Made in Macao | From street snacks to must-buy souvenirs

Jenny Lao-Phillips

When we think about traditional industries in Macao, aside from gaming, we often think about the manufacturing of textiles, fire crackers, matches and Chinese cakes. While most of these industries have almost disappeared in Macao, some small shops baking traditional cakes have turned into a great empire. Any tourists coming to Macao nowadays seem to be leaving with large bags of souvenirs from Choi Heong Yuen or Koi Kei. These two shops, together with a few others which are not as high profile, were two of the oldest bakeries in town. From starting off as small bakeries to becoming the most popular souvenir shops for tourists in Macao, the transformation of these bakeries/souvenir shops reflect the development of this city and acts as a symbol of the development of our tourism industry.

These traditional bakeries were located near the inner harbor selling snacks to travelers catching boats to Hong Kong since the 1930s. At that time, boat rides to Hong Kong took hours, and there were probably no food and drinks sold on board. So, people travelling between Hong Kong and Macao for work used to buy some traditional cakes for the ride. Before the now-famous almond cakes and phoenix egg rolls, the most popular cakes at those times were the traditional Chinese cakes 밟更 (Chinese short cakes or Chinese sugar cakes), which were the big round ones in white or brown. Perhaps customers got tired of the Chinese short cakes, although they were very good, and bakeries started making other forms of cakes which was 100 percent created and made in Macao. From the 50s onwards, buying these Chinese cakes at the inner harbor became a habit of travelers. And not merely for preventing starvation during the long journey, but as souvenirs for family and friends in Hong Kong.

The trend of buying cakes as souvenirs started in the 50s, but until the late 60s, the bakery shops merely survived on purchases by Hong Kong travelers. It was not until the 70s that the souvenir trend extended to other Asian tourists, which signified the beginning of the boom of Macao’s tourism industry in the 70s. As more tourists came to Macao, more of Macao’s traditional cakes were bought and brought home to different countries. Soon these cakes became a representation of Macao. Some senior tourist guides even joked that the tourists felt that if they did not bring home almond cakes, they had not really been in Macao.

So, while other typical industries in Macao, including manufacturing of incense, fire crackers, matches and textiles began to disappear after the 70s, the traditional bakery business began to blossom. Aside from patrons of tourists coming to Macao, some places like Singapore started importing the famous almond cakes to their countries, further contributing to the popularity of these souvenirs.

However, this long-surviving traditional businesses also had its low period. At the end of the last century, together with the economic downfall all over Macao and Hong Kong, some of the traditional bakeries failed to survive, and had to sell out or close down. But others took the opportunity to invest in branding and packaging, with some even preparing for exports to Europe or North America. In a few years’ time, as Macao’s economy dramatically recovered, so did the traditional bakeries. In this new century, when we look at local brands and local products, the most well-known ones, I believe, were those that have transformed themselves from small bakeries selling snacks for boat rides, into must-buy souvenir suppliers from Macao for which tourists would cross the sea to buy. I believe the success of this industry lies in their original flavors, which are genuine tastes created in Macao.

Categories Opinion