McMaster graduates share their love for Asian desserts while sharing their culture with the Hamilton community
Food is a powerful unifier that transcends all cultural or language barriers. Sharing food can open people’s minds to diverse traditions and values while also encouraging empathy and tolerance. Even if you have never travelled to another country, you most likely have had foreign food and learned about its significance before.
For immigrants, eating traditional cuisine is especially important as it helps them to carry a piece of their culture with them wherever they go. For others like Jia Tian, the co-owner of an East Asian gourmet bakery, MySweeTooth, eating Chinese food and other treats from her childhood serves as a means of coping with homesickness.
Tian moved to Canada from Hong Kong when she was in high school and later studied electrical engineering at McMaster University. At the time, she never imagined she would be opening an Asian fusion bakery in Hamilton with her life-long partner, Peter Sun, who moved to Canada from Shandong province in China in grade 13 before majoring in economics at McMaster.
After Tian graduated from McMaster, she proceeded to start her graduate studies. However, she began to doubt if electrical engineering was what she truly wanted to do. She knew she wanted to pursue a career she had a passion for, but her passion was in baking — not engineering.
Moreover, she missed all her favourite treats she had in Beijing and wanted to pursue her dream of running her own shop where she could share her pastries from her culture, from strawberry whipped cream chiffon cakes to mouth-watering cream puffs. As difficult as it was to decide, in 2009, she took a step-back from her studies to enter the food business industry.
“It was not easy because I needed to tell my parents about my decision — that part was definitely not easy. But I guess once you know what you want to do, you just go full speed on what you want to do and put your whole heart at it,” Tian said.
With unfaltering support from her husband Sun, who also re-directed his career path to join her in her goal of running a bakery, Tian began working at various shops including the Williams Fresh Café at the Hamilton Health Sciences building.
“Peter supported my decision and my dream. He’s very supportive. We ended up doing this together because he wanted to make sure that I get to realize what I had a vision for. So, he worked with me and I couldn’t have done it without him. He really brings a different perspective and [skillset] when it comes to running a shop,” said Tian.
The couple first opened MySweeTooth online in 2013 and on Jan. 8, 2020, they finally launched their brick-and-mortar location on Main Street West. They chose to stay in Hamilton as Tian had an uncle living here and it was important for her to stay close to family. She also preferred Hamilton’s small-knit community and quieter, slow-paced atmosphere coming from the busy and loud city of Beijing.
Besides recreating her favourite childhood memories and flavours through MySweeTooth, Tian’s other goals for the business included sharing and representing East Asian culture in Hamilton through food. For example, for Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival Day, which is a day when the moon is believed to be the brightest and fullest and families get together to celebrate, they sold mooncakes and shared the cultural significance of the holiday.
Since MySweeTooth opened, it has received lots of positive attention. Just a quick scroll through the comment section of the bakery’s Instagram page is enough to demonstrate the enthusiasm and love their customers have for their delicious treats.
Nonetheless, operating their physical location during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult. In addition to coping and adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, they were confronted by hate from members of the community who were disrespectful towards their COVID-19 store policies. In September, their window was vandalized over their sign asking customers to wear their masks and stay six feet apart inside. Though Tian emphasizes most people have been kind and supportive, she posted the image of the vandalism on the shop’s Instagram page to highlight some of the challenges small businesses and other hospitality services have been facing during the pandemic.
“For us, of everyone who we’ve met, the vast majority of people are very supportive and understanding. We are happy to see that because we understand the community is also suffering right now. So, we are doing whatever we can to also give back to the community and to remind people that although it is difficult for us, it can be more difficult for some of us than others. There are people who lost their jobs, lost their homes and [are] living on the streets because of COVID-19,” explained Tian.
Tian and Sun’s response to the hate is another example of their tenacity and their work towards fostering community. Since the beginning, MySweeTooth has always been about repping Asian culture in Hamilton and sharing its traditions. During your time in undergrad, it is perfectly normal to feel confused about your identity or uncertain about your career path. To all international or immigrant students or those who may be struggling to fit in, Tian shares a message about the importance of not losing your heritage and believing in yourself.
The story of MySweeTooth is one about love, passion and community. Tian and Sun have demonstrated these three ingredients are everything you need to achieve success and happiness.