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Fujian family recipe grows and prospers in Singapore, Bak kwa king

Updated: 03 Sep 2009
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Fujian Bak kwa king

 

Friends and relatives who visit the home of Mr Rod Lim during Chinese New Year know better than to expect him to give them tasty morsels of bak kwa from his popular barbecued meats chain, Lim Chee Guan.

 

The reason: He is likely to have sold the remaining few packets of bak kwa meant for his family to last-minute customers beseeching him for some of his sweet meat.

 

'It's not about earning the extra few dollars. I try as much as possible to oblige my customers because I want to make them happy,' says Mr Lim, 58, who inherited the 79-year-old business from his late father, Mr Lim Kay Eng, in 1988.

 

For someone whose barbecued meats attract long queues and is coveted by many, including Hong Kong celebrities Nancy Sit and Deborah Li, he is surprisingly modest.

 

Life! interviews him at the company's office above his shophouse store in New Bridge Road and he is casually dressed in a short-sleeved, yellow-and-blue striped shirt from Nautica and factory outlet Hugo Boss jeans.

 

He is not embarrassed about hosting you in the pantry, a sliver of a room packed with stray pieces of furniture, including two TV sets that have seen better days stacked in a corner, because he does not have his own room in the cramped office.

 

He spends six days a week at the company's 4,000 sq ft factory in Woodlands, where he oversees the production of meat products by his 15 workers. At least three times a week, he visits his three outlets, including one at People's Park Complex, to check on the retail operation, which is managed by his wife, Ires, 57.

 

While his office may look unadorned, his newest outlet in Ion Orchard is anything but.

 

The store, which opened last month, is a stylish mix of warm wood panels, vintage-looking floor tiles and modish black lamps.

 

He is tight-lipped about the cost of setting up shop in the swanky new mall.

 

But he is candid about why the family- run business is opening a new store after an almost 40-year hiatus during which competitors in the industry have raced ahead to open branch after branch.

 

He says: 'Other malls had approached us in the past but we didn't have the slightest thought of expanding then because we couldn't oversee so many branches. If we expand too fast and we can't cope with the demand, it will affect the quality of our products.'

 

His two older sons, Jerre, 33, and Benny, 30, have since joined the family business and he is now confident about managing a third shop. Jerre graduated from University of the Arts in London and Benny from the Singapore Institute of Management.

 

He says: 'My wife and I never pressured our sons to join the business but when they told us they wanted to, that was the happiest thing that ever happened.' They have a third son, Darryl, 15, who is in secondary school.

 

Ion was picked for the new branch, he says, to cater to his sizeable tourist customer base, as well as to reach out to a younger generation of consumers.

 

For the self-taught businessman who finished his A levels at Bartley Secondary School, the new outlet is also validation of his efforts to preserve his father's legacy. After taking over the business, he worked 15-hour days, seven days a week, for many years to keep it going.

 

He says: 'The Chinese have a saying that it is tough to start an enterprise but even harder to keep it going. When I took over the business, I was very fearful of failing my father and I often asked myself if I could be as capable as he was.'

 

The late Mr Lim was the youngest of four children born to government officials in China's Fujian province.

 

He came to Singapore in the 1920s in search of business opportunities and toiled as a coolie, plantation worker and provision store assistant before saving enough money to open a tidbits stall at the staircase landing of a now defunct building opposite The Majestic in Eu Tong Sen Street.

 

His snack business did well, so in 1930, he expanded his stall and switched to selling bak kwa. The store was called Chee Guan, a name commonly used in the past by shops hawking bak kwa.

 

Mr Lim says: 'My father had seen his mother make preserved pork in China so he had some knowledge of how to make bak kwa. Also, he could make more money selling that than tidbits.'

 

The business grew through word of mouth and in 1938, it spawned a second shop nearby named Lim Chee Guan. By the 1960s, there were three outlets, all in Chinatown. One closed in the 1980s because the shop space was taken back by the landlord for redevelopment.

 

Because the late Mr Lim and his wife worked at the stores, their four children spent much time growing up in the shops even though their home then, on the second floor of a shophouse in New Bridge Road, was close by.

 

Mr Lim, who has two older sisters in their 60s and a younger brother in his 50s, is quick to add that his childhood memories are filled with more than just the aroma of charcoal-smoked pork and freshly fried pork floss.

 

His father would pack the family into a second-hand Fiat car and take them on trips to the Botanic Gardens or East Coast for seafood when business was not hectic.

 

Nevertheless, by the time he was 12, Mr Lim was barbecuing pork at the family shop during the festive period when queues would last as long as five hours because there was not enough space in their shops to install more grills to handle the large volume of orders.

 

He says: 'My father never asked me to help at the store, but I could tell he couldn't cope during Chinese New Year so I volunteered to ease his load.'

