Khun Wichien is the 4th generation Salapao (Chinese steam bun) baker, one of the first in the area producing handmade and customized Chinese steamed buns for his traditional Chinese clientel. Salapao is a Chinese staple dating back centuries and to find it still in a traditional way is part of the cultural heritage of one of the World’s largest Chinatowns. Khun Wichien might be the last of his generation and we want to enjoy it for as long as he’s around.
One of Chinatown’s last traditional steamed bun maker.
One of the last traditional Chinese steam bun maker
My name is Wichien, I’m 56. My business is a family business making Salapao and I’m the fourth generation running it. My great grandfather who founded the business came from China. He’s a Teochew. During his era lots of Teochew immigrated to Thailand even King Taksin was a Teochew but that was long before my great grandfathers era. I have never been to China but I was told that Salapao in China tastes different from Thailand. When you live abroad, it’s hard to find the ingredients from back home. Thai garlic and spring onions are smaller and more intense. They smell and taste more pungent than Chinese onions or garlic and the soy sauce also taste different. Our ingredients are very simple, some spices, soy sauce, sugar, pepper, fried garlic, spring onions and salt are mixed with the pork and used as the filling. I love pork Salapao and I love Ba-Jang (a traditional Chinese rice dish made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves).
Back in the days our shop was operating 24 hours. At night we made Salapao and in the day time we made Ba-Jang but our business stopped making Ba-Jang because of the complicated process. You had to pick, clean and boil bamboo leaves for the wrapping. Throughout the years of cleaning those leaves my mom’s fingerprints all but disappeared. We had 7 workers in my shop but now there are only 2 workers left. These days my work time is flexible, I accept only orders that I can handle closing times depend on workload, sometimes late around 6 – 7:00p.m. I usually work alone but I’ve got a good old pal who helps out but he is so old, he can’t do much. He’s only sixty but his health is not very good. He can barely sleep because of a nerve problem and nobody took care of him when he lived in the countryside. He’s helping our business since I was twelve.
Khun Wichien and his pal have been working together since childhood.
I have never experimented with you new types of Salapao as I love the traditional style and since I work for the Chinese Shrine, I have to preserve the traditional Salapao. I buy the pork from Talad Kao, where some of the shops open as early as 2:00a.m. We use different types of wheat flour. Flour makers would ask Salapao makers about the flour, as people back in the day didn’t like the soft, white salapao as it can get mushy because of the filling so they prefer the stickier version. So, we mix soft and sticky flour to get a good balance. It takes about 5-6 hours to make them and you can keep them for 2-3 days in a fridge.
Traditional food craft.
You start mixing the flour, prepare and knead the dough and cut them. I also prepare the green beans for filling. We make green bean salapao, thus I have to put the green beans into water and wash and scrub the green peel till it reveals the inner yellow parts of the beans. Then I have to mix the pork with the ingredients and wrap the filling into the salapao and steam it. Salapao is a Chinese staple and every Chinese dialect group has their own recipes and styles. My Salapao is Teochew type. For example Hong Kong style Salapaos are filled with BBQ pork, red bean and cream and it has a soft texture while the Teochew style is gummier and we used to fill them with sweet potato to give it a softer texture. Seven Eleven asked us to produce for them but I refused. Sometimes I get a little tired of my work because I have been doing this work for so long but I feel free because I don’t have anyone bossing me around. I have never worked in another profession but I can imagine to be a grocery shop owner when I’m old.
Khun Wichien, full of passion for steamed buns and passion for the heritage of his neighborhood.
Sampeng’s living condition in the 70’s and 80’s
I was born here and I live right above our shop. My entire family lives here, my siblings, parents and grandparents. In the old days there were so many people living in our house and in the community. All the Chinese immigrants lived together in buildings owned by the Crown Property Bureau. The house next to our house had 11 families divided into 11 rooms. The first flat of the area had 90 rooms and everyone had to share the bathroom. It was the first flat built from concrete but it was knocked down in 1996 because it was so old. My grandfather’s younger brother told me that when the Chinese came to Thailand by the Chinese Red Junk (Chinese junks were color coded depending on the Chinese ethnicities operating them) they settled anywhere even in places where nobody wanted to live. I consider these flats also as part of the cultural heritage because the flat exemplifies the living condition of early Chinese migrants. Lives of Chinese varied greatly; some were well off and some were downtrodden or did illegal things such as gambling and selling contraband. When I was 7 our community was a slum. You could find drugs and prostitutes. When I went to school I saw people taking heroin. First, there weren’t injecting but smoking it in a cigarette. Heroine was the most dangerous and laws were not strict. It was easy to get robbed. Fortunately, my grandmother was very pious and observed many religious precepts, she prayed, she was vegan and taught everyone to be compassionate and that kept everyone in the family from taking drugs. Some workers were addicted to drugs and the police arrested them and sent them to Kra Bok Cave for treatment.
Learning about the history and heritage of his neigbhorhood.
The community today
Nowadays the community has much improved but there are still pros and cons. The downside is that since there is not as much solidarity and social cohesion as in the past when everyone in the community treated each other as relatives. But as people passed away and moved out, people from Sampeng bought houses in this community and turned them into warehouses. Other communities have changed, just like us. Also, labors from the Isarn (northeastern region of Thailand) moved into this community to make a living in Sampeng. At the beginning there was friction but now we all blend together and there are no problems anymore. There is even a woman from Isarn who has been here for so long that she can speak Chinese. The exodus of people from our community didn’t impact my business since my salapaos are sold to be used as offerings in temples or as birthday gifts. It’s people from outside that are interested in my products and the old generation is usually more interested than the young generation.
Bamboo instead of steel. Traditional materials still being used to produce authentic steamed buns. Especially with steamed food, bamboo is the preferred material in Thailand.
Community heritage of Song Wat and Sampeng
There is a lot of heritage in our community. My house is more than 100 years old and there is an old house at Luang Kocha Itsahak Mosque, a Chinese medicine shop named Por Khun Niea Bor at Sampeng and a Chinese shrine at the back of my house which is about 100 years old and dedicated to Sia I-ung Kong. I’m also the caretaker of this shrine which belongs to the Ministry of Interior. Most of the worshipers are Teochew and there are a few Cantonese. There are Sia I-ung Kong Chinese Shrines in Bangkok, Suphan Buri, and Samut Sakhon but this one was the first place. Sia I-ung Kong rules and protects everyone. He is a judge and his bodyguards arrest bad ghosts. There are four festivals per year dedicated to the deities and I would love to preserve our heritage.
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Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist. Founder of bangkokvanguards and Hyperlocal.
I’m exploring and bridging my Asian and Western roots by exploring and introducing you the places, people and ideas that matter and connecting them to experiences and projects around culture and sustainable development.