SMP is saddened by the passing of Aunty Lili in April 2019, but remains inspired by her story below.
With 30 years of experience making and selling dragon’s beard candy (龙须糖, or long xu tang) – a traditional East Asian confection made with malt, rice flour, and peanuts – Lili Ho is considered a veteran of the trade in Singapore. Together with her cousin and business partner Roger Poon, she ensured that the sweet treat and its culture and traditions would be preserved for future generations. Here, they share with us how this candy, allegedly only meant for China’s emperors, became their family trade.
At first sight, cousins Lili Ho, more fondly known as Aunty Lili, 71, and Roger Poon, 39, seem like an unlikely duo. The former, chattering away in a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese, dressed in her trademark fuschia samfoo, headscarf and red sunglasses, has a personality as vibrant as her outfit. Roger, towering about a foot over her and 30 years her junior, is forthright and fast-talking, every bit the performer and businessman.
Together with Roger’s sister, Elaine, the family runs Traditional Nanyang Flavours, bonded not only by blood but by their dedication to a common purpose – to be the guardians and purveyors of authentic dragon’s beard candy in Singapore. The confection, which has a delicate texture similar to cotton candy or Middle Eastern halva, is made with malt which is rolled in rice flour and pulled into threads that are said to resemble the beard of a dragon.
Roger and Aunty Lili present a special fruit-flavoured variety of their famous Dragon’s Beard Candy, which they specially developed to commemorate National Day 2018. Photo courtesy of Roger Poon/Traditional Nanyang Flavours Pte Ltd
A 10-year teething period
After finishing secondary school, Aunty Lili ran a small shop selling handicrafts, such as hongbao (red packet), lanterns and fish ornaments, at the former Pearl’s Centre in Chinatown. She ran the shop for about 15 years, during which time she married and had her first child. Business, however, was slow, and as the years wore on, she started casting around for other business options.
She thought of the recipe for dragon’s beard candy that she had picked up from her grandfather, who had personally learnt it from a former imperial chef in China. However, he had only passed on the general contours of the formula, and without specific knowledge of the quantities and technique required, there were multiple gaps in her knowledge which she first needed to fill.
It ended up taking her a decade to perfect her technique. “Ten years of trying and failing – she had to throw away lots of containers of malt. You need to learn how to cook the malt before you can even get to the pulling stage, but she didn’t know how because her grandfather had only told her the formula. She had to improvise while staying true to the formula she had been taught. It was really quite difficult,” explained Roger.
Aunty Lili was 31 when she began trying to recreate the recipe; by the time she had a product she was satisfied with, she was 41.
Enter the (lady) dragon
In 1988, Aunty Lili began selling peanut-flavoured dragon’s beard candy full-time at her shop in Pearl’s Centre, becoming not only the first dragon’s beard candy “master” in Singapore, but the first female one. According to Roger, she was criticised by other candy “masters” from China for daring to break into the male-dominated field. When they visited Singapore for trade fairs, they would make snide remarks and comments such as, “Women cannot pull dragon’s beard.” The general public, too, was sceptical that a woman could succeed in this field.
“Authentic dragon’s beard candy is made using pure malt – a hard lump like this one here,” explained Roger, picking up a palm-sized gold disc of the stuff. “It needs to be softened using the heat of your bare hands.”
“You can’t expose it to a heat source like a stove or hot water because that’s too strong. Once the malt liquefies, it can’t be pulled. That’s why people thought only men could do this job – because they’re supposedly stronger and their palms give off more heat,” he said. Instead of being discouraged by her detractors, however, knowing she was breaking new ground only made Aunty Lili more determined to succeed.
“No one thought that a woman could pull dragon’s beard candy at the time, but she did it. She got criticised for it, but she broke that [stereotype].”
According to Roger, dragon’s beard candy was not well known or easily available in Singapore before Aunty Lili started her business; it was mainly found at trade fairs or during the lead-up to Chinese New Year, when expert makers from China were sometimes flown in to make the candy at special events.
However, Aunty Lili soon discovered dragon’s beard candy did not lend itself well to being sold over-the-counter. It is best eaten fresh, as the strands of malt are extremely sensitive to heat and humidity; a piece of candy lasts only for a few minutes in Singapore’s tropical climate before melting into a hard, sticky lump.
She found that storing the candy in the freezer would stop it from disintegrating – a technique the business still uses today – although this also alters the texture of the strands. While still light, they become crispy, rather than soft and feathery.
Before long, Aunty Lili’s delicate confections started bringing in a steady income, and won her a following – including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, then a Member of Parliament (MP), who had tried her candy at a community event in the late 1980s. As her fame grew, she was invited to numerous functions, both locally and overseas, to make her candy.
