Egg tarts, wife cakes, and chicken biscuits. Despite the constant changes in Hong Kong’s restaurant scene, Kee Tsui Cake Shop continues to stick to its old ways, making pastries fresh, by hand, every day.
Sandwiched between two clothing stores on a bustling street in Hong Kong, the Kee Tsui Cake Shop looks out of place in a neighborhood that’s better known for tacky teen fashion and stalls peddling sink faucets, lingerie, and other household miscellany.
But the bakery, which sells traditional Chinese pastries such as egg tarts, wife cakes, and red bean cakes, has stood the test of time, making hundreds of baked goods fresh, by hand, every day for over 30 years.
On a rainy Friday afternoon, customers crowd outside the storefront, shouting and pointing at the pastries they want. “Chicken biscuits!” “Walnut cookies!” “Banana rolls!” The store’s workers barely have enough time to sit down—and that’s considered a slow day.
“Before the pandemic, people would travel here to buy our pastries,” says Kit Lam, who started the bakery with her husband in the 1980s. “This isn’t considered very busy.”
Small, independent bakeries like these are now a rarity in Hong Kong, eclipsed by big chains that mass-produce goods in factories.
There were once five similar bakeries on the same street as Kee Tsui, according to William Cheung, the second generation of the shop’s owner family. Now, it’s the only one left.
“It’s survivor bias,” he says. “People say we’re successful because we’re the last one standing.”
By Cheung’s account, his family’s bakery survived by sticking to the basics.
While others started venturing into Western-style bread that involved yeast and baking soda, Cheung’s family chose to focus exclusively on traditional Chinese pastries, which largely require only flour, sugar, lard, and oil.
“Everybody is trying to create new things to attract new customers,” Cheung says. “We don’t do extra things like bread or fancier things like matcha or pumpkin spice. People come and they know what to expect from the store.”
His strict adherence to tradition is evident in the store’s baking methods. The ovens don’t have temperatures, just numbers indicating low, medium, and high heat. Bakers determine a tray is done by opening the hatch and peering inside.
“If it’s not broke, why fix it?”
Throughout the interview, Cheung makes multiple references to “feel.” It’s what seems to guide much of the bakery’s operations.
Workers knead the dough with their bare hands, adjusting its contents according to Hong Kong’s fickle climate. During the humid summers, they’ll use less water. During the winter, they’ll add more.
“They have been doing this for more than 30 years,” Cheung says. “They know by look, just by look, they know how the dough is turning out.”
The family has no plans to scale up, either. While many brand names in Hong Kong such as Wing Wah and Kee Wah started off as small shops, Cheung believes the cost of expanding outweighs its benefits. Maintaining quality, finding experienced bakers, and keeping goods fresh are difficult in a larger operation.
“In Hong Kong, if you want to expand, the start-up cost is way too high, especially for a bakery,” Cheung says. “If I go the route of opening a factory in [the industrial neighborhood of] Kwun Tong or something, the quality of food will drop definitely.”
And while it might be tempting to latch onto the latest dessert trend or modify fillings—even just a little—to suit changing tastes, Cheung says his dream “is just to maintain the status quo.”
“If it’s not broke, why fix it?” he says.
That stubbornness has paid off. Last year, Cheung appeared in the Netflix series Restaurants on the Edge, where a team of restaurant experts travels the world turning around failing dining establishments.
Kee Tsui was not featured as a failing shop. Rather, in the Hong Kong episode, it was propped up as an example of a business that’s thriving by keeping things simple.
“The process is part of the pastry,” he says. “You know this is made by hand because it’s crooked. You can see the filling peeking through the walls. It gives us a sense of humanness.”