[WATCH] Full stomachs, full hearts: homage to Furama bakery’s indelible legacy

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It’s hard to imagine a Chinatown without Furama.

Buying your favourite pastries at a Chinese bakery is a childhood rite of passage almost every Canadian-born Chinese (colloquially shortened to “CBC”) person holds dear. As a child, there was nothing as exhilarating as the sight of sweet buns in the domed display cases at a Chinese bakery, showcased like heirloom china.

For me, being able to handpick and purchase my own snack (then going at about 60¢ apiece) with the pocket change from my parents was so empowering to a penny-pinched eight-year-old whose only income came from red packets on birthdays and new years. I felt so grown-up. Emboldened with the purchasing power a child is rarely conferred, I would stockpile for the week as many purple rice buns (sounds suspect but it’s delicious, I promise) a lunch tray could accommodate. I mean, it was on mom and dad’s dime after all.

“A true Toronto classic”

This Tues., Sept, 29, I visited Furama Cake and Desserts Garden, 富麗華餅店, on its last day of operation. After a 30-year tenure in Toronto’s Chinatown BIA, the prototypical Hong Kong-styled bakery that paved the way for successive bakeries of its kind closed their doors forever. Its sister location at First Canadian Place shut down just a few months prior in March.

I was hit with a pang of finality as I relived the familiar ritual of tonging my favourite sweet buns onto a polka-dotted tray and grabbing a chilled VITA tea from the fridge for the very last time.

“After many years of serving you on Spadina, we’ll be permanently closing our doors on September 29th due to difficult circumstances,” read the handwritten poster on the bakery window.

“We’ve watched Chinatown going through many changes and are thankful to all our loyal customers who’ve supported us all this time,” Furama wrote. “We’re sad to go and will miss you all.”

This regretful sentiment was very much reciprocated by its clientele. The abrupt closure took many Torontonians by surprise as the celebrated bakery had been a constant fixture in both the community and the daily routines of many locals. That morning, the bakery was redolent of fresh pastries as well as the loss, nostalgia, and gratitude felt by customers. The emotional medley was palpable.

Over the years, different stores came and went in a shapeshifting Chinatown, but Furama remained a steadfast bastion of traditional Cantonese cuisine and cultural solidarity. The bakery’s neighbourhood presence was intimate and reassuring. It’s hard to imagine a Chinatown without Furama.

“We hope our buns, desserts, and drinks have brought you joy over the years,” their sign read.

And brought joy the bakery did, as evidenced by the fervent responses from long-time customers on social media.

Furama’s swan song saw no shortage of patronage, either. Their last day was just as busy as any other business day, if not busier.

The bakery was swarmed with customers of all stripes: young and old, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. All shoppers left with bags full of pastries they won’t be able to eat again, edible artifacts of a fleeting local heritage.

Unsurprisingly, crowd favourites like the hot dog bun, BBQ pork bun, and pineapple bun were flying off the shelves. Customers were heaping other Furama classics like egg tarts, almond cookies, and sesame balls onto their trays too.

“Since they first opened, I’ve been coming to the bakery,” Dominic Leung told INN24.

Leung came to Canada 50 years ago and always buys the deep-fried beef curry bun whenever he’s at Furama. In its heyday, there’d be long lineups for the bakery, he said.

To Leung, Furama’s pastries are often imitated but never duplicated. “Many bakeries make fusion pastries nowadays but Furama’s buns are distinctly traditional.”

Customers wrote messages on sticky notes and posted them on the store window (Vicki A. Lee)

On the way out, customers could leave a note on the window to offer a final word of thanks to the bakery. By the day’s end, the storefront was festooned with heartfelt messages written on sticky notes.

“We hope you change your mind,” one note read, a plea punctuated with a doodle of a sad face.

“Thank you for making buns that are still memories from my childhood.”

“Love this place,” another read, “Been coming here for 26 years! Thank you! Miss you!”

The changing face of Chinatown

Furama stalwart or not, the shuttering of the bakery and the sale of its premises signals a woeful end of an era. Many Torontonians fear the long-term repercussions of effacing history in favour of more condominiums and franchises.

The mournful online dialogue is a testament to the bakery’s community impact, to how many bodies and minds it has nourished throughout the decades.

Chinese bakeries are famously inexpensive, especially considering how delectable their merchandise is. Even with the gradual price increases to adapt to economic inflation over the years, Furama’s fare is quite affordable by downtown Toronto’s standards.

With just $5 in hand, you could leave a Chinese bakery content with enough treats to feed an entire family, as I did on Tues., arriving home with the iconic red takeout box, brimming with Furama’s specialties.

“As a broke student, I always appreciated your buns and warm shop,” a note written by a certain JT reads, whose experience would resonate with other young customers who relied on Furama for quick snacks.  

In a metropolitan locale saturated with fast-food chains, a family-owned eatery like Furama is a rare jewel. As I witnessed on Tues., Furama’s familial atmosphere was infectious. Many customers knew the workers by name, engaging in playful repartee in Cantonese that could only come from years of companionship. The warm camaraderie at the bakery that day ameliorated the solemn occasion.

