Every year in May, a small island in Hong Kong celebrates a bun festival, where tens of thousands of buns stuffed with sweet bean paste are stacked into towers several stories high.
Many of them are made by hand at a small, family-run bakery called Kwok Kam Kee, which has been doing it for over four decades.
About two years ago, Martin Kwok, the owner, left a cushy job in finance to take over the shop from his father.
“I want to show my father and mother that they raised a good child.”
“My roots are here,” Kwok says. “This shop raised me. I need to do something to pay it back.”
Kwok’s father, Kwok Kam-chuen, opened the bakery in the 1970s. The family lives in Cheung Chau, a small, dumbbell-shaped island in Hong Kong that’s known for two things: having no cars and hosting an annual bun festival.
According to local lore, the festival started more than 300 years ago after a plague swept through the island and pirates threatened to invade.
As a plea to the gods for protection, the residents built towers of buns that could reach the heavens.
Today, the annual festival attracts tens of thousands of tourists to Cheung Chau. The island’s population, normally around 20,000, nearly triples during the festival period.
(Read more: An illustrated guide to all the Chinese buns)
The event’s main attraction is a race where athletes climb up a tower of fake, plastic buns and collect as many as they can on their way to the top, while on the ground, people give away real buns for good luck.
For Kwok Kam Kee, which provides buns for the festival, the real race begins one week prior, when bakers pitch in to make 60,000 buns in time for the big day.
“The whole family comes to help,” Kwok says. “We all reunite during the bun festival. For us, it’s even bigger than Chinese New Year.”
Most of the process is still done by hand, which Kwok insists preserves the bun’s soft texture. At their peak, one person can make eight buns in a minute.
“I don’t want to change the process,” Kwok says. “If it’s made by machine, the buns will taste like sandpaper.”
From banker to baker
For Martin Kwok, taking over the bakery was an unexpected career shift.
His father, Kwok Kam-chuen, was the son of mainland Chinese migrants and never finished high school. He wanted better for his own son and encouraged him to pursue other interests.
“I only opened this bakery to make money, earn a living, put food on the table,” Kwok Kam-chuen says. “It’s tiring work. I didn’t want my son to do this.”
So Martin Kwok kept his word. After finishing college, he worked for HSBC before joining a financial technology company in 2008, when fintech—the shorthand for financial technology—was still a burgeoning field.
Eventually, he became head of the Hong Kong subsidiary of a Singapore-based company, making more than $100,000 a year.
His career seemed to be on an upward trajectory. Peers saw great promise in him.
So they were all surprised when he decided to quit.
“Another company wanted to bring me onboard, to share with them how to run the business,” Kwok recalls. “But in the end, I said I could not help them because I wanted to become a baker. They couldn’t believe it.”
But when he explained his connection to the family shop and how much it meant to him, they began to understand.
“This shop raised me. I need to do something to pay it back.”
“I want to show my father and mother that they raised a good child,” Kwok says.
Beyond the sentimental value, Kwok sees potential in expanding the operation and making the buns a cultural icon of Hong Kong.
“It’s like this,” Kwok says. “My father has been digging in a mine his whole life. And now that he’s dug up a raw diamond, he has no energy to polish it. I’m here to do the second part of that job.”