'Ting, ting, ting’ was the sound of happiness for children in the 70s. Every time they heard this, they would know immediately that the Chinese uncle on his bicycle was bringing them their favourite treat: the tasty and crispy ting-ting candy also known as gula-gula ketuk. A delicacy back in the days of China‘s dynasties, ting-ting candy was called ‘Gui Fei ’, which means ‘concubine sweets’ because, at the time, only the emperor’s concubines ate this candy.
Recently, I got to speak to Leo Chia, Malaysia’s Willy Wonka of ting-ting candy. Chia‘s family has been running their business, Zia Zhong Jia Food Enterprise, for four generations. They make and sell this famous 70s confectionery.
The 23-year-old young man, who is also currently an ACCA student, started eating this candy as a lad. “I remember I used to quietly pop the candy in my mouth whenever my grandfather and father were not looking,” he said. At the age of 15, he started helping them to make it. He took over the business after his SPM exams.
His great-grandfather started the business by carrying the candy around the village on foot in Kuala Pilah. When the business flourished, his grandfather got himself a bicycle, which was later upgraded to a motorcycle by Chia’s father.
Nowadays, Chia not only sells them from a car but also markets them through wholesalers. He also has a kiosk at the Viva Home Mall near Cheras, which has a demonstration corner to show people how ting-ting is made.
After using many modes of transportation to sell this candy, one thing that has not changed is the act of hitting the hammer on the metal chisels to create a catchy beat that attracts customers.
Back then, there was only naturally flavoured candy, but now Chia has introduced more flavours. The candy previously had no fancy packaging and used to be placed directly in the customers’ hands, but now they are packaged nicely.
When asked if Chia had plans to change the packaging of this candy to make it more competitive with other sweets, he said, “I don’t think I‘m interested in commercialising this candy if I have to modernise a traditional aspect.”
Their candy’s market used to be a hit at Chinese villages in Negri Sembilan, Pahang and Johor. Now they have expanded their business to big cities nationwide.
Most children today are introduced to ting-ting candy by their parents who once enjoyed it. “That has definitely kept my business going and encouraged me to continue it,” he said, adding, “I‘m in this business to earn a living but also to continue a tradition that I hope will be preserved for a very long time. But I do have plans to expand my business to give the world a view of Malaysian tradition through this candy. No matter what happens I will keep my family’s ting-ting candy business going.” He is definitely a determined man because he will never give up and never stop promoting the candy or its old dying trade.
Chia’s family recipe only uses three ingredients in making the candy. The ingredients are sesame seeds, honey and maltose. They also have a flavoured version — mint candy — which uses mint leaves, honey and maltose. The candy contains nothing artificial, not even sugar.
I was also given the opportunity to try making the candy. I’ve shared my experience on https://www.facebook.com/niexter/videos. Check it out!