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The Wife Cake Emerges as a Symbol of Resistance During the Hong Kong Protests

As violence against protesters breaks out across Hong Kong, the sweetheart cake has gained renewed communal significance

Wife cakes, or sweetheart cakes, sprinkled with sesame are presented on a palm leaf with tea. Jinning Li/

In response to a controversial extradition bill in China, tens of thousands of Hongkongers have taken their protests to the streets where, amidst gang and police violence, a surprising (and edible) symbol of resistance has emerged: the wife cake, also known as a sweetheart cake, which is a pie with a thin crust and a filling of mashed candied winter melon.

Probably named for the wife of a dim sum cook who created the snack, a wife cake’s appeal lies in the textural contrast between the flaky exterior crust and that sweet, gooey center. The sweetness comes from candied winter melon, a confection often sighted during Chinese New Year and produced through preserving the mild, succulent gourd with sugar – imagine a dehydrated version of honeydew. The more you chew, the more its fragrance permeates your mouth.

Though unassuming in appearance, the wife cake is complicated to make. The puff pastry is composed of two different lard-based doughs, one of which must be skillfully insulated inside the other. Using a wok, the baker stir-fries the filling of ground candied winter melon in flour and oil. The filling is then wrapped in the puff pastry dough and baked in the oven for 15 minutes. It is a skill-intensive craft; every step requires a separate technique, and unsurprisingly, it can take a baker years to master them all.

The wife cake is a popular choice on the pastry plate that a bridegroom sends his bride’s parents following an engagement. But as significantly, it’s a specialty of Yuen Long, a district in northern Hong Kong that only really urbanized beginning in the 1970s. Its prominence in Yuen Long is essentially a success story of the neighborhood bakeries, some of which have been turning out handmade Cantonese pastries (or beng as they’re known locally) for more than half a century. Hang Heung, a dim sum restaurant that opened in the 1940s, was the first to serve wife cake, handing it out to guests waiting for seats. This novelty was such an instant hit that it soon outgrew the restaurant’s main business. Hang Heung closed as a restaurant in 1980 to focus on selling baked goods. Hang Heung, alongside two other thriving pastry shops, Wing Wah and Tai Tung, nearby, transformed Yuen Long into the hub of beng production. Nowhere else would you find wife cakes coming fresh from the oven, warm with extra supple filling.

But Yuen Long is notorious for darker, more insidious reasons than Hong Kong’s freshest pies. The neighborhood is also known for being a stronghold of the triad, the local gangsters. And in one of the most unforgettable weeks in recent Hong Kong history, Yuen Long’s two biggest claims to fame -- wife cakes and organized crime -- were brought together in a violent clash.

On July 21, as the city-wide protest against the extradition bill (which would allow China to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China for trial) reached its seventh week, expanding from the city center to residential neighborhoods, the triad -- dressed in white T-shirts -- rampaged the Yuen Long metro station and the trains, beating the passengers indiscriminately with batons. Among those attacked were the protesters (dressed in black), the elderly, journalists, and, in once incidence, a pregnant woman. As a result, 45 people were hospitalized, and many more suffered minor injuries. One graphic video after another circulated on the internet, showing bloodshed, protesters begging for mercy, and bystanders protecting each other from the onslaught of violence. From afar, countless Hongkongers shed tears, feeling helpless.

The dubiously late arrival of the police to the station and their blasé attitude toward the attackers cast suspicions that they were in an alliance with the gangs. Such belief only gained currency later on when a formal request for a protest in Yuen Long to condemn the attack on July 27 was rejected by the police. And so protesters looked for another way to make their mark, instead proposing a large-scale “day trip” to Yuen Long to eat and shop, the traditional bakeries billed as a main attraction. The notably quick-witted online organizers even declared July 27 to be the “International Wife Cake Day”, spreading e-flyers on Facebook to encourage fellow Hongkongers to head north and taste the Yuen Long specialty. The proposal caught fire quickly, with the online commentators suggesting additional activities, like a poll on which of the big three bakeries makes the best wife cake. Though the campaign was outwardly facetious, one could surmise the more serious mission of the “day trip”: to express political discontent. Every local could feel the gravity of eating a wife cake at this particular time; it wasn’t just a treat but a way to pay tribute to the pride of Yuen Long and reclaim the district’s dignity.

Even after rumors spread that the triad was planning to attack protesters with nitric acid and manure water, 228,000 “day-trippers” headed to Yuen Long on the 27th. Among them was Gloria Chung, a food writer and Yuen Long local, who invited her friends to her home turf to experience the local culture and gastronomy.

“People still associate Yuen Long with images of the countryside and village,” Chung told me over the phone. “I’d tell my friends we really don’t have cows roaming around here. We’re proud of living in this neighborhood. We have mostly small shops here and we’re used to getting our bread at independent bakeries. It’s very distinct from other districts in Hong Kong dominated by big shopping malls. Perhaps just like Cantonese pastries and wife cake, Yuen Long represents the old Hong Kong that’s fading away.”

Most of the shops in Yuen Long chose to shut their doors during the day trip, fearing the potential chaos, but Hang Heung and Tai Tung stayed open to sell visitors the coveted winter melon pies. Hundreds lined up outside each bakery. Mr. Tang, a financial supervisor at Hang Heung, says they produce up to 10,000 wife cakes every day to distribute to their five locations and a significant portion is sent to the Yuen Long flagship. With the uptick in visitors, the shop slightly struggled to accommodate everyone with the business’s limited space and manpower. However, the customers, mostly in black shirts to identify themselves as protesters, reportedly demonstrated patience and discipline despite having to wait for a long while.

By 4pm, Hang Heung already had sold out of wife cakes, but the people remained, marching and chanting anti-gangster messages under sweltering heat. Things took a turn just as the day-trippers started to think the day was a peaceful success. At around 5pm, the police began clearance, shooting rubber bullets and launching tear gas at a densely populated area. Four to five hours later, the eviction advanced to the Yuen Long metro station. Making arrests, police used unnecessary force with batons, an echo of the mob fiasco that took place less than a week before. The evening triggered another series of violent conflicts, which continued to unfold over the following few days.

The protests and violence have carried into August, with concerns and demands moving beyond the extradition bill, and violence spreading. Over the weekend, police continued to deploy tear gas and rubber bullets, and have arrested at least 82 civilians. Resolution for a political dead-end doesn’t come from a simple pie, nor will the wife cake provide closure to the people who have been physically and psychologically wounded by the police and triad aggressors. But what “International Wife Cake Day” did prove is that thousands of people will unite under a banner that to an outsider is just a regional treat, but to Hongkongians is a representation of communal pride and solidarity.