From pop star to bun chef, Oscar Siu has savored it all

From pop star to bun chef, Oscar Siu has savored it all

A former singer has ditched the limelight for a life behind the stove, frying up specialty Shanghainese buns in Mongkok

Shanghainese buns in Hong KongSwapping the stage for a kitchen came naturally to Oscar Siu.Oscar Siu Yun-pong used to dream of pop stardom; now he dreams of bun kingship.

The 30-year-old was an aspiring pop star in the Cantonese band Bliss. Then he radically switched career paths and became a chef at his own restaurant in Mongkok specializing in Shanghainese snacks, particularly the pan-fried bun called "sheng jian bao."

"When I hear people say things like 'this is impossible' I think they are just unwilling to try," says Siu, who prides himself on his versatility. 

He wasn't a mega hit as a pop star, but Siu has let go of all that. He considers himself a true free spirit and doesn't want to pigeonhole himself in anyway.

"I never gave up on music, but I don't want to be stuck with this pop singer identity," says Siu. "There are many crossroads in life and every crossroad is an opportunity." 

Siu thinks that young people are too hung up about things that are already in the past and it paralyses them from developing. People can take on more than one pursuit in their lifetimes as long as it is done with equal ardor, he says.

When Siu was on stage, he sang his heart out; now he is in the kitchen, he gives his all to the buns. There is never any excuse to slack off.

"No matter what role I play, no matter how crap the environment may be, I won't whine about it," says Siu. "First I try to make myself see the bright side. When I am able to smile about it, then I try to think of a way to solve the problems."

Shanghainese buns in Hong KongSiu's shop serves the meaty snacks commonly found on Shanghai streets, like sheng jian bao, xiao long bao and jian bing.Shanghainese buns in Hong KongSemi-leavened dough hides a pork and gelatin filling so that the cooked sheng jian bao squirts a delicious soup when bit into.Shanghainese buns in Hong KongOscar Siu chefs six days a week.

Flour as music

In 2007, Siu released his solo EP "My Stories" and became a trendsetting pop star, appearing on magazine covers as a model and a musician.

"I used to be very vain. Now I don't have time to be vain. My immediate concerns now are safety and hygiene in the workplace. My values have changed."

But he is equally creative and self-expressive in his new role. "Kneading the dough requires years of experience and practice, just like playing an instrument. What I make out of the dough is like the different kinds of music that I can play -- jazz, pop ... whatever.

"I used to be more passive when I was creating music, now as a restaurant owner I actually feel more in control."

Shanghainese buns in Hong KongMass pan-frying.Shanghainese buns in Hong KongThrifty lunch: HK$20 for four sheng jian bao.

Three years ago, Siu learnt how to make buns from a lady in Shanghai. He now works 10 hours a day, six days a week, constantly on his feet as he cooks and cleans.

Just like being in a band, team spirit is important in a kitchen. Siu's bandmates are now his father, and fellow cooks. When things are going well, Siu compares it to a band performing live.

A group buying deal once brought in 4,500 diners to Siu's shop. He sold 18,000 buns that day and probably broke some kind of Hong Kong record. The novelty of his shop has died down, but Siu says he isn't worried about business.

"Some Shanghainese people come to my shop. They grew up eating these buns and they are able to get those childhood memories back when they eat here. That kind of stuff makes me happy."

King of Sheng Jian. Shop A, 178-182 Sai Yeung Choi St., Mongkok, +852 2323 2374.

Shanghainese buns in Hong KongKing of Sheng Jian also serves pancakes in the style of street-side vendors in mainland China.Shanghainese buns in Hong KongSiu's father is his "bandmate" in the kitchen.