STOP10 May 2017: 'The Missing Ingredient' by Wang Eng Eng

Nam Tong Lee Confectionary has an illustrious history of mooncake making, and in the past, could boast of long queues for its signature Hainanese suyan (salt and pepper) mooncakes during the mid-Autumn festival. Wang Eng Eng’s short documentary The Missing Ingredient captures a snapshot of Nam Tong Lee’s past, present and unknown future. 

Although their packaging of a red box with gold Chinese characters hasn’t changed since the shop opened decades ago, Nam Tong Lee has struggled to keep its tradition going. Nam Tong Lee used to have a shop at Purvis Street. However, the main shop closed in 2006 and the kitchen moved to Batam, where it ships mooncakes to Singapore. 

The Missing Ingredient follows third-generation Wong Eng How in his struggle to continue the production of the suyan mooncakes. It is a frustrating situation to be in, as he is a pivot for the obvious tension in the family, between the older generation who criticise the mooncakes and the younger generation who have no interest in stepping up to save the declining family business. He is also caught in the dilemma between embracing innovation and honouring past traditions, and there is a strong bittersweet sense in the documentary that we are bearing witness to the dredges of a historic confectionary. 

We talked to director Wang Eng Eng (also a third-generation descendent) about documenting her family’s history and the importance of heritage and culture.

In Eric Khoo’s Wanton Mee, a hawker centre is about to be demolished. A character who plays a journalist uses her camera to film the scene, saying that even if physical structures disappear, they are “gone, but not lost". Was your decision to make a short film on Nam Tong Lee, an integral part of your family’s history, motivated by this notion as well? 

My decision to make the film was to capture memories of our moon cake making tradition before it is lost forever. The physical transformation of Nam Tong Lee was only the first step of a tradition that was slowly losing ground. Families who once lived at Nam Yong Lee moved away and thus manpower to produce the moon cake became scarce. My dad used to produce it but I was not interested. Nobody else was very interested and Eng How stepped up. 

The inter-generational gap comes through strongly in your film, as well as the relative decline of the mooncake market and Nam Tong Lee’s popularity, and the nostalgia that long-time customers feel for the suyan (salt and pepper) mooncakes. How did it feel as a third-generation Wang to collect first-hand stories about the brand your grandparents built in Singapore? 

I feel an inevitable sense of loss but I haven't done anything concrete towards saving or reviving the heritage. Mooncakes are a form of tradition that are more a memory to me than a big part of my life. 

Eng How muses on the inevitability of change and disruption as each generation succeeds its predecessor and takes the rein. Eventually, the company would be transformed into something unrecognisable. Expanding this example to the country as a whole, what would you like young Singaporeans to know when it comes to the preservation of heritage and culture? 

I think documentation is important. If not, there wouldn't be references to begin with and no where to start preserving our culture and heritage. Finding ways to keep it relevant to our society is also important. New is not always better.

The Missing Ingredient will be screened as part of the Singapore Heritage Festival 2017 in a double bill with Eric Khoo's Wanton Mee.

Screening Details: Saturday 13 May, 7pm.
Venue: Near Asian Civilisations Museum (Outdoor)
Free Admission

Written by Jacqueline Lee

For the full list of May 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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