[Temporarily closed] Chuan Ji Bakery: A cafe selling the near-extinct Hainanese mooncake, keeping a century-old family legacy alive

By Evan Mua March 15, 2024
[Temporarily closed] Chuan Ji Bakery: A cafe selling the near-extinct Hainanese mooncake, keeping a century-old family legacy alive
Ever heard of the Hainanese mooncake? This man is on a mission to spread the word. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere
  • Family-run Chuan Ji Bakery is the last place in Singapore selling authentic Hainanese mooncakes.
  • Known for its unique sweet-savoury profile, the pastry was a common highlight for the Hainanese during mid-autumn festival.
  • Besides the pastry, the cafe also sells other homey classic Hainanese dishes.

Do the words “Nam Tong Lee” mean anything to you? If they do, chances are your family has Hainanese roots. 

That’s the name of a bakery that operated out of Purvis Street once upon a time. Nam Tong Lee is best known as the originator of the Hainanese flaky biscuit, a dish that holds rich cultural significance for Singapore’s Hainanese diaspora.

The Hainanese flaky biscuit, also known as a Hainanese mooncake, is remembered fondly by many Hainanese — especially those from the older generations — as a mid-autumn highlight.

Unfortunately, it seems to have become all but extinct, since the closure of the bakery around 2006. Fortunately, you can still find it in Singapore, if you know where to look.

Where, you might ask? In a quaint little cafe in Lavender run by a mother-son duo called Chuan Ji Bakery Hainanese Delicacies.

Keeping the legacy alive

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Chuan Ji shares a space with a climbing gym. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Compared to Nam Tong Lee — which was founded in 1926 — Chuan Ji is a much younger establishment. It started in 2013 as a home-based business and is run by owner Chong Suan, 49, and his mother, Wong Chih Lian, 83.

While he had originally meant to work on it as a mid-autumn-festival-only home project, Suan eventually decided to give up on his stable career as an engineer in order to commit to running Chuan Ji as a physical outlet and selling the pastry all-year-round.

The brick-and-mortar space eventually materialised in 2017, and stayed at Macpherson Mall for six years before relocating to a dine-in cafe next to Outpost Climbing, a rock-climbing gym at Crawford Lane.

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Chong Suan gave up his stable career to support his mum in keeping the family legacy alive. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Appreciating its history, Suan felt compelled to support his mother’s craft. As he puts it: “I’m trying to keep the legacy alive since my mum is the only one around now who is experienced in making it.” 

While Chuan Ji doesn’t bear the same shop name, the Hainanese flaky biscuits at Chuan Ji are the real McCoy. In fact, it’s probably the last place in Singapore with authentic renditions of the pastry readily available.

Suan’s late grandmother, Nam Tong Lee, was the eponymous owner of the OG bakery, with mum Chih Lian helping out with the family business since she was young.

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Nam Tong Lee's name can still be seen on the pillars today. Photo: Google Maps

For Chih Lian, it’s more than just a pastry. The Hainanese flaky biscuit holds a deeper sentimentality for her — it essentially enabled her mother to single-handedly raise her seven children after the family patriarch’s death.

However, the shop was bequeathed to one of Chih Lian’s siblings when matriarch Nam passed on and the space subsequently converted into a boutique hotel.

Most of the family members were also reluctant to continue making the biscuits due to its labour-intensive nature, placing it on the brink of extinction.

If you’re in the Purvis Street area, you can pop by Nam Tong Lee’s original premises, which still has its name etched on its pillars.

Chuan Ji’s Hainanese flaky biscuits: A piece of heritage

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Also known as Hainanese mooncakes, the Hainanese flaky biscuits look similar to the more familiar Cantonese mooncakes but taste vastly different. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

So, what exactly is the Hainanese flaky biscuit that Nam Tong Lee, and now Chuan Ji, are known for?

According to Suan, it is made with the now-century-old family recipe and was essentially only found at the Nam Tong Lee bakery. It was also only sold during the mid-autumn festival, hence the Hainanese mooncake moniker.

But the pastry eventually became so popular that most members of the small community came to know about it.

Despite its significance to Singapore’s Hainanese population, the pastry didn’t actually originate from Hainan Island and isn’t widely available at most Hainanese establishments. 

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
The homely Chuan Ji is run by descendants of the original Nam Tong Lee. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

“Some of my aged Hainanese customers have even told me that you can’t find anything like it, even on Hainan Island itself,” says Suan.

It tastes vastly different from the more widespread form of mooncakes in Singapore — usually of Cantonese origins — despite its popular nickname and resemblance.

The taste is tricky to envision without having tasted it. In Suan’s words, “it’s an acquired taste”, so much so that even his family members struggle with appreciating this unique flavour profile.

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
The pastry has a one-of-a-kind flavour profile, born of a complex thirteen-ingredient recipe. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

“The older generation loves it but many of the younger generation find the taste ‘weird’. For example, my son likes it but my daughter does not,” says Suan.

