Can Traditional Chinatown Bakeries Survive?

Cakes sold at Fay Da (Photo by Jiaying Yan via World Journal)

The following translation is a combination of two stories from World Journal by Jiaying Yan on how bakeries in Chinatown have changed over the decades, through the observations of the owner of a chain that recently closed its flagship location, and the president of one of the neighborhood’s oldest community service organizations.

Fay Da, a bakery shop that has been in business in Chinatown for nearly three decades, became the latest store in the neighborhood forced to close a location due to high rent. On June 30, its location on Centre Street turned off its lights for good. Han Chou, the owner of Fay Da, said the store’s fate had been tightly interwoven with the ups and downs of Chinatown, and the demographic changes in the neighborhood over the past 30 years. He doesn’t want to give up the flagship store in Chinatown, however, and may look for another location in the neighborhood to reopen it.  

Fay Da now has 12 stores in the greater New York area. The one on 191 Centre St. served as its headquarters. Chou, who started learning baking when he was 12, came to the U.S. in 1982 from Taiwan after he finished the compulsory military service. He was 24 then, and other than working at a garment factory, he took on a second job in a Chinatown bakery to make a bit more money.

When he and his wife opened the first Fay Da store here in 1991, the success of Chinatown bakeries was its peak.

Eric Eng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, said that in the early days, bakeries in Chinatown mainly made almond cookies and fortune cookies to serve the Chinese restaurants run by white people. Longtime bakeries like Nom Wah, Golden Fung Wong, Lung Moon and Kee Wah began to make them in the 1950s.

The bakeries started to see their business increase in the 1970s when the rise of the garment industry brought in many workers to the neighborhood. The workers liked to have bread and cakes during their coffee break. The factory owners also started an unofficial custom of treating the workers to coffee and bread on Saturday afternoons. The bakeries swiftly transformed themselves to meet the needs.

In the 1980s, the garment factories grew rapidly, and more immigrant workers from various parts of China flooded into Chinatown. The influx triggered a wave of new bakeries. Fay Da, Tai Pan, Manna House, and Wing Wah all opened around this period. And they started to offer a richer variety of bread and cakes. 

Fay Da in 1991 (Photo via World Journal)

Eng said at first, because of a lack of skilled techniques, cakes made by Chinatown bakeries were too chewy. Then some bakeries started selling Japanese-style sponge cakes. They were fluffy and tasty and soon became a sought-after product by customers. Many other bakeries followed suit. As the competition heightened, some bakeries even started offering dim sum, rice and fried noodles to appeal to customers with broad needs.

Chou, the owner of Fay Da, said when he came to Chinatown, bakeries here mainly offered Canton-style sweetheart cakes, cha siu bao, crispy buns and cocktail buns. But the growth in the population of Chinese immigrants from other parts of China brought in more bakeries with different styles. He himself learned baking in Taiwan. At Fay Da, he combined the Taiwanese style and Cantonese baking techniques that he learned from his part-time job in New York. This made his products unique. Customers swarmed in and they often had to wait in line for at least 30 minutes. Every Saturday afternoon, all the garment factories would call in orders. And they often placed 5,000 to 6,000 orders at once. “I was surprised by how good the business was,” Chou said.

Eighty percent of the money Chou invested in the first Fay Da store was borrowed from friends. But nine years after the first store opened, Chou had enough money to open a second shop. In the past 27 years, Fay Da had become a bakery chain with more than 230 employees and 13 stores, not only in Chinatown but also out in Greenwich Village, Woodside, Forest Hills and even Connecticut.

Still, even such a successful business couldn’t afford the skyrocketing rent in Chinatown.

Eng of CCBA said the garment industry started declining quickly after 9/11. Rent and property taxes have been growing rapidly. The number of tourists is far less than before. Many independent mom and pop shops in Chinatown closed. The bakeries that are still in business are either longtime established brands that stick to tradition or large-scale chain stores.

Eng also pointed out that younger generation Chinese don’t show a great interest in the bakery industry because it demands long work hours and relies heavily on labor. This is another huge challenge bakeries in Chinatown are facing. Although trendy dessert and ice cream shops have been popping up in recent years, traditional bakeries may continue disappearing.   


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