The story of tong heng the singapore egg tart 東興茶室 johor kaki travels for food gas efficient suv 2013

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.