Chinatown Sweets and Pastries

Chinatown Sweets and Pastries

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This exhibit celebrates sweet stories and memories of San Francisco Chinatown’s candies, baked goods, and desserts. This project is in association with Spotlight Chinatown, a program of Chinatown Community Development Center supporting neighborhood commerce and community.

January 24 - February 24, 2019 at 41 Ross Alley in San Francisco, CA.

Films and Photography by Emma Marie Chiang


Owner, Derek Tam, hopes to “introduce dragon beard candy and its story to more and more people.” As a fifth-generation candy maker who learned the skill at age nine, owner Derek Tam left his career as an engineer to open up shop in Chinatown serving his family’s specialty, dragon beard candy. Originally associated with the Chinese Imperial Court during the Han Dynasty, dragon beard candy got its name from an emperor who was reminded of a long-flowing dragon’s beard when he watched a chef stretch stringy, sticky strands of molasses into long paper-thin strands before being wrapped neatly around a bundle of crushed peanuts. From the window of Dragon Papa, residents and visitors can watch the whole process of making this traditional sweet.  Derek remarks, “The best part is seeing customers eating candy in front of the store, with smiles on their faces and beards flowing from their mouths.”  

ICAFE 幸福餅家

ICafe sells all kinds of traditional cocktail buns -- pineapple buns, roast pork buns, coconut bun, hot dog buns, or plain buttery milk bread. The 43-year-old business, with current owners Nobo Chiu and Hannah Zhang (Xioa Yan Zhang) serve seniors and families who eat their pastries over conversation and television. Nobo’s specialty is a crispy-top cha siu pork bun. iCafe also serves Hong-Kong-style milk tea, made from black tea and condensed milk, inspired by the British practice of afternoon tea with milk and sugar. Another unique offering at iCafe is homemade mochi  in flavors like black sesame with peanuts, purple yam, and durian. For the mango mochi, Hannah Zhang deftly shapes the rice flour squeezing mango juice to flavor the wrapping before filling the mochi with freshly cut mango. Hannah says that “My hope is that the pastries we make is an expression of the heart and brings joy to customers. When Chinatown residents taste our pastries, I hope the experience will make them feel at home through familiar tastes, reminding them of their home in China or wherever they are from.” 

AA BAKERY & Cafe 永興餅家

It’s a bustling place where seniors, families, and tourists alike enjoy a hearty meal or grab pastries to go. Owners Henry and Colleen Chen specialize in flaky buttery puffed pastries filled with a curry meat or cha siu barbeque pork filling and a sak ke mah, a deep fried rice-crispy-like noodle bar. AA Bakery also sells gai zai bang, a crunchy chicken cookie that is savory, sweetish, a wee bit chewy. People eat these “little chicken biscuits” to wish for a son - as it contains nam yu (fermented tofu) and the word nam is a homonym for male. AA Bakery also features many steamed pastries, like a shau toh ‘longevity peach’ filled with lotus-seed paste. These pink and orange peach-shaped buns are served at an elder’s birthday to wish long life and health. Henry is particularly noted for beautiful custom cakes that have brightened many birthdays, weddings and celebrations. He gets his greatest joy in creating these special cakes with customized designs from colorful frosting, fruits, and chocolate. Many AA Bakery workers have gone on to open their own businesses in Chinatown and throughout the city. As Henry recalls, “The previous owner of AA Bakery mentored me. After he left, I took over the business. Through the years, I have taken joy in mentoring other young immigrant workers to learn the craft and open their own bakeries. This is what makes Chinatown so vital as a launching pad to pass on cultural traditions through local businesses. It all starts in Chinatown as a home base.”