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The Trials of Staying Relevant, As Told By A Bak Kwa Piece


©Somewhere Else
If I had to describe myself in three words, it would be: complex yet enticing, sultry in a way that seems almost sinful, and sticky-smoky-sweet.

Clearly that wasn’t three words, but what do I know about numbers? I’m just a piece of bak kwa (肉干). What I do know, however, is that come Chinese New Year, my relatives go flying off the shelves (more like the grill, really) into the arms of hungry Chinese Singaporeans.

For context, my family’s considered the belle of the ball at every Chinese New Year gathering for ages now. Ever since my forefathers were brought ashore from Fujian, China to Singapore, you’d hardly find a celebration without us around. I’d have to confess though: outside of the new year festivities and weddings, we don’t seem to be all that hot.

These years, the bak kwa business is a little different from how it used to be. The people coming in are a little different. For one, they are always particularly curious, marveling at things that are seemingly normal. Tourists, me thinks. 

Otherwise, during the Chinese New Year, those that spend hours queueing to grab a bag or four seem to have their eyes glued to a rectangular object they call a smartphone. They talk about things like ‘promo-codes’, ‘reels’ and ‘Tik Tok’, as well as flavours like ‘Mala’.

Again, I don’t know much about those. I am just a piece of bak kwa.

Years of Getting Ready

As far as I know, I think I’m a delectable piece of meat. Throw me on the grill and wrap me up for the next person who walks in through the door – they won’t be able to resist me. Though nothing much about me has changed over the years, the people coming in sure have. That’s probably why my nephew, chicken bak kwa, came into existence when we saw a demand for a healthier option to me. I wouldn’t be surprised to receive a vegan nibling soon. Without a doubt, people’s values and preferences have evolved with them over the years, sometimes much quicker than I can comprehend. Which makes me wonder: what if I’m no longer wanted by anyone?

As a piece of bak kwa, my expertise in branding is superficial at best, but what often happens around here are discussions on what the latest trends in the market are and how we as bak kwas can keep up in appealing to people (which we soon realised was not enough, but hold on I’ll get there). So in my case, my family has explored different ways in hopes to not be forgotten.

Yes, I’m generally oily and kind of a clumsy affair. While I feel that kind of mess adds to the experience, it usually means tons of greasy fingers and so to make it more convenient for folks, my fellow bak kwas have been turned into a bite-sized snack, individually wrapped, to be enjoyed on the go. No need for wet tissues here!

Over the years, my family has gone through countless milestones. From my brothers who got showered with new flavour seasonings to welcoming our Kurobuta black pork in-laws from the East. Not to forget the day we all gaped at the birth of our freezy cousin, Ba Kwa Ice Cream.

Fruitless Socialising

With such a diverse range of offerings within the bak kwa family, there’s also the matter of re-introducing ourselves to the world and trying to create a connection.

In my oddball cousin’s case– that of an unorthodox bak kwa ice cream, their debut generated a massive buzz online as publications and social media outlets picked up on them. It wasn’t even Chinese New Year then when we were all the fuss! Sadly, this did not last as long as we hoped.

Communicating who we are when we no longer seem to fit the wants of the people today has been a challenge we’re still figuring out how to overcome. The aforementioned ‘smartphone’ with its ‘social media’? We figured it’s important for us to appear in those, so recently we’ve been starring in TikToks which seems to be all the rage these days. Yet after a couple of videos there, it doesn’t really seem to have done much.

As much as I hate to admit it, it feels like I have come to exist as a traditional Chinese New Year snack who is losing its prominence even when the new year comes.

The Spark on a Clean Grill

Maybe what we should be focusing on is getting a deep understanding of people’s behavioural shifts by firstly understanding their motivations and appealing towards them accordingly instead.

Our decisions were all made with the goal of appealing to the rapidly diversifying profile of people out there. At the end of the day, all we really wanted was to stay in the thoughts of people, while also having more people see and enjoy our appeal. Yet our attempts to appeal and fit people’s changing lifestyle preferences seem to have, however, fallen flat and were perhaps in hindsight, misguided.

Being on trend can be good, but it doesn’t mean that we’ve become that much more relevant. I’ve come to see that innovating just to chase trends actually relinquishes our relevance even more because being on trend just means that—it doesn’t mean that people love us more for who we are. Instead, we should deepen our understanding the people we want to reach, reimagining ourselves according to their specific needs. With a deep grasp of such will we then be equipped with the right approach required for future shifts, our innovations strategically informed.

Signing Off

Much has changed since bak kwa was first introduced to the people of Singapore, yet our core has remained the same. We have evolved into different forms, flavours and packaging, but we’ve never once strayed from being that piece of bak kwa people adored between their fingers.

For a bak kwa like myself to stay a part of people’s lives now, tomorrow and decades to come, we first need to understand how they choose and live. We can’t possibly move out of being just a festive treat if we’re not understanding the new traditions people have formed.

While we work on that, I hope you don’t forget me, your humble bak kwa.

Let’s talk about realigning your advertising and marketing efforts.


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