Leaving their full-time jobs to master the art of making kueh, rolling popiah and cooking prawn mee; these three third-generation owners keep their family recipes and traditions alive
Many would unanimously agree that our Lion City is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Needless to say, it is representative of our food as well. And in the spirit of Singapore’s birthday month, let us celebrate those who tirelessly safeguard our nation’s food heritage.
Established by Gavan Sing’s grandfather in the 1960s, Lek Lim Nyonya Cake Confectionery is a Halal certified, traditional kueh shop with humble beginnings. Before settling in their current location at Bedok, the business started in a kampong kitchen near Jalan Serang. Specialising in handmade kueh, such as ang ku kueh, soon kueh and chive kueh, along with an array of pastries and cakes.
Formerly at an oil and gas exploration company, Sing decided to take over the business with his wife as his parents approached the age for retirement. Apart from not wanting the business to be sold to an external party, he also had a personal conviction—a secondary school student once told him that she did not view kueh as snacks.
With a natural curiosity to learn about food cultures around the world, he understood the significance of comfort food. Not just something one eats for sustenance, food is tied to memories and identity. Thus, he saw the need to preserve his own heritage, the art of traditional Nyonya kueh, and joined the business full-time 10 years ago.
Since the young age of six, Sing would help out at the shop during weekends and school holidays. Admittedly, he was “more of a nuisance” than help. Though that gave him an advantage when entering the business, he still had to learn its every nuance. The most challenging part, which took his parents 30 years to master, was the cooking process. A generation gap was also cause for many incidents for miscommunication.
Initially, the big change in the working hours also affected Sing’s social life, which he likens to moving to a different time zone. His friends were still asleep when he started work and were working when he ended. He now works the weekends as well, unlike before. He’s worked around this by keeping in contact with his friends virtually and making new friends in the industry who have similar working hours.
He’s also taken on the task of modernising the internal and external practices of the business. In the past, long working hours and the language barrier made it almost impossible for his parents to explore technological help. Sing jokes that when he took over, the most advanced office equipment was a fax machine.
For more information, visit leklimnyonyacake.com.
Li Rui Fang
Hailing from China, Li Rui Fang’s grandfather started selling prawn noodles on the streets of Whampoa in the 1950s. When plans for hawker centres came about, officials then approached him to open a stall at Whampoa Market. Li’s grandmother, parents and aunts soon came onboard.
After graduating from the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), Li worked in a multinational corporation for about five years. Dragging herself to work each day with no real motivation, she then quit her job deciding she was not quite suited to be desk-bound.
While looking for options and a way to earn some income amidst her free time, she helped out at her father’s stall. It was then she fell in love with hawker life and wanted to carry on her family’s recipes. She opened a stall of her own in 2014 at Tekka Food Centre, seeing how the Whampoa stall was at full capacity with her relatives helping out.
When she first started her own hawker journey, many commented that she was too young and wasted her education. Some also thought the stall would close as “Tekka is not a good place for a Chinese stall”. Those words hurt but Li stuck to her convictions and proved them wrong. As one of the best businesses along the row, she is happiest when customers tell her how much they enjoyed the food. “I enjoy it especially when they think I cook better than my father”, Li quipped.
Amongst the many challenges she’s had to work with, the most interesting one was the workplace dynamic. Though she’s the boss, her parents still give their input as veterans of the field, which often leads to conflict. Even then, she understands that whatever the differences, they all want the same thing: to not disappoint their customers.
For more information, visit 545whampoaprawnnoodles.com.
Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah is a family business with 82 years of history. It specialises in making traditional popiah and kueh pie tee. The family business has won numerous awards including the National Heritage Board’s “The Stewards of Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Award” this year. It has went on to represent Singapore in international food festivals, not to mention collaborating with Tiger Beer in their launch in New York in 2017.
Michael Ker was working as a pharmacist before taking over the business as his parents were about to retire. He explained that being a pharmacist was a choice but taking over the family business is a calling. “Maybe one day I can have a pharmacy beside my popiah shop”, he said hopefully.
Growing up on the second floor of the shophouse, Ker witnessed the daily hardship and sacrifices his family put into the business. In a heated environment where everyone was constantly stressed and busy, it was rare to be given the time and patience pick up the skills while on the job.
He eventually learned the ropes from his uncles and later on, the finer details of the craft from his father. Standing behind the stove for long hours takes a physical toll, while the added responsibility of caring for and managing the staff is mentally demanding. Despite all that, Ker affirmed that the support and appreciation from customers over the years made it worthwhile.
Recently, he’s been pushing for an online menu and offering online demonstrations of popiah making. He’s optimistic that he’ll be able to continue the family business to “a hundred years and beyond”.
For more information, visit joochiatpopiah.com.