Kenny Yuen stands in a glass, temperature-controlled room inside the Yau Kei Candy shop in the St Lazarus district of downtown Macao. He holds a giant ring of hardened, malleable malt sugar, dusted in a thick layer of cornstarch.
As he pulls, Yuen twists the sugar into a figure eight, looping the candy back and around, then pulling and stretching it again. The ring becomes two, then four, eight, 16, 32 – a visual representation of exponential growth. After 15 minutes and one final pull, Yuen holds over 16,000 strands of sugary silk – a perfect ‘dragon’s beard’ – which will soon enclose a sweet filling made from peanuts, sesame and coconut.
“I usually spend all day in here making the candy,” says Yuen, who was born in Macao in 1982. “It can be hard on the hands, but I’ve been doing it for 12 years now, so it’s all just muscle memory.”
A silky confection once enjoyed only by emperors, dragonbeard candy is said to have originated in China during the Han Dynasty, although the legend surrounding its creation is as wispy as the candy itself. Some say that an imperial court chef created the confectionary for the Emperor, and when the small sticky strands clung to his face after eating, he christened them ‘dragonbeard’ candy. Others believe the candy was simply named after the mythical dragon – the symbol of the Chinese emperor. Due to the candy’s complexity and labourious preparation, it was reserved as an exclusive indulgence for the ruling class.
Yuen Tin Yau, Kenny’s father and founder of Yau Kei Candy has a different story. “The original name was ‘silver thread candy’”, he says. “The emperor liked the candy so much, and as his zodiac sign was the dragon, he renamed it dragonbeard candy.”
Dragonbeard’s turbulent history
The sweet eventually escaped the confines of the Forbidden City and made its way out into the public. For decades, the secrets of dragonbeard making were passed down verbally from each generation to the next, and vendors sold dragon’s beard candy on street corners throughout the country. But when the Chinese Cultural Revolution tried to eradicate any connection with the country’s imperial past, the art form all but died out. It wasn’t until 1976, when the revolution came to an end, that the candy started to make a very slow but noticeable comeback.
At the time, Yuen Tin Yau was in Hong Kong, where he had relocated with his family in the 1970’s. “The manufacturing industry in Hong Kong was declining and my housemate and fellow apprentice and I were eager to change jobs,” explains Yuen Tin Yau. “One day, he told me that he had got a recipe for making dragonbeard candy and I asked him if he could teach me as well. But he told me that he would make the candy and I could sell them.”
So rare and treasured were the secrets of dragonbeard candy that Yuen Tin Yau’s housemate refused to share his recipe and candy-making techniques. He would only make the candy when Yuen Tin Yau was out and even tore the labels off the ingredients’ packaging so Yau could not replicate the recipe. But his housemate’s efforts were no match for Yuen Tin Yau’s drive and curiosity.
“I collected all those scraps of paper and tried to piece together what he was using,” he says. “I finally figured out the ingredients [corn syrup, shredded coconut, peanuts and sesame] and tried to make my own candy. It gave me blisters all over my hands, because I had no idea what I was doing.”
Even with a seemingly simple recipe in hand, it took time for Yuen Tin Yau to discern the process. He had to pour molten malt-sugar syrup, heated to a scalding 171 degrees, into containers then let them cool overnight before pulling them into strands. It took him months to learn the process and years to perfect it, he recalls.
In 1976, then 28 years old, Yuen Tin Yau moved in with his elder brother and started running a dragon’s beard candy hawker stall in Tsuen Wan. “I actually bumped into my old housemate one day and he invited me to start a dragon’s beard candy business with him,” says Yau. “But I was already successfully selling my own candy by then and didn’t need to go into partnership with him.”
In 1986, after selling his candy in Hong Kong for 10 years, Yuen Tin Yau returned to Macao to try his luck selling the candy outside Theatre Alegria in the St. Anthony district. “I was quite nervous in the beginning, but it became unexpectedly popular,” he says. “Business was steady and everyone here grew to love the candy very much. The process is quite theatrical to watch, and then the way it just dissolves in the mouth is almost magical.”
Copycat stalls began to pop up around town, but Yuen Tin Yau says, by the late 1980s, they had all disappeared. “Nobody wanted to take over the businesses,” he explains. “Without someone to learn the trade and keep things going, they had to shut down.”
Continuing the tradition
It’s a fate that almost befell Yuen Tin Yau. Nearing retirement, he could feel the years of making dragonbeard candy catching up with him. He started receiving cortisone injections in his hands to help manage the pain and, at 65 years old, turned to his son Kenny, pleading with him to take over the family business.
“I was in the UK studying biology when my father asked me to take over,” says Yuen. “I didn’t want to do it. But I asked my friends what they thought, and they said, if I didn’t do it then there would be no more dragonbeard candy in Macao, and it will be lost forever once my father retires.”
Yuen agreed to a one-year trial, then returned to Macao to learn from his father in 2010. “It’s easy to say you’ll give it a go and see, but once you pick it up, it’s difficult to stop,” he says, laughing. Despite spending his whole childhood watching his father pull and stretch dragonbeard, Yuen found it difficult to produce the candy properly because he was trying so hard to copy Yuen Tin Yau’s movements. “He told me that I had to learn my own way to make the candy,” says Yuen. “Once I started using my own style to make it, it became a lot easier to perfect.”
The peanut-filled fluffy white candy was added to the Macao government’s the Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2020, and hotels such as Four Seasons Hotel Macao and Galaxy Macau now even offer it as an in-room treat for their guests. The recognition from the government should provide on-going protection of the centuries-old tradition, even as it evolves in these modern times with new flavours, updated production conditions and packaging.
“We have some new flavours now like durian, tofu and chocolate ice-cream, plum and lychee tea,” says Yuen. “It brings a creative and modern element to the candy that will keep it relevant.”
Sensitive to temperature and moisture, the ephemeral treat that Yuen Tin Yau once hawked on the streets of Hong Kong and Macao had to be consumed immediately lest it melt. Now, Yuen makes the candy inside a temperature-controlled room at the company’s brick-and-mortar shop, which opened in St Lazarus in 2020, providing tourists and locals with a place to sit and enjoy their candies.
“Now we don’t have to worry about the weather affecting our candy-making,” says Yuen. “My father still talks about the day in Hong Kong when they were hit by a sudden hail storm and none of the dragonbeard candy makers could pull the candy – the unpredictable weather just made it impossible.”
Yuen also runs workshops on the upper level of the shop, in the hopes of showing more people how to make dragonbeard candy and keeping interest in the art alive. So far, it seems to be working – his son, 10, has already declared that he will one day take over the candy empire. “We’ll see!” laughs Yuen. “I won’t put any pressure on him.”
If you’re ready to don your very own dragonbeard, visit Yau Kei Candy at Rua de São Roque 41, Macao. For an authentic Macao experience, head to their hawker stall in the Three Lamps district and speak to the founder himself. You can also find them on Instagram and Facebook. Details of their workshops can also be found on their pages.