai1 fong1 (街坊) as these familiar strangers are known in Cantonese. Two schoolgirls in uniform come in and cannot make up their minds; Wong’s wife is already commenting on how one of them has cut their hair differently. “We get many students coming in after school every day for their snack on their way home, in a way we see them grow up,” says Mrs. Wong.
It’s rare for a Hong Kong business to last a decade, let alone four of them. The Wongs attribute their success to the quality of their baked goods. “Everything is freshly baked. Our most popular products are the pineapple bun, the cocktail bun and egg tarts, but we do innovate from time to time,” says Mr. Wong. He points to the blueberry buns and the blueberry chiffon cakes in the display case by the front window, which were made after the bakery’s si1 fu2 (master) noted how popular they had become at other establishments. A few other baked goods stand out, including a batch of sugar-coated doughnuts – a deep-fried treat that isn’t especially common in Hong Kong. “Oh yes, the dung1 lat1 (冬甩) – yes, [we’ve sold them] since the beginning,” says Wong as takes an empty tray into the back of the shop.
The origin of many Hong Kong-style baked goods has never been clear. Most of them stem from the exposure to Western food during the colonial period – and above all the introduction of the oven. Almost all traditional Cantonese food is boiled, steamed or fried, and household kitchens never included an oven.
Hong Kong bakeries usually offer several categories of bread, biscuits and pastries. One is classic Chinese pastries usually tied to a festival or belief such as flaky “wife cakes” (lou5 po4 beng2 老婆餅), mooncakes (jyut6 beng2 月餅) and melt-in-your-mouth almond biscuits (hang6 jan4 beng2 杏仁餅). Then there the variations of European cakes that you find filling the display cases of many bakeries, such as mango sponge cakes, chocolate eclairs, Black Forest cake, lemon cheesecake and coffee-flavoured Swiss rolls.
Finally, there is the fusion category, perhaps the most representative of Hong Kong. These treats were born to suit local tastes for bread that was not too hard, not too sweet and could be eaten pretty much at any time of day. The cocktail bun is an example. It reportedly invented by a baker in the 1950s who was tired of wasting perfectly good day-old buns. The baker decided to ground up old buns with sugar and coconut and use them as filling for fresh new buns. The idea of mixing different ingredients to make something new was similar to what a bartender does with an alcoholic cocktail, hence the name. Interestingly, the English name came first, and it was translated literally into Cantonese, becoming quite literally a “cock tail bun”: gai1 mei5 baau1 (雞尾包).
Another favourite is the pineapple bun (bo1 lo4 baau1 菠蘿包), which is the only bun added to the government’s official list of intangible cultural heritage. The bun contains no pineapple; instead, it is named for its sweet, crispy topping, which looks like the pericarp of the tropical fruit. The bun is made by combining a classic fluffy bun with a layer of cookie dough made of sugar, eggs, flour and lard. When a customer comes in to ask for a pineapple bun, Wong tells them to return in 15 minutes when a fresh batch is ready.
Soon after, another group of customers come in to ask for some Piggy buns (zyu1 zai2 baau1 豬仔包), which is the Chinese bakery’s version of the Portuguese dinner roll, which has a crispy exterior and soft, pillowy interior. “These don’t have pork in them,” says Wong. “You eat them with butter.” The quirky name most likely comes from its use as the base for pork chop sandwiches in Macau.
While the ovens behind are roaring away and the kneading machines churning slowly, the master or si1 fu2 (師傅) brings out another tray of fresh treats. His flip flops and shorts are covered in white flour and his chest is bare except for a large jade necklace that hangs around his neck. “I still help out with the baking sometimes,” says Wong, “but I am too old now to do it full time. My children are in other professions and they should stay in them. They are not interested in running the bakery.” Running a bakery is long, tiresome work: Wong and his wife only take a few days off during Chinese New Year and other big public holidays.
“It is a tough job, we work hard,” says Wong. “But it makes me happy to see people enjoying the quality of our products. We don’t cut corners.” Nearly 40 years ago, when Wong and his wife were deciding on a name, they thought of a Cantonese expression common in the business world: “If everyone works together we will be happy” (daai6 gaa1 gap3 zok3 jyu4 faai3 大家合作愉快). “So we named it the Happy Cake Shop,” says Wong, laughing.
Happy Cake Shop
106 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai. +852 2528 1391
Open daily from 6:00-20:30
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.