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Baking history, frosting the future

CNA – Balmoral Bakery is a familiar name to those who grew up in the Clementi area of Singapore. However, many might not know that its head baker and second-generation owner, Mr Lim Ming Noong, initially pursued studies in the arts.

“I graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts with the intention of pursuing a career in advertising,” the 78-year-old reminisced. “However, after finishing school, my paternal uncle invited me to join the family business, and I decided to take that path instead.”

During an interview with the source, he fondly reminisced about his artistic passions, showing us his “portfolio” – a series of photographs capturing the intricate birthday cakes he has crafted over the years.

“We get requests to draw all sorts of cartoon characters. I’ve never seen some of them before, but as long as you have a reference, I can make it happen.”

When Mr Lim first stepped into the kitchen in his twenties, though, he knew nothing about baking. Nevertheless, he chose to work with his hands as he was discouraged by the few career prospects his education offered him at the time.

“This was my first job, and I’ve stuck it out all the way till this day. I’ve gotten so used to it that I’m like a machine now,” he joked.

For over half a century, Mr. Lim’s day has begun at the crack of dawn. Rising at 4.30am, he starts preparations at 6.15am and opens the doors of the bakery at 9am. The rest of the morning whizzes by as pastries fly off the shelves and Mr Lim and his crew replenish them.

Until recently, Mr Lim spends his afternoons hunched over a sponge cake with a piping bag, working intently on custom designs. These jobs, however, have become rarer in recent years, and it’s not due to a lack of demand.

“My hands are no longer as steady, so I seldom draw these days. I only do simple ones, only if customers request it.”

Head baker and second-generation owner, Mr Lim Ming Noong (L). PHOTO: CNA

BAKING SINCE 1965

While Mr Lim takes immense pride in designing cakes, the Bakery’s true specialty lies in its traditional Eurasian pastries, a legacy that began at their original location in Holland Village.

Founded in 1965 by Mr Lim’s father and uncles, the Bakery was a humble streetside stall in Chip Bee Gardens. To cater to British soldiers living in the vicinity, they started selling traditional Eurasian puffs, pies, and tarts for no more than 35 cents a pop.

In 1985, in line with Singapore’s clean-up of its streets, the Bakery relocated to Sunset Way in Clementi. Despite attracting more Chinese customers than Caucasian ones here, the menu stayed true to its roots. Samosas, curry puffs, and custard puffs, which were bestsellers 60 years ago, continue to draw patrons from across the island today.

Much like its timeless recipes, the bakery’s physical appearance has been preserved with no renovations since the big move. During my visit, a former resident returning after 30 years was astonished to see the bakery looking “exactly as she had remembered” from 1985.

Now and then, Mr Lim said, former patrons of the Chip Bee Gardens stall would serendipitously find the bakery in Sunset Way and reconnect with its old-fashioned ambience in an instant.

“Customers who couldn’t find us after we relocated have passed by and said, ‘Wow! So you’re here now!’ They were really happy and urged me not to retire, or they wouldn’t know where else to find these pastries.”

Some pastries at the Bakery, like the elusive sugee cake, are not the most commonplace in Singapore. This may explain why they remain relatively unfazed by competitors that have emerged since the millennium, many of whom are bakeries selling buns.

Even among its contemporaries, the Bakery stands out. Whereas traditional Chinese bakeries, which see peak periods during Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival, the Bakery is busiest during holidays like Christmas and Good Friday, when their hot cross buns are a huge hit.

Mr Lim and his longtime staff who joined Balmoral Bakery in 1997. PHOTO: CNA

“WE DON’T MAKE ‘FUNNY FUNNY’ THINGS HERE”

Beyond nostalgia and unique offerings, Mr Lim believes what truly sets the Bakery apart is their insistence on doing things “the traditional way.”

While modern bakeries often opt for premixes, Mr Lim makes his butter cakes from scratch. Unlike most cakes that are frosted with light and airy fresh cream, he uses buttercream, churned with butter and sugar, for a richer and creamier taste.

In spite of the painstaking efforts that go into each morsel, the Bakery has kept its prices affordable.

“A slice of cake costs SGD1.80. Where can you find a slice of cake for SGD1.80 today? Because our prices are very low, we don’t make a loss, but we don’t make much of a profit either, to be very honest.”

Staying true to traditional methods also meant that Mr Lim has had to turn away requests for “Instagram-worthy” cakes, typically featuring over-the-top designs and layers of fondant icing.

“If they ask for a really tall cake, we cannot meet their expectations because we use sponge cakes, which are softer. The newer bakeries don’t, so they have no problem making cakes with several tiers. But we don’t make ‘funny funny’ things here,” he said.

By that, Mr Lim refers to the newfangled creations that modern bakeries flaunt for the social media generation, from elaborate birthday cakes to smashed croissants and croffles.

There’s a sense of pride in his voice as he notes a resurgence in the popularity of traditional bakes. In recent years, the Bakery has seen an increase in young patrons. Some come for the pastries; others for the bakery’s antiquated look, eager to experience the Singapore of yesteryears that their parents reminisce about. Either way, it’s a win for them.

“Maybe they’ve tired of the pastries out there which look good but don’t taste good,” he quipped.

An assortment of puffs at Balmoral Bakery at Sunset Way in Clementi. PHOTO: CNA

“WE’RE ALMOST THERE”

Thanks to Mr Lim’s wilful adherence to tradition, the Bakery has no shortage of regulars who grew up with the brand and who have no qualms travelling across the island for a taste of the good old days.

“Some customers are even older than I am, and I’ve known them for decades. When they stop visiting all of a sudden, you more or less know what happened,” he said.

“But their children may come here and say, ‘My father used to bring me here when I was little, and now it’s my turn to bring my kids here.’”

From childhood treats to wedding cakes and goodies for newborns’ one-month celebrations, the Bakery has been part of its customers’ and their families’ milestones for generations. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the case for much longer. As Mr. Lim’s 80th birthday approaches, the Bakery’s days are numbered.

“Give it another year or so. We’re almost there. My health is deteriorating, and this job is physically demanding. I think when I retire, I would have to say bye-bye to the shop altogether,” he said.

Asked if he would feel reluctant to bid the Bakery farewell, Mr Lim shook his head.

“No lah. I’ve kept at it for so long. When I retire, there’s no stress and no burden. I can finally rest.”

For now, there are no successors on the horizon. Mr Lim’s children are white-collar professionals with no intention to take over, and while a potential buyer came knocking 10 years ago (Mr Lim wasn’t ready to let go of the business then), the last decade has flown by uneventfully.

Nevertheless, he holds on to a glimmer of hope that someone outside the Lim family can keep their heritage alive.

“If I put up an advertisement, I think there will be takers. It’s impossible to make a loss with our good name. We’ve been around for so long.”

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