Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Singapore based personal blog of true stories by johorkaki@gmail about best food, people & places around the world

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Story of Tong Heng the Singapore Egg Tart 東興茶室

Tong Heng's signature diamond shaped egg tart is synonymous with Singapore egg tart. You won't find this in Hong Kong, Macau or Portugal.

A couple of days ago, I bumped into fourth generation Tong Heng boss, Fong Wai Keong at Jurong Point mall. Over kopi and chendol at Malaysia Boleh! food court, Wai Keong shared with me his great grandfather's story - the Tong Heng story.

Today's Tong Heng is a contemporary looking cafe in Chinatown's South Bridge Road. Founded in 1935 in Smith Street, the story of Tong Heng is the story of Singapore Chinatown, the Singapore immigrant and my country.

Tong Heng's story began in the dark days of the end of the Qing Dynasty which collapsed under internal rot and external pressures. Sun Yat Sen declared the Republic of China (in 1911). The old civilisation fell into anarchic warlordism. Famine and disease spread and worsened. Able bodied men were forced off their homes to strange lands to sell the only thing they have - the sweat off their backs, like mules.

America, the Land of Opportunity and the legendary Gold Mountain (舊金山 San Francisco) was the destination of choice. But, word soon got back to China that the Gold Mountain no longer glittered and Americans weren't very welcoming.

By this time, Raffles declared Singapore a Free Port and Nanyang became the destination of choice of the masses, desperate to escape the chaos in China. Among them was Fong Chee Heng from Dongguan, Guangdong.

Fong Chee Heng was a huge man, nearly two metres tall. He was a 衙門官 public security official (i.e. police) before the end of Qing. Landing in Singapore around 1910, Fong Chee Heng like all immigrants, had to rebuild his life from scratch. He began by selling coffee and tea plying the streets and lanes of Kreta Ayer, Chinatown with pots and charcoal stoves slung across his sturdy broad shoulders.

Soon after he started business, Fong Chee Heng was set upon by a group of gangsters demanding protection money. As he had no money on him, Fong Chee Heng pleaded with the thugs to give him a day's grace. The gangsters showed no mercy and started to thrash his stall and beat him up.

But, little did they know that Fong Chee Heng was a Qing Dynasty security official well schooled in the martial arts. He singlehandedly disarmed the half dozen thugs and sent them running to save their butts from getting kicked further.

All these drama was witnessed by a large group of admiring bystanders. The next day when Fong Chee Heng started his day's business, he was approached by a large crowd. To the cheers of the crowd, the leader of the group presented Fong Chee Heng with a pistol and proposed to appoint him the "sheriff" of Chinatown. Fong Chee Heng declined the offer but promised that anyone was welcome to approach him, if they needed any help.

When he saved enough money, Fong Chee Heng opened Tong Heng Tea Room 東興茶室 in 1935 at 33, Smith Street. Tong Heng Tea Room is the Cantonese equivalent of the Hainanese coffee shop but instead of kaya toast, the focus is on Cantonese pastries to go with tea and coffee.

Tong Heng became the unofficial local community club where folks gathered for drinks and old hometown pastries. It's a space where Kreta Ayer folks meet up to keep up with the news from home (China) and catch up with each other. People needing help also come here to look for Fong Chee Heng. His son Fong Cheok Kai carried on the tradition.

Tong Heng on Smith Street survived the Second World War. It narrowly missed the Japanese bombs, one of which destroyed Lai Chun Yuen 梨春园 - the legendary Cantonese opera house just across the street.

In 1983, the Singapore government acquired the entire Smith Street and Tong Heng moved to 285 South Bridge Road, its current address. Today, 33 Smith Road is occupied by Yang Zhou Restaurant just beside the HomeTeamNS Club, the modern public safety guardians of Singapore.

