A profile on a traditional family-run ice cream shop struggling to stay in business and preserve its traditional ways against the encroachment of Haagen-Das and other big international brands.
“Our customers always urge us to continue running our business and keep this old shop in Macau” said Mr Kong Wing Tsan, the owner of the Lai Kei Ice cream shop. He is the grandson of the shop’s founder, and has managed the business together with his mother for the past ten years.
The old-fashioned Lai Kei shop is very different from the other, more modern shops in the Tap Seac neighborhood. It has traditional signboards and small tiles on the walls.
“Lai Kei gives us vintage feel and it shows the local characteristics of Macau,” said Mr Chan and his girlfriend, tourists visiting from Hong Kong.
“I knew about Lai Kei from my girlfriend’s mother. She is from Macau,” said Mr Lee, who is from Hong Kong. “We have visited Lai Kei several times. The first time was five years ago.”
The visitors say Lai Kei’s ice cream is special, and both of them feel that the shop maintains the taste of the old days. The atmosphere around the shop, both outside and inside, reminds people of the 1980s. The decorations and the furniture, together with the menu and lighting, all seem from eariler decades.
“We regularly renew or repair the old decorations, furniture and machines, but keeping the vintage style is always a top priority,” said the owner. “We prefer to keep the floor tile and tables, as the tourists like taking photos with them. Some directors choose to make TV programs here, while some couples take their wedding photos too. They love the traditional environment.”
The traditional environment of Lai Kei
70 years ago, the founder of Lai Kei Ice Cream was eager for a daughter after having four sons. Therefore, he created an image of a girl on the package of his products, hoping it would bring good luck and a baby girl. Eventually, he had two daughters. This lucky image has been used ever since.
“In the past, Macau was a slower-paced city,” said Mr Kong. “People were quite simple and unsophisticated in running a business,” said Mr Kong. “And today, although the society is influenced by new ideas, tourists tend to find the vintage and traditional things. That’s one of the reasons why we keep using the old decorations and packaging.”
The history of Lai Kei Ice Cream can be traced back seven decades. It started as a stall, which did not require any license. It received the first license later in the 1950s. Mr Kong is now the third generation of his family to run the shop.
According to Sin Weng Hou, a local resident, the prices at Lai Kei are cheaper than those of modern ice cream shops.
“Actually there is no direct competition between the modern ice cream shops like Häagen-Dazs and us because our customer groups are different,” said Mr Kong. “The modern ice-cream shops are mostly chains, with branches are around the world. They may not have much attraction for the tourists as visitors normally want to try something local.”
“The low price of our products may also attract the local families and children,” Mr Kong said, smiling. “Actually, with inflation, we cannot keep the low prices. But we considered the economic status of the local elderly and children so we finally gave up the thought of increasing our prices.”
Lai Kei has also faced difficulties in recruiting employees because of inflation and the low salaries offered. Lai Kei is a small shop, and the owner cannot afford to pay 10,000 the patacas (about USD$1,250) a month to hire a dishwasher, as Macau’s casinos do.
Mr Kong also claimed that inflation was a big problem.
In the past, Lai Kei was quite a large firm for Macau, so wholesalers would pay attention to its comments and provide on-time delivery. However, the development of the casinos recently has made it hard for Lai Kei to compete. The casinos have become a big business for wholesalers, and small shops can hardly afford the mark-up.
Having been open for more than 70 years, Lai Kei has also been a kind of witness to the changes that have transformed Macau.
“More and more old shops have closed due to inflation and higher rent, such as the old laundry right beside Lai Kei.” Mr Kong sighed. “Actually, many visitors want some other tourist spots than casinos.”
He also noted that many foreign customers were disappointed every time they heard about a local shop going out of business. He worries that the fact that Macau is so dependent on a single industry may reduce the interest from tourists.
“Some shops did ask for cooperation and offer to buy the shop in the past. However, we decide to keep it because my family feels that it’s quite regretful to close the shop.”
The changes of the nature of the shop’s customers have also given Mr. Kong some insights about the broader changes in Macau.
“In the past, over 97% of the customers are local. Not many tourists visited Macau at that time.” Mr Kong stated. “At the beginning, most of the tourists were from Hong Kong. But now, attracted by the casinos, tourists come from mainland China and all over the world.”
In the past decade, the ratio of local and foreign customers has become fifty-fifty, and the local customers are not limited just to those in the neighborhood.
“In the old days, our customers normally lived nearby. But now the transportation is very convenient so more local customers who live far away come here.”
As for Lai Kei’s future prospects, Mr Kong would like to keep running this family business. “Whenever an old shop in Macau closes down, it is a loss for the tourists who would never have a chance to meet and know the shop,” he said.
He is going to let his daughter to decide whether to take over the business in the future by herself, but for sure, he plans to continue running the Lai Kei Ice Cream shop.
Mr Kong Wing Tsan, the owner of Lai Kei ice-cream shop
Zoe Lai, Anthea Tam and Teresa Lei are undergraduate students in the Department of Communications at the University of Macau.