An old newspaper clipping (dated 3 July 1991) of Aunty Lili selling her candy at a special night market in Holland Village, which focused on traditional and hard-to-find goodies. Photo courtesy of Roger Poon / Traditional Nanyang Flavours Pte Ltd
In the mid-2000s, Aunty Lili moved her stall from Chinatown to Vivocity, and then to the Food Republic food court in Wisma Atria on Orchard Road. However, due to various regulatory, financial and logistical constraints – for example, the unit at Food Republic could not accommodate a freezer, and it was not commercially viable to sell fresh dragon’s beard candy without a continuous stream of customers – she decided to cease running the stall in 2011.
It was a turning point for the business in more ways than one. While still sprightly at 64, Aunty Lili was not as strong as she used to be, and pulling and twisting the malt and standing for long periods of time were becoming more challenging. Her children were not interested in taking over the business, but Roger and his sister Elaine, both of whom had frequented her shop as children, felt they could not let their family’s famous recipe simply melt into the past. With that, Aunty Lili began training them both in the art of making dragon’s beard candy, ushering in a new era for the business.
Traditional flavours, modern appetites
After Roger and Elaine came on board, they turned their attention to bringing the business into the digital age and their products to younger audiences who saw food as an experience, not just sustenance. First, they diversified their product range; today, the business also sells traditional goodies, such as water chestnut cake, two other flavours of dragon’s beard candy (coconut and black sesame), and even “Dragon Elixirs”. This last treat, developed by Roger, is a variation of the original candies; it uses liquid nitrogen to create puffs of “dragon’s breath” which are exhaled by the person savouring the candies.
Without a permanent shop, they began selling their products at food fairs and special events, as well as online. To spread the word about upcoming events and keep in touch with customers, they publicised the business on Facebook, while thinking about how their extensive cultural and historical knowledge about candy-making could be put to use.
“What brings us business is our innovation,” said Roger. “See, anyone can sell snacks. Others can sell dragon’s beard candy. However, we’re the only ones who have turned it into a cultural business – we impart cultural knowledge to our customers and our audience.”
For the past few years, the company has also run original programmes such as the Science and Art of Dragon’s Beard, as well as interactive storytelling and outreach sessions in schools. They also accept bookings for private functions; Roger proudly shared how they had recently been invited to make their candy at a private party thrown by a group of Chinese nationals, who were very impressed by the quality of their products. At the time of the interview, the trio was busy preparing for an event at Gardens by the Bay.
In addition, a return to a permanent retail space is in the works, this time at Roxy Square in the historic neighbourhood of Katong. Roger and Elaine plan to hold interactive sessions and host functions at the outlet, which is slated to open in the third quarter of 2018.
Roger and Elaine at a school outreach session in early 2018. They regularly receive invitations from schools to conduct these sessions. Photo courtesy of Roger Poon/Traditional Nanyang Flavours Pte Ltd
To the pair, there are several reasons why Aunty Lili’s candy has maintained its iconic status, even without a physical shop space in the last few years.
First, their strict insistence on using only pure malt to make the candy. By contrast, most versions of dragon’s beard candy now use cane sugar or corn syrup for added sweetness – a practice they absolutely shun – or add stabilisers to prevent the delicate threads from disintegrating. “We want people to know what malt tastes like, and that there are alternative ways to add sweetness rather than using sugar or corn syrup, which are addictive and so bad for us. That’s why people can eat three or four pieces of our candy at a time and not feel sick,” he said.
“I won’t say our [candy] is superior or better, but it’s definitely more authentic, because dragon’s beard candy was originally made with pure malt,” he added. They even prepare the malt discs themselves, rather than buying them from a factory.
Second, the secret recipe for their original peanut filling – Aunty Lili’s “imperial fragrance peanuts”. These are sun-dried, fried, and finally baked, using a formula that has stayed strictly within the family.
Finally, their incomparable technique, borne out of Aunty Lili’s 30 years of expertise. The malt threads are pulled until each one is finer than a strand of hair, and each piece forms a pillowy little cloud that melts in the mouth. Moreover, when they get the chance to create and serve their confections on the spot, such as at special events, they take pride in making each piece perfectly sized for the customer’s mouth – the very highest standard possible, which they refer to as “imperial grade”.
“Apparently, this practice started when the Empress Dowager Cixi wanted to eat dragon’s beard candy. The imperial chefs made each piece no bigger than the tip of her thumb, so that she could simply pop the whole piece into her mouth without any of the peanut filling falling onto her clothes. If not, someone’s head would roll!” joked Roger.
On a more serious note, he added, “What motivates us is that we’ve found many people who’ve tried to make this delicacy – you can find so many tutorials on YouTube – but they don’t actually know or understand how much effort goes into it. We follow our eight-step imperial recipe exactly and don’t add preservatives. And because of that, I think our candies are among the best out there.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
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