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Lai Kei: flavours from the past

Tue, 25th Jul 2017
Ice cream shop keeps old Macao favourite alive

Where in Macao can you buy fresh, hand-made coconut, mango, sesame, honey melon and peppermint ice cream for just MOP13 (US$1.6)?

There is only one place – the Lai Kei shop on Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida, a short walk from Tap Seac Square.

Ambert Kong Wong-tsan is the third generation of his family to run the shop, which was founded by his grandfather, Kong Lai-ging, in the 1950s. It is one of the shrinking number of family-owned stores in the city, and the only one that still sells their own ice cream.

“People came here offering to buy the site, which is in a good location,” Kong said in an interview. “But we did not consider it. We are the only one of its kind left. It would be so sad. Our customers always urge us to continue our business and keep this old shop in Macao.”

“We are close to our customers, who include many civil servants, film stars and famous people. But we don’t put their photos on the windows because we don’t want to attract attention to them.”

FROM STALL TO SHOP

Grandfather Kong, the founder of the dynasty, was born into a modest family in the 1910s. After he graduated from primary school, he went to work as a machinery apprentice, painter and at a skating rink. It was at the skating rink that he came up with the idea to make ice cream.

He started selling it from a stall downtown, near the Lisboa Hotel, where he also sold biscuits.

“He wanted to do something different than other people,” said Kong.

Grandfather Kong later rented a shop nearby the current one, to sell the ice cream that he produced himself at a small factory.

After having four sons, he wanted a daughter and so created the image of a young girl on the package of his products, hoping that this would bring him good luck. It worked and he had two daughters. The family has kept the lucky image ever since.

After 20 years at a site on the opposite side of the street, the family bought the site it has used for the last 50 years.

“When I knew him, he was in his 60s, and he had diabetes,” said Kong. “The shop was open seven days a week, from 10 am to 11 pm. There were no holidays.”

FATHER TO SON

Grandfather’s eldest son, Kong Gwoon-hong, took over from his father. He was a secondary school graduate and a keen student.

“It was decided very early that he would take over,” says Kong. His grandfather passed away in the 1980s. Kong remembers a different era during his childhood.

“In those days, people did not drive cars. They lived and worked in their own neighbourhood. They were very close to each other,” said Kong. “Of our clientele then, nearly 90 per cent were Macao people. In the past, it was a slower-paced city. People were more simple and unsophisticated.”

Restaurants and food shops played an essential role in the lives of people. After work, they would go to these places to socialise, eat meals and watch sports, dramas and traditional opera on television. Many people had no air conditioning at home, so they went to restaurants to eat watermelon to cool off.

Macao's society has changed significantly since the shop first opened its doors some 70 years ago. This transformation has altered the neighbourhood around the shop. Many of the old family restaurants have closed, replaced by fast food chains and franchises. The majority of family-owned shops have also disappeared, hit hard by rising rents and other costs, and unable to compete with the financial strength and purchasing power of large companies. Some people feared the 1999 handover, and thus sold their businesses and emigrated abroad.

Residents now have a wealth of choice with entertainment – discos, karaoke, bars, hotels and chic restaurants – and private cars have become commonplace.

“So our clientele has changed,” said Kong. “Now it is 50 per cent from Macao and 50 per cent from outside. People come here from all over the world. The first visitors were from Hong Kong. Now they come from South Korea, Taiwan, the mainland, France and Britain. We have Americans and Tibetans.” Lai Kei is now included in many international guidebooks.

“Tourists want what is old and traditional,” said Kong. “They do not want the chains; they can find them at home. It is the same with me when I go to Japan. I look for the old, family-run restaurants.”

The rapid expansion of the casinos since 2000s has been a mixed blessing. They have brought a large number of new clients eager to sample Macao’s traditional food and customs. But the casinos have also driven up wages and provided more comfortable working conditions, which has made young people unwilling to do other kinds of work.

When hiring staff, Kong is unable to pay the wages offered by the casinos.

TREASURING THE OLD

Born in 1976, Ambert Kong, the oldest son, took over management of the store from his father, who passed away in 2011.

He himself was better educated than his father and grandfather. After graduating from high school in Macao, he went to study design at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he worked for a year following graduation.

“My father’s health was not so good, so I decided to come back to be with the family,” he said. Kong worked for Sands China Ltd. for one year as a designer before rejoining the family business.

“I have no regrets over my decision. It is not only about yourself. You must help your family,” he said. “That is good fortune. If I were not with the family, I would regret it. I feel very happy here, there is no pressure.”

Kong made the business decision to keep the shop as it was – in choice of product, furniture, decoration and even price. At MOP13 for an ice cream, Lai Kei has the cheapest ice cream in Macao – this in spite of the rising cost of many raw materials. The shop also offers coffee, tea, sandwiches, milk shakes, Ovaltine, orange juice and other items.

“We consider our customers like children and old people, so we keep our prices low,” he said. “Our customers are not only tourists.”

The decoration reminds people of the 1980s. When they do repairs, the family retains the vintage style. Tourists like to take photographs with the old-style tables and floor tiles. Television producers come here to make films with the shop as a backdrop, and young brides and grooms come here for wedding photographs.

Kong does not consider chains like Häagen-Dazs and Baskin Robbins as competitors, because their product is different – sweeter, more creamy and with more flavouring.

“We use real fruit which we buy from local markets,” said Kong. “We make the product at a nearby small factory that we own and which is operated by one person.”

Lai Kei uses no colouring or flavouring. And the shop has just a handful of staff.

The most difficult period were the years immediately before the handover, when public order deteriorated and many people were afraid to go out.

“After the Sands Macao opened, things improved,” said Kong. “Things are stable now, with business good in the summer and quieter in the winter.”

The high rents, however, mean that the family cannot consider opening a second branch.

Will a fourth generation of Kongs take over?

Kong has a daughter aged six and a son aged three. “You will have to ask them,” he said. “They are too young to think about it now. I’ll leave it to them to decide.”

The residents of Macao are hoping that one of the two children takes up the challenge and keeps this beloved old Macao favourite alive.

 

TEXT Mark O'Neill

PHOTOS António Sanmarful

(Issue N. 41, July 2017)