 

And after he completed national service, he joined his father in the business.

 

He says: 'Although my father didn't say it, I could feel that he wanted me to help him with the business.'

 

His siblings, on the other hand, were not interested in the bak kwa business. His elder sister is a hospital administrator, his second sister is retired from the beverage business and his younger brother works in the airline industry.

 

More than continuing the legacy, he is thrifty like his father.

 

'My father was a thrifty man,' he says. 'If anything broke down at the shop, he would try and repair it himself. It's a habit I picked up and my staff joke that I'm the company's handyman.'

 

You get a good measure of the man when you talk to stall-owners in Chinatown who have been in business for as long as Lim Chee Guan. Mr A. Chow, a fruit seller who is in his 50s, says: 'When I have frustrations in my life, I know I can go to Mr Lim because he will listen patiently to me and offer sound advice.'

 

Another friend, electrical contractor Howard Tsai, 53, adds: 'He's a simple man without big boss airs. He dresses simply and he doesn't show off by driving flashy cars.'

 

Indeed, Mr Lim's three-year-old Toyota Estima is hardly the car you expect a successful businessman to drive, especially since Lim Chee Guan has seen sales rising almost every year since he took over when his father died in 1988 at the age of 79 from heart problems.

 

The company's sales plateau or dip when there is a disease outbreak like Sars, or when the economy is sluggish, but he says the drop is often no more than 5 per cent.

 

In fact, its sales figures for this Chinese New Year matched last year's takings for the same period despite the recent economic melt-down. But he declines to reveal further details.

 

The only time the business suffered a major setback was in 1999, when the Nipah virus broke out in pigs and consumers shunned all pork products, causing his sales to fall by 50 per cent.

 

That episode prompted him to diversify his product range and sell more than just barbecued pork and pork floss.

 

He went into the kitchen and experimented with different types of meats and concocting special marinades for them.

 

Over the years, he has introduced barbecued chicken, beef, fish and prawn slices. He also expanded the brand's porcine range to include spicy pork and pork belly, which has become the brand's second best-selling item after the original bak kwa.

 

'To stay afloat in this market, we need to outdo our competitors,' he says.

 

He draws the line, however, at over- extending the product range to include items such as tidbits and mooncakes, which are sold by some of his rivals.

 

While he is open to an evolving range of barbecued meats, he insists on making them the traditional way, which means the squares of meat are still formed by hand and smoked over charcoal fire instead of an electric gas flame.

 

Another thing that has remained unchanged is his father's recipe for the bak kwa marinade, which he reveals includes fish sauce and sugar.

 

He has taught the recipe only to his wife and two older sons, but he is still responsible for making it, along with marinades for the other meats, in a locked, windowless room at the factory, six days a week.

 

He is also cautious about overseas expansion: 'In future, we might go in this direction, but most importantly, we must make sure we can cope with the demand here before we export our products.'

 

While business might peak during Chinese New Year, he says there is a steady demand for bak kwa at other times. So the factory operates throughout the year, closing only on Sundays. With the new outlet in Ion Orchard, he is now looking for a bigger factory space to increase production capacity.

 

To meet overwhelming orders during the festive period, the factory begins increasing its production about three months before.

 

The additional manpower employed to counter the huge festive demand, plus high demand for ingredients such as pork which causes raw material prices to spike, is why Lim Chee Guan is usually one of the first bak kwa retailers here to up the price of its barbecued pork, about three weeks before Chinese New Year.

 

Prices inch upwards in $S2 per kg increments. This year, it rose from the pre-festive rate of $S42 per kg to a high of $S50 per kg.

 

Mr Lim says he usually sleeps between three and five hours a day during this period and by the time Chinese New Year is over, he often has to visit the doctor for exhaustion.

 

When he needs his own space and time to destress from his high-pressure job, he retreats into the world of rock and listens to his more than 1,000-piece collection of rock music vinyl albums at his semi- detached home in River Valley Road, which his father bought back in the 1970s as the family home.

 

Mr Lim bought most of the records in his youth and have kept them in good condition.

 

Indeed, when he talks about his favourite bands such as Led Zeppelin, Queen and Lynrd Skynrd, his eyes glaze over and you see the music play in his head, even if he does not know how to play any musical instrument.

 

He says, while playing an imaginary guitar: 'The way these rock players of the 1950s and 1960s play is no more. They were truly an inspiration. The rock that bands like Coldplay and Black Eyed Peas play today, it's so different.'

 

As with music, so too people. Mr Lim is all too aware that future generations will be different and his 15-month-old granddaughter and 10-month-old grandson may not be interested in selling bak kwa.

 

'It is seriously up to their parents, the third generation, to decide. I have no control over this.

 

'But when they grow up, when they're in Primary 1, I'd like to tell them about the legacy of our family business.'

      

SOURCE: The Straits Times

         

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