The story of Singapore bak kwa specialist Lim Chee Guan goes back 80 years
This family-run business started as a pushcart stall at the foot of a staircase on Chin Chiew Street in 1938.
Like most Chinese parents of the early 20th century, Mr Lim Kay Eng’s folks hoped their son would study to become a doctor in China. But the young native of Xiamen had other plans. Studying was the very thing he loathed most, so he packed his bags and jumped on a boat to Singapore in search of a brighter future.
Like the countless other Chinese migrants to Singapore of the time, Kay Eng took whatever employment he could find. He worked as a plantation helper, a coffee shop assistant and a provision shop assistant. By 1938, he had saved enough money to start his own stall selling titbits and – having learnt the art of preserving meats from his mother and grandmother in China – bak kwa