Salapao is a Chinese staple dating back millennia. Where to find the originals? Follow us into the steamed bun workshop of Khun Wichien and learn a bit about Sampeng’s tasty heritage and history. Khun Wichien is the 4th generation Salapao (Chinese steam bun) baker, one of the last in Bangkok’s Chinatown producing handmade Chinese steamed buns for his Chinese cliental.
The steam oven of K. Wichien’s great grandfather. With Teochew migration came Teochew style steamed buns to Thailand.
My great grandfather founded this steamed bun business when he immigrated from China. During his era, lots of Teochew Chinese immigrated to Thailand. He was Teochew as well. Even King Taksin was a Teochew but that was long before my great grandfather’s time. I keep running this family business now in the fourth generation.
Salapao is a classic Chinese staple and every Chinese ethnic group has its own recipes and styles. I make Teochew style steamed buns. It’s different from the, lets say how people in Hong Kong make it. The Cantonese like their Salapaos filled with BBQ pork, red bean and custard. It has a fluffy texture while the Teochew version is gummier.We also add sweet potato to give the steamed buns a softer texture.
Fourth generation steamed bun maker’s tools.
Back in the days our shop was operating 24/7. We made Salapao duding the night time and Ba-Jang. during the day time. Eventually we stopped making Ba-Jang because of the tedious process. You had to pick, clean and boil bamboo leaves for the wrapping. Throughout the years of cleaning those leaves my mom’s fingerprints disappeared. Back then we had 7 workers but now there are only 2 workers left. It has become quiet here.
I’m very contend with my life. My work time is flexible and I accept only orders that I can handle. I usually work alone but I’ve got a good old pal who helps me out. He’s been helping our business since I was twelve but he’s sixty now and he is in poor health and can’t do much.
Old school business.
Khun Wichien and his pal have been working together since childhood.
I have never been to China but I was told that Salapao (steamed buns) in China taste different over there. When you live abroad, it’s hard to find the same ingredients you had 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. The ingredients are actually very simple, some spices, soy sauce, sugar, pepper, fried garlic, spring onions and salt are mixed with the minced pork and used as the filling. I buy the pork from Talad Kao, where some of the shops open as early as 2:00a.m. Talad Kao is Chinatown’s oldest market. The butcher there knew my parents and grand parents. They have been around for a long time and we can count on the quality.
I work for our local Chinese communal shrine, hence I have to preserve the traditional way of making Salapao. I love the traditional style and I have never experimented with new types of steamed buns. Many places adapt the taste and styles but I want to continue it the same way my parents, grandparents and great grandfather did.
Traditional food craft.
We use different types of wheat flour. Flour is important. Sellers of flour will ask Salapao makers about the flour. Teochew Chinese back in the days didn’t like the soft, fluffy, white steamed buns as the dough gets mushy because of the savoury and juicy filling. They prefer steamed buns with a stickier texture, so we mix soft and sticky flour to get a good balance. It takes about 5-6 hours to make steamed buns and you can keep them for 2-3 days in a fridge.
You make Salapao by starting to mix the flour, prepare and knead the dough. I also prepare the green beans for our green bean salapao. I have to wash and scrub the beans until the green peel reveals the inner yellow parts of the beans. Then I mix the pork and the ingredients, stuff it into the salapao and steam it.
My salapaos are sold to be used as offerings in temples or as birthday gifts. People from outside are interested in my products but it’s usually the older generation rather than the young generation that is interested in steamed buns for religious offerings.
Seven Eleven asked us to produce steamed buns for them but I refused. Sometimes I get a little tired of my work because I have been doing this work for so long. On the other side 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.
Sampeng’s living condition in the 70’s and 80’s
In the old days there were so many people living in our house and in the community. I was born here and I still live right above our shop. Many of the Chinese immigrants lived together in buildings owned by the Crown Property Bureau. The first flat of the area had 90 rooms and everyone had to share the bathroom. It was Chinatown’s first flat built from concrete but it was knocked down in 1996 because it was run down.
My grandfather told me that when the Chinese arrived in red Chinese Junks (Chinese junks were colour coded based on the Chinese ethnicities operating them) they settled anywhere, even in places where nobody wanted to live. I consider these flats as part of the cultural heritage because the flat exemplifies the living conditions of early Chinese migrants. the lives of Chinese varied greatly; some were well off and some were downtrodden and others were involved in illegal things such as gambling and selling contraband.
When I was 7 our community was a slum. You could find drugs and prostitutes. On my way to school I saw people taking heroin. First, there weren’t injecting but smoking it in a cigarette. Heroine very 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 away from the drugs. Some workers around became addicted to drugs. The police arrested them and sent them to Kra Bok Cave for treatment.
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.
The community today
Nowadays, the living conditions in our community have improved but there are still positive and negative sides to it. The downside is that there is not as much solidarity and social cohesion as in the past when everyone in the community treated each other as family. But as time went on, people passed away or moved away. People from Sampeng bought buildings in this community and turned them into warehouses. Also, workers from the Isarn (northeastern region of Thailand) moved into this community to make a living in Sampeng. Initially there was friction but now we all get along and there aren’t any problems anymore. There is even a woman from Isarn who has been here for so long that she can speak Chinese.
Shop sign of Gu Long Pao, taking orders for special occasions such as religious ceremonies, birthdays or weddings.
Learning about the history and heritage of his neigbhorhood.
Community heritage of Song Wat and Sampeng
My house is more than 100 years old. 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. There are a lot of heritage buildings in our community. The shrine is over a century 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. You can find the Sia I-ung Kong Chinese Shrines in Bangkok, Suphan Buri, and Samut Sakhon but this one was the first shrine. Sia I-ung Kong rules and protects everyone. He is acts as a judge and his bodyguards arrest bad spirits. We dedicate four festivals per year to the deities and I just like the steamed buns I would love to preserve our heritage.
Bangkok-based experience designer, blogger, tour guide and hobby anthropologist.
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