Today, Tong Heng is run by third and fourth generation Fong Choy Wah, Fong Seow Hua and Ana Fong. Much have changed at Tong Heng, especially its contemporary look and feel. It reminded me of the Lady M shop in New York City - bright, clean, long narrow space with pastries displayed on one side and intimate but comfortable seats on the other.

New beautiful clothes but the spirit of Tong Heng is the same. The same decades old dedication faithfully goes into every hand crafted Tong Heng egg tart.

The third and fourth generation of Tong Heng pour their heart and soul into every Tong Heng egg tart and every piece of pastry that leaves their shop.

Tong Heng makes the full range of traditional Cantonese pastries but the brand is synonymous with the diamond shaped Singapore egg tart.

Tong Heng have through the years made egg tarts in the traditional round shape and also experimented with other patterns such as oval, star and floral shapes. Eventually, the diamond emerged as the most popular and it became the iconic Singapore egg tart since the 1960s.

I had always thought of Tong Heng as a confectioner not a tea house. The transformational moment came in the 1960s (I was a child then). Without Fong Chee Heng's permission while he was away (as grandpa would not approve), Fong Wai Keong's young aunts boldly put the egg tarts up on display at the front of the shop. Business jumped nearly 10 fold. The rest is Singapore egg tart history.

Tong Heng makes two types of egg tarts - one with pure egg custard (price $1.90) and the other has grated coconut inside (price $2.10).

The suggested way to appreciate the Singapore egg tart is to start at one of the pointy ends. Feel the light fluffy, buttery crisp crumble in your mouth.

When you reach the middle, pause a while. As the semi liquid pure egg custard melts in your mouth, let the sweet eggy flavour and aroma linger awhile on your tongue and spread around to your inner nasal passages. Allow the smooth, rich eggy custard to seduce you, creating sweet memories of Singapore food in your mind. Then, finish off with that buttery sweet fluffy crisp again at the other end.

The idea is for you to reach for another Tong Heng egg tart and start from end to end like a train, again and again subconsciously 😄

Don't worry, let some crumbs fall inevitably on the table. Enjoy the serenity that comes with accepting that some things in life are beyond your control 😄

The coconut version is sweeter with the eggy custard layered with coconut sweetness. The smooth egg custard is punctuated with soft crunchy shreds of hand grated fresh coconut.

I like both egg tarts equally.

Besides their famous egg tarts, Tong Heng is still true to its tea house roots. You can get a full range Cantonese pastries served with coffee and tea.

I tried their "roti fried egg with kaya 裸体煎蛋 😜 ", Tong Heng's answer to the kaya toast of Hainanese kopitiam.

It's a thin slice of pan fried bread topped with fried egg served with a spread of house made creamy kaya (coconut jam) on top. It's layers of savouriness and sweetness with a mix of crisp and soft textures.

Very old school and worth a try but be warned about its sweetness and a bit of grease.

👉 If you are visiting Singapore, do have the uniquely Singapore diamond egg tart on your bucket list. Try it at Tong Heng - in the sweet eggy pastry you will be taking home food memories and a bit of the Singapore story.

Restaurant name: Tong Heng 東興茶室 (Chinatown outlet)
Address: 285 South Bridge Rd, Singapore 058833
GPS1°16'53.7"N 103°50'42.0"E | 1.281585, 103.844986
Tel6223 3649
Hours: 9:00am - 9:00pm (closes at 10pm on Thurs, Fri & Sat)

Restaurant name: Tong Heng (Jurong Point outlet)
Address: 1 Jurong West Central 2, #B1-10 Jurong Point 1 Singapore 648886 (at Boon Lay MRT station)
Tel: 67946292
Hours09:30am - 10:00pm

The egg tarts are also made on site at Jurong Point, so we get exactly the same things whether at Jurong Point or Chinatown.

If you like to know what Fong Wai Keong and I had ➣

Kopi at Malaysia Boleh! 👈 click
Chendol at Malaysia Boleh! 👈 click

Date: 24 May 2018

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1 comment:

  1. my favourite egg tart ! their 核桃 biscuit also v nice


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