You might wonder, why is that so? Chuan Ji’s signature pastry is actually remarkably complex. It’s made with 13 vastly different ingredients ranging from orange peels and sesame seeds, to fried shallots and even containing a wee dose of pepper.

The final product could be described as texturally similar to tau sar piah (traditional Teochew mung bean paste pastry), but with a more savoury and complex profile, sporting a discernible touch of pepper and finishes with bright, lingering citrus.

To ensure the best taste, Chih Lian is very strict with the smallest intricacies.

To make the Hainanese flaky biscuit, the ingredients are first mixed up into a filling, then wrapped in two different layers of dough and hand moulded. Everything is handmade by the family.

The process requires a lot of patience and finesse and Suan says it took quite a bit of effort to fine-tune the bakes for Chuan Ji: “It took us a lot of time to properly note everything down for consistency.” 

And as with the best family recipes, it was so tricky to get everything right. “My mum had learned how to make it ‘by eye’ and the passed-down recipe had many ambiguous measurements like ‘one handful’,” he adds.

It took about six months of testing to get everything down precisely and even longer to learn to ensure his version was up to scratch.

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Many customers are delighted when they find out Chuan Ji is affiliated to Nam Tong Lee. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

While it’s a demanding process, Suan revels in his achievement of recreating the rare confectionery at Chuan Ji and keeping this tasty piece of Hainanese heritage alive.

“I frequently have customers coming to me and telling me how much they missed that nostalgic taste. They didn’t know where else to find it after Nam Tong Lee closed,” he said with a tinge of pride in his eyes.

There is one other place that you can find it though: According to Suan, one of his cousins also brought the Hainanese flaky biscuits recipe over to Batam.

Alas, the cousin only bakes during the mid-autumn festival, hence it’s still nearly impossible to hunt down the pastry anywhere else in the world besides Chuan Ji — at least for the authentic Nam Tong Lee recipe.

Chuan Ji’s new cafe

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Hainanese food takes centrestage here. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Although much emphasis is placed on the Hainanese flaky biscuits (S$36 for a box of six), Chuan Ji’s Lavender cafe also proudly features an assortment of hearty, authentic Hainanese dishes.

One particularly iconic Hainanese dish they serve is the pork chop (S$14.50) which is tenderised, encrusted in a layer of crackers and finished with a brown sauce.

The crust is airy and the pork comes with a nice snappy bite, but the highlight is in the sauce that’s addictively tangy with a good dose of umami.

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Can’t say no to a hearty Hainanese pork chop. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

That said, the must-order dish has to be Chuan Ji’s take on the beef stew (S$12.50) — a very simple dish but oh-so-satisfying with its robust profile. 

On top of that, the chunks of carrots and beef are both exceptionally tender and it came with a side of sharp and feisty Hainanese-style chilli to add a touch of spice.

But you know what else is also Hainanese? Kaya. Chuan Ji makes a pretty solid, lightly crunchy kaya toast (S$1.80) that uses a fragrant, homemade Hainanese kaya jam.

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Everything is immensely tender in the beef stew. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

That said, the establishment doesn’t limit itself to Hainanese cuisine. Chuan Ji Bakery’s menu also contains a selection of local favourites, prepared using Chih Lian’s own modified recipes.

That includes one of the absolute best-sellers at Chuan Ji, the ondeh ondeh (S$2.80).

Unlike the usual take on the kueh, the version here uses sweet potato flour and is made a la minute — that means chewier skin and silky, molten gula melaka since it’s served hot.

chuan ji hainanese mooncakes
Hot, oozy, fresh — Chuan Ji’s ondeh ondeh are not like the others. Photo: Abdul Rahim Anwar/HungryGoWhere

Of course, you can also get the Hainanese flaky biscuits for dine-in (S$5.30 a piece) to round off the all-Hainanese feast at Chuan Ji.

And if you like it, why not get a box to go as well?

You’ll never know —  you might earn points with your parents who might recognise the pastries too.

For more ideas on what to eat, read our stories on where to get crackling Peking duck in Singapore and our extensive megalist of all the hawker dishes you have to try in Singapore before you die.

Do explore the new GrabFood Dine-in service for awesome deals.

You can also book a ride to Chuan Ji Bakery Hainanese Delicacies to get a taste of the near-extinct Hainanese mooncake.

[Temporarily closed] Chuan Ji Bakery Hainanese Delicacies

464 Crawford Lane, 01-464
Nearest MRT station: Lavender
Open: Monday to Saturday (12pm to 3pm, 5pm to 8pm)

464 Crawford Lane, 01-464
Nearest MRT station: Lavender
Open: Monday to Saturday (12pm to 3pm, 5pm to 8pm)

Evan Mua


Evan started off writing about food on Instagram, before joining outlets such as Buro and Confirm Good to pursue his passion. His best work usually comes after his first whisky shot in the morning.

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