It’s human nature to be curious and intrigued by something that’s not so out there. The idea that you could be discovering something so mysterious gives one such a thrill that it becomes impossible to say no to. That’s why when we heard about a particular mooncake shop hidden between alleys in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown — from an equally mysterious friend of a friend, which added to the enigmatic appeal — we popped by for a visit.
Seong Ying Chai isn’t that hard to find, surprisingly, you just have to manouvre the streets (and your car) smartly around the tight alleys of Chinatown, and you’ll find a nondescript shop with bright red signage filled with Chinese characters. Otherwise, if you’re not well-versed in reading Chinese, the queue of people waiting for their mooncakes will be a good indicator.
Leonard Lee Kim Fook, the third-generation mooncake maker of this shop will greet you at the entrance (if things are not too busy inside), and if you’re lucky, he might regale you with tales and history of how the shop came to be. As it turns out, we were quite lucky that day.
The Pastry Legacy
Seong Ying Chai was established by Leonard’s grandfather, Lee Yat Chor as a Cantonese restaurant in 1935 along what was formerly known as Jalan Davidson (now Jalan Hang Jebat).
His ancestors were from Shunde, China, a district known for its brilliant Cantonese cuisine and chefs, so naturally, his family and his father, Lee Hup Ngoh, continued the legacy.
“Our family restaurant became a well-established name in Chinatown and over the years has gathered a loyal following of regulars, especially for mooncakes,” Leonard told us, “It was our relatives in Hong Kong who largely influenced our starting out in the mooncake business in 1952, as a natural development of our Cantonese food offerings.”
However, things came to stall a few years back, but according to Leonard, he kept having dreams of reviving the brand. He said, “It is essential to carry on the legacy of handmade mooncakes. That’s why I decided to start this business in 2018, after a few years’ break.”
Naturally, his family was surprised by this decision.
“What? Are you crazy? In the past, we had to force you to make mooncakes, and now you want to restart the business?” they questioned.
“There is no other explanation except to say that I am compelled to,” admitted Leonard. “I felt uneasy and sad at not carrying on the family tradition after all these years, and felt that I was letting the Seong Ying Chai name down.”
The Call of the Customers
Regulars kept calling the family who ran Seong Ying Chai back when it was closed, to ask when they were going to restart their mooncake-making business.
“So many voices adding on to the ones I imagined my ancestors, chastising me for not carrying on the family business which had been in existence for nearly a century!” said Leonard.
“Our customers and their families love the taste of our mooncakes to the extent that some had stopped eating them altogether when we closed (because they couldn’t find anything to suit their taste) and constantly called us to ask us to start making them again so that they could again enjoy the flavours that they have loved for decades,” he added.
These days, Leonard and his wife, Jacklyn, work on reviving Seong Ying Chai. But for the former, the journey in mooncake making started as early as seven, when he was playing and helping his parents as they made mooncakes with the other workers.
“I remember standing on a biscuit tin (the ones as big as kerosene tins) to reach the table,” said Leonard, “From the time I was 13, I was working at Seong Ying Chai and other restaurants where I was waiting on tables, learning how to cook and making mooncakes when the season came around.”
Gradually, he also learned how to make various fillings for the mooncakes, as well as the mooncakes themselves. Together with his family (his father and mother who are still in the kitchen with Leonard), they have perfected the art of mooncake making.
“What is better than on-the-job training which I’ve had since I was 7? Nothing!” said Leonard, “No culinary school will be able to pass on the skills like knowing when to stop stirring when the paste has reached its best doneness.’ Or when the crystal skin is mixed to just the right consistency to give our customers the right texture and bite that Seong Ying Chai is known for.”
Mix over 40 years of training, tips from Leonard’s elderly aunt and lessons from sifus from Hong Kong and China, you’ll find that Seong Ying Chai mooncakes are quite phenomenal.
Old Habits Die Hard
Seong Ying Chai’s artisanal mooncakes stand out from the rest, and they do keep things authentic and handmade (painstakingly!) in batches so that customers can enjoy the freshest of mooncakes.
As the brand completely forgoes preservatives, one best believes that it cannot get any better!
Unknown to outsiders and customers, Seong Ying Chai does a lot of R&D before any products are put up for sale. Different types of flour and butter for pineapple tarts and pastry skin for Shanghai mooncakes are tested in batches before a decision is made on which is best.
Leonard does admit that it is quite challenging at times to get good quality ingredients in Malaysia, according to him, they “either find something we are happy with or we do not launch the product at all.” In other words, this means that you’ll be hard-pressed to find cheap ingredients here that can be easily spotted at supermarkets!
What to Order When You Order
Seong Ying Chai has a range of unique mooncake ensembles:
- Seven Wonder Premier Mooncake, which is a seven-yolk mooncake with seven lotus-paste filled piggy mooncakes encircling it.
- Four Koi Grabbing Pearl (a large mooncake with four koi swimming around it)
- Five Lucky Stars (a large mooncake surrounded by four mini mooncakes)
- Street Fighter, a mini cake with what customers regard as an insanely delicious pineapple filling (named after Leonard’s passion for Street Fighter comics)
- Mixed Nuts Mooncakes (healthy snacks even for the elderly, with imported high-quality nuts)
- Crispy Yam Mooncake
- Crystal Chocolate Mooncake (our personal favourite)
Aside from the usual mooncakes, Seong Ying Chai also bakes prosperity peach biscuits for birthdays and traditional Chinese wedding cakes.
Mooning over More
We heard that there were workshops held every now and then, and we enquired Leonard about this.
“We would like to educate more people and enhance their appreciation of mooncakes. To date we have held some informal workshops as space is very limited in our kitchen,” he answered.
“The response has been overwhelming and we constantly get enquiries on organising more,” said Leonard, “It is certainly something we should plan for the future, both for children and adults.”
Since it’s mooncake season, why not have a gander and a taste?
Seong Ying Chai Mooncake
No. 191A, Jalan Hang Jebat
Mooncakes are only made by pre-orders via WhatsApp.
Images by Shaffiq Farhan and Loke Poh Lin.