Cozied in a shop-lot opposite the Klang train station is a cake shop that was officially registered as Regent Confectionary 40 years ago. Most people know it as the ‘Pandan Layer cake shop’ – the perfected cake layers are a generation worth of stories and experiences that tell us what it takes to be a great baker. But beyond that is the story of Uncle Cheng Yew Ho – a living tale of patience, passion and perseverance.
Tell us about your background – what did your earlier years look like?
I’ve previously worked in many different types of jobs. I once started a canteen for workers. Among three cooks, we managed three meals for about a hundred workers. During this job, I would wake up at 7.00a.m then come home at night to operate my own ‘char kuey teow’ shop till 1.00a.m. This cycle continued for seven and a half years. Until one day, a worker approached me and said, “just looking at your food makes me full”. My heart sank; his words crushed any motivation to continue cooking.
Where did you learn how to bake cakes?
A friend introduced me to a hotel chef who taught me how to bake cakes for a fee after he finished work. After learning a little, I became bold and quickly started my own cake shop. Back in the 70s, there weren’t many cake shops around and people didn’t quite understand the concept of cakes yet so business wasn’t great. I also wasn’t satisfied that I only knew how make plain cakes without being able to decorate them, so I found someone I could learn from. The more I practiced, the better I became.
Of all the shops you could have opened, why a cake shop?
When I was young, my parents owned a bakery. We didn’t have mixers or ovens, but we made 25 kilograms of bread, seven times a day between the three or four of us. I didn’t enjoy it and I didn’t want to continue making bread. When I first opened, I operated the shop on my own and worked from 7.00a.m to 2.00a.m. I had no choice. If I didn’t do it well, I wouldn’t be earning enough. Then in the 80s, an influx of cake shops opened. To be different from the sudden influx of competition, I started making pandan layer cakes.
People saw the cake and thought that it was too simple a cake. And it was green! There wasn’t a lot of that around at that time. Over time, business picked up and I received comments that I should start a shop in Petaling Jaya. Thinking it was the right decision, I quickly opened a shop in SS2. But it was difficult – nobody knew who I was. Luckily, my shop was right next to a famous hair salon called Peter and Guy. Every day, I delivered two cakes to him each day to sample with his customers who were mostly 'tai tais' (rich ladies). I started receiving more business.
What has been your most memorable experience since embarking on this baking journey?
One day, as I was travelling to PJ, I nearly rammed into two cows that were crossing the road. Looking back, I would have surely died if I did and I remember thinking, I can’t travel like this anymore. So I sold my shop in PJ and decided to keep what I had in Klang. After this happened, I learned that the most precious thing is life, not money. Even if I did crash into the cows and lived but became physically disabled, I wouldn’t be able to live the same and continue my business as I did.
Many things that you’ve achieved come from a self-taught experience. What does the combination of learning and success mean to you?
To have a business that will succeed, you must have passion and expertise. Without passion, you will eventually give up. You wouldn’t have the motivation to study your craft deeply and thoroughly. You must study these things – what do people really like? What would be pleasing to their taste buds? I studied the Philippines chocolate cake myself; I constantly modified my recipe for a few years before being able to make what it is today. Making a cake is like making a chemical product - you must know each ingredient in your cake to make something with a special taste.
I believe I’m at my best when my cakes are consistent every single day. Its taste has got to be on point. I don’t want to be in a place where I find people saying “yesterday’s cake was great, but today’s was average”. When I was studying management to grow my business, I had a teacher who told me that if I wanted to do something, I should do it to the best of my abilities. To me, that is having my price at a lower point yet having my cakes the very best quality consistently.
What was the hardest year for you?
In 1995, my neighbour’s shop caught on fire and the fire spread to the top floor of my shop. I had to save my oven and my mixers which were downstairs, so I got the firemen to spray the roof of my shop to keep the wooden floorings wet and stop it from catching fire. I managed to save my equipment but I had to look for a new location and go through the trouble of moving all my equipment.
Since then, I’ve had a lot of bad luck with fire. First, my neighbour’s shop, later, my house caught fire, and few years back, the shop three doors from here caught fire too. You may go through these experiences in life but what’s important is that your life and your family are safe. Money doesn’t always follow you but your life certainly does and as long as you’re alive, you can do something to make money.
What advice would you give to the new generation of people who want to start their own business?
Some people think they can’t learn, but that’s because they haven't met a good teacher. Some teachers only teach you half of what they know. But there are so many layers to learning about what constitutes a great cake. You need to think about your equipment, recipe and each of your ingredients. When I was young, I thought of this: when you have the opportunity to go and learn about something that you like, you’ve got to do it with all your heart. You need to have enough patience to keep studying what you are passionate about. You need to do it until you are familiar enough to develop your own ideas consistently so that you won’t fail. You need to use your patience to run your business as well. There isn’t such a thing as quick money in the food business.
In his lifetime, Uncle Cheng has served the topmost names in the political hierarchy, shipped his cakes overseas including to the UK and US, and baked for our local council’s events. Yet, he remains the person who is willingly present for his customers at the door and takes calls at the front desk daily. Out of the Regent Pandan Layer Cake Shop (he officially changed it a couple of years ago!) in Klang, Uncle Cheng is the embodiment of authenticity in a craft that has popularly evolved into time-lapsed cake videos on the Internet. He still bakes with the very first oven he bought 40 years ago and enjoys every bit of the process. If there’s one thing to learn, it is that there is definitely no rush when it comes to putting your whole heart into doing what you love and learning to do it the best you can.