“Happy customers play a critical part of the business and this is nothing unusual in Chinatown,” wrote Yee Chow, wife of one of Furama’s veteran bakers.[1]

“Whether you go to Rol San, King’s Noodle, or any other location in the area you always see happy smiles, laughs and giggles, or crowding ambient noises.”

Came for the buns, stayed for the company

Furama was not only a purveyor of toothsome baked goods but also a cultural and social mainstay for Chinese immigrants. In the 1990s, GTA’s urban landscape looked a lot different than it does now. Places like Scarborough and Markham did not always boast such a flourishing Chinese population, nor easily accessible ethnic food—if you wanted a traditional Chinese delicacy, you had to venture to the city centre for it.[2]

Chinatown of yore: illuminated signs on Dundas St. in 1992 (Richard Lautens, Toronto Star Archives).

Those who craved authentic Hong Kong desserts flocked to Furama, where you could find Chinese staples alongside western desserts: the bakery’s cultural hybridity is in itself an apt metaphor for the Chinese-Canadian experience. As a result, Furama was a favourite social spot for many Cantonese-speaking immigrants in the ‘90s and, until the COVID-19 lockdown, remained the preferred gathering place for the elderly Chinese population.

Pre-pandemic, you’d see the bakery’s café area teeming with seniors having afternoon tea, 下午茶, which consists of Hong Kong-styled milk tea, coffee, or even “yuenyeung”, 鴛鴦, a milk tea-coffee concoction. These beverages would be accompanied, of course, by some sweet buns or cookies.

Like many Chinatown businesses, Furama was a space where everyone spoke your native tongue, where you could taste the flavours of home without breaking the bank. The bakery and, more importantly, its regulars, provided a hospitable sanctuary for newcomers in an oftentimes aloof and alienating city.

A prosaic coffee break elsewhere was a sprightly communal experience at Furama.

Months of lockdown ravaged the global economy, with local businesses taking the brunt of the economic downturn. Chinese-owned restaurants in particular have been victims of racial discrimination during the pandemic, with reduced customer traffic at best and xenophobic verbal attacks at worst.[3]

Chow has launched a GoFundMe campaign to support the furloughed Furama employees. The fundraiser has a target of $18,000 CAD, now at about $15,500.

“Some of the workers are older and will face challenges in finding [employment] during COVID and as older age folks seeking jobs in a rapidly changing sector,” Friends of Chinatown TO wrote in an Instagram post.[4]

“Furama bakery has been a staple of the community for years,” Erica May Farazi, a donor, wrote. “I hate the way gentrification is destroying the city’s culture. I wish all the best for employees who are now displaced.”

Furama: a most verdant garden

Upon entering the bakery on Tues., I was struck by the power of olfactory memory: the irresistible fragrance of freshly baked buns returned me to happiest memories of my formative years: think Ratatouille (2007), when food critic Anton Ego eats a forkful of Remy’s titular dish and is immediately transported to his boyhood. I’ll never be eight years old enjoying a pineapple bun at a park again, but I time travel whenever I relish in the taste, texture, and aroma of a pineapple bun.

Fluffy, soft, mildly sweet but never too decadent, Chinese sweet buns have always agreed with my sugar-averse Taiwanese palate. These inimitable buns transcend mealtime categories to be a meal, snack or dessert as the eater sees fit. Indeed, every bite of a Furama bun is a direct hit to the pleasure center (this story was made possible by the raisin bun I’m savouring between paragraphs).

“Furama” is a transliteration of the bakery’s Chinese name in short form, 富麗華, which means “fortune, beauty, grandeur.” The word “Garden” in its English name also lends the bakery a pastoral romance invoking greenery, life, and opportunity. Through the rich personal memories and community kinship it had cultivated in its multigenerational clientele, Furama has—without a shadow of a doubt—lived up to its name, cementing its legacy in Toronto’s history.

As a customer expressed most poignantly on a sticky note, 「想你三十年」: “Miss you for thirty years.”

Sources

[1] “Relief fund for Furama workers.” GoFundMe. https://www.gofundme.com/f/furama-cake-and-desserts-garden 

[2] “多伦多华埠30年港式面包老店因疫情宣布关门.” China News. 25 Sept. 2020. https://www.chinanews.com/hr/2020/09-25/9299797.shtml

[3] Olsen, Alexandra and Terry Tang. “‘Chinatown is bleeding’: Misguided COVID-19 fears hit Asian American businesses.” The Associated Press. 18 Feb 2020. https://globalnews.ca/news/6563834/chinatown-restaurants-suffering-coronavirus/

[4] Friends of Chinatown TO (FOCT). friendsofchinatownto. “Friends, you’ve all shared stories and memories of Furama…” Instagram, 1 Oct 2020.  https://www.instagram.com/p/CFzcO1GAGlI/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link 

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