The long queue at the famous Cheng Kee Beef Kway Teow stall at Blk 203, Hougang Street 21 (walking distance from next to Kovan MRT) is testament of the dish’s popularity. People come from across the island for steamy bowls of rice noodles smothered in rich flavour filled gravy, accompanied a thick peppery beef broth (with chinchalok on the side) that’s hard to beat.
The story of the man behind the recipe, Mr Chua Khoon Lian, 65, turned out to be that of an unassuming, hardworking, and highly talented chef who is passionate about good food and bonds with his family over meals.
Foodie Dad and Daughter
When his daughter, Chua Hui Yi (now a teacher) was growing, they used to comb China, Thailand and Vietnam for good tasting food. Adventurous and appreciative of quality regardless of ambience, they hunted down non-descript stalls in little lanes, renown for the best roasts. They particularly enjoyed scrumptious meals served up by Guangzhou gurus including Cantonese, Teochew and Hakka dishes. Dad and daughter are die-hard foodies. “Now, she has even more discerning tastes than me,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mum, Lau Yeow Keng, is more easy-going and mostly follows along. The family enjoys having dinners together at the alfresco Ting Heng Seafood Restaurant in Tiong Poh Road.
From China to New York
The son of a hawker, Mr Chua has come a long way since leaving China at eight, to join his father in Singapore. As the family was poor, he started work at a young age, “I tried out several jobs like painting and construction. But I was not good at any of them,” he said.
At 13, he found his vocation in a restaurant kitchen where he apprenticed Dim Sum making. “I started preparing ingredients at 4am. Then, we did the cooking at 7am. It was much tougher then. Today, the training is less rigorous,” described Mr Chua.
After 11 years of hard work, discipline and determination, he became a full-fledged chef in Chinese cuisine at 24, joined a New York restaurant near the United Nations headquarters in the 70s, and subsequently worked in Mumbai and England.
When he returned to Singapore, he met Yeow Keng through a friend and they married.
Starting a Business
His mother-in-law’s comment, “… except for my wife and I, all my other children and their spouses ran flourishing businesses,” prompted the Chuas to become entrepreneurs. That was some 30 odd years ago. Today his bustling business employs over 30 employees in four locations -Shan Tou Shi Teochew Fish Head Seafood House (Whampoa Road and Elias Road) and Cheng Kee Beef Kway Teow (Hougang Street 21 and Ubi Avenue 3).
Mr Chua attributed a large part of the business success to his wife’s participation. “She left her government job to join me at the food stall. While I cooked, she took orders and served the customers. We worked together. I’ve seen others who had difficulty getting the business off the ground because their spouses were not there to work alongside them.”
“It took a few years to gain experience in understanding what customers wanted, and managing costs,” recalled Mr Chua. “We started with the wrong combination of offering restaurant-style dishes in an industrial estate. Thereafter, I adapted and began to offer ‘everyday’ dishes that the average person could enjoy and afford to eat often –following the Da Pai Dang (casual ‘roadside’ eatery for the average person) concept.”
Eventually, it was that combination of simple good food at affordable prices that sealed the deal –very much like the favourite food spots that Dad and daughter have frequented overseas and in Singapore through the years.
Dad, Chef, Businessman
Being Chef and Owner of a growing business kept Mr Chua very busy through the years and it came with its fair share of challenges. Hui Yi was about four years old when the business took off. “Our daughter was closer to her baby-sitter than to us. They continue to be close even till today.”
Yet, Mr and Mrs Chua were confident that Hui Yi was in good hands as he explained, “The baby-sitter had known my wife since childhood. She is a mum of three boys, so she loved our girl a lot. Her husband was a teacher, a good and respectable man.”
“Hui Yi stayed at their home until her teens. Our families remain close friends and we often have meals together.”
Mr Chua added, “In addition to helping me in the business, my wife tended to the household and ferried Hui Yi to piano and drawing lessons.”
The couple worked hard and long hours to put food on the table and to give their child the best.
Mr Chua pensively and quietly reflected that perhaps as a result of working so hard at the business, their daughter is today, not as close to them as they might have liked. Nonetheless, Mr Chua knows that he and his wife have done their very best given the circumstances; a common phenomena for many in their generation who had no choice but to work very hard to provide for the family.
His love for his daughter comes through when he speaks of her, and one cannot miss the concerned voice of a Dad in him when he says, “It’s hard work being a teacher.”
Hands-On and Down to Earth
Though he is Chef and Employer, Mr Chua remains down-to-earth and ‘hands-on’. In fact, he is often seen washing dishes, despite being the Boss.
Few who meet Mr Chua in the HDB heartlands, would guess that he holds international chef credentials.
So, next time you meet a Dad – take time to listen him, and find out his story. You’ll probably be in for a pleasant surprise.
Cheng Kee Beef Kway Teow 清记牛肉粿條
Main: Blk 203, #01-89, Hougang St 21, Singapore 530203
Branch: Blk 3004, #01-124, Ubi Ave 3, Singapore 408860 (Next to Ubi Traffic Police)
Shan Tou Shi Teochew Fish Head Seafood House 山头市鱼头炉海鲜屋
Main: Blk 111A, #01-10, Whampoa Rd, Singapore 32111, Tel: 6748 3139 (Whampoa Bus Interchange)
Branch: Blk 623 Elias Rd, #01-02, Elias Mall, Singapore 510623, Tel: 6582 2623
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 04-03-2013
Categories: Dads' Stories