Remembering Potong Ice Cream

By Sheere Ng - Friday, Jan 04, 2013

Most Singaporeans over 20 years old have heard of “potong” ice cream. But not many (especially the younger ones) know what it means (is it a brand or a type of ice cream?), how it came about and needless to say, its once glorious past.


Potong means “cut” in Malay, referring to rectangular popsicles that are cut into portions from a bigger block. Made of coconut milk, skimmed milk, corn starch and sugar as basic ingredients, they fused it with flavours such as yam, durian and the most popular, red bean.


Pasteurising the main ingredient, coconut milk. According to Mr Jeffery Yap, director of Hong Kong Creameries, one of the two remaining traditional potong manufacturers in Singapore, most local ice creams are coconut-based. They used to squeeze their own coconut milk, but these days they get it from supplier.


“In the 50s, there was an ice cream called “9 inch half” because its length was nine and a half inch. It was this long and costs only five cents! People would buy and share,” says Mr Ong (he declines to reveal his full name), a potong ice cream distributor. “Potong is just a shorter and improved version of “9 inch half” that came about in the 60s or 70s.”


According to Mr Ong, ice creams were made by old people who had nothing to do in the kampong. They produce the ice creams and peddle it from door to door for extra income. At that time, red bean has already been the most popular flavour.


The popularity of potong ice cream reached its peak in late 80s and early 90s. Then, the manual production – where coconut was grated by hand and durian flesh was pick out from its shell one at a time – could not keep up with the demand. “My father used to keep the doors closed, pretending they were not yet in the shop, because the vendors would literally fight over the limited stock,” says Mr Jeffery Yap, director of Hong Kong Creameries, one of the two remaining traditional potong manufacturers in Singapore.


After pasteurizing, the ice cream mix is transferred into a metal container pre-filled with grated coconut bought from the market in the morning. Today they are replenishing the stock of coconut flavoured potong ice cream.


Today, this chaotic fighting scene is no more. All that remains is a dimly lit shophouse that catches no passerby’s attention. Rising rental and food costs make it harder to be profitable in this business. For many years the price of potong has been kept between 50 cents (in the neighbourhood) and $1 (in town). “It is hard to raise the prices because it is implanted into Singaporeans’ mind that ice cream from street hawker should be $1 and nothing more,” says Mr Yap.


Mr Yap is proud to declare that his company uses real fruits and ingredients rather than artificial flavourings that he claims the bigger manufacturers, which products are sold in the supermarkets, are using. Although the amount of ingredients are not as generous as before (so as to cut cost), they still use whole red beans, for example, and the ingredient fills almost half of a potong ice cream.


The mixture is poured into this mould that makes 40 potong ice cream. It is then submerged into a salt bed of as low as -30 degrees C to freeze up. This takes about 30 minutes. In the old days, the mould was a long rectangular tube which was inserted into a barrel filled with salt water. Mr Yap’s grandparents had to manually rotate the drum until the ice cream freezed up. The readied ice creams were cut into portions, hence the name “potong”, which means “cut” in Malay.


These ice cream sticks are fixed into the mould before the ice creams solidify in the salt bed. According to Mr Ong, a potong ice cream distributor, the first generation potong ice creams were eaten with satay sticks instead.


Potong straight out from the salt bed.


According to Mr Yap, ice cream straight out from the salt bed may have hardened outside but it is still soft in the core. An ice cream like this melts quickly. Therefore, they would freeze them in this freezer at -27 degrees C before storing them at a higher temperature of -18 degrees C.


Plastic packaging for the ice cream. In the past, all you would get was a tracing paper wrapped around the block.


Besides that, the rise of boutique ice cream parlours and their modern creations cast a shadow over potong. Supermarkets also began to offer their own brands of potong (which in our opinion are not half as creamy, smooth and flavourful as Hong Kong Creameries’), forcing the company to share an already smaller pie. All these spell bad news for the three-generation business that started in 1955.


Hong Kong Creameries’s entire range of potong ice creams – sweet corn, durian, red bean, yam, chendol, coconut and mango.


Hong Kong Creameries sells an average of 80,000 potong ice creams a month. Business suffers during the rainy season, when his clients, mostly street vendors, have got no customer.


The company, which distributes to street vendors and events companies, has been making losses in recent years, a far cry from just 10 years ago when they invested tens of thousands to upgrade the machines to meet demand.


Besides potong, the factory also produces soft-serve ice cream packed in boxes. Ice cream vendors would serve them in scoops served in a plastic cup.


No fancy packaging. Only a plain white box with a chop to indicate the flavour. This one says “chocolate” in Chinese.


Despite the dismaying sales figure, their four employees continue to arrive punctually every morning, and the machines run on schedule to keep the family business humming. “We are sustaining the losses for old time’s sake,” says Mr Yap. “Of course my father and his siblings dream of making the business big again, and that we will supply all potongs in Singapore. But dreams and reality are two different things. Potong doesn’t appeal to young people.”


78-year-old Sng Tian Yu, who has been selling ice cream for 60 years, says ice cream in the past tastes much better as ingredients were cheap and ample. He used to make his own ice cream at home and claims to be the one who taught Mr Yap’s auntie how to make potong. He now peddles in the Tampines neighbourhood. Ice cream vendor like him is few and far between as the National Environment Agency has stopped issuing new license. According to Mr Yap, most of his clients are old men. The youngest he has seen so far is in his 40s.


But apart from brutal market forces, Mr Yap admits that the stakeholders, including himself, each have their own career, and did not put in as much effort in the business as they would like to in the last few years.