Workers shape and fold cookies at the Oakland Fortune Factory on Feb. 11, 2022. The cutouts are soft for just a few seconds, providing the employees with a delicate window for shaping and folding. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
“Making the fortune cookies is my way of showing people that we are not something that is easily replaceable,” said Alicia Wong, who co-owns the Oakland Fortune Factory with her mother, Jiamin.
Alicia says she delights in seeing how much people enjoy the unique flavors and designs of her cookies, which she considers a form of expression.
“When people say ‘made in China,’ there is always an implication that it's cheap,” Alicia said. “I wanted to break people's expectations of what being Chinese is. Our cookies are made by Chinese people, but they are not cheap. They’re not cheaply made. They're not boring.”
The cookies the mother-daughter duo has created for Lunar New Year reflect that sensibility. They dip red fortune cookies in Belgian dark chocolate and Swiss white chocolate, top them with sparkling gold pearls and red sugar crystals and package them to resemble lai see, the red envelopes filled with money that are traditionally handed out for the holiday.
To commemorate the Year of the Tiger — Jiamin’s birth-year animal — the bakery is making some of its cookies with chocolate tiger stripes, or with 虎 — the Chinese character for tiger — stenciled in gold.
“The tiger represents ambition,” Alicia explained. “It represents courage, strength, nobility and tenacity. So it really reminds me of my mom because she’s a very determined, fearless woman who is very protective of her family.”
Jiamin moved with her family from Guangdong, China, to Oakland in 1999. She raised Alicia in the city's Chinatown, not far from the bakery, which they did not yet own. In fact, one of Alicia’s fondest memories is munching on the broken fortune cookies — sold for $2 a bag — that her mom would buy for her as an after-school treat.
When the bakery's previous owner was on the verge of shutting it down, in 2016, Alicia says her mom decided to buy it.
"My mom had never run a business before, but she's worked her whole life and she knew if she wanted to do something bigger, she needed to take a chance on something,” Alicia said. “And being familiar with the factory and seeing that the machines were relatively simple, she thought it was enough that she could do it herself if she put in a lot of work.”
Running the bakery posed a number of initial challenges. For one, much of the equipment had to be repaired and the facility needed a renovation. Furthermore, Jiamin had no experience operating a business and spoke hardly any English. But with the help of her daughter, she was able to keep the bakery afloat.
“My mom kept calling me day after day, asking me for help,” said Alicia, who at the time was in college in Boston, studying biology on a pre-med track. “Every time she [called], I had to drop everything I was doing … and help her.”
After Alicia graduated from college that year, she decided to move back to Oakland and help her mom run the factory, ultimately taking on a leadership role and working there full time. Today, the business is thriving, churning out thousands of cookies a day, and filling special orders for everything from baby showers and gender-reveal parties to wedding proposals.
When Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets of Oakland in 2020, the bakery showed its support by stenciling “BLM” in gold on its cookies and including quotes inside from civil rights leaders in place of the usual fortune notes.
“It wasn't until I started making fortune cookies for charity events, for nonprofits, for social justice movements, that I finally feel like I found some sort of purpose, because I was able to do a little bit of good in the world via fortune cookies,” Alicia said.
At the time, Alicia said she noticed her parents and other community members initially associated vandalism in Chinatown with the social justice movement.
“There were rioters who were taking advantage of [the protests],” she said. “Some people came to vandalize Chinatown and they smashed our window. It was very scary because we've never experienced our store getting vandalized before, and we've always felt incredibly safe.”
Alicia had lengthy conversations with her parents to try to dispel that thinking.
“I had to make sure that they understood that us getting vandalized is not a reason to not support something so important,” she said. “We should not be so shortsighted and shallow-minded to use this as an excuse to not do the right thing.”
This year, the bakery is donating a portion of its proceeds from Lunar New Year cookie sales to the Asian Pacific Fund, which works with Bay Area nonprofits and the AAPI community to address anti-Asian racism.
“Growing up, my family and I have experienced a lot of racism and we’ve struggled with trying to overcome the [racial and cultural] differences,” Alicia said. “Living here in America — especially my parents who didn’t speak any English and for myself who grew up with peers that may not understand my culture — I think that caused us to feel almost a sense of shame.”
Alicia said her mom now supports her activism.
“I want people to work together instead of focusing on their differences,” Jiamin said, in Chinese. “And I just want everyone to live and coexist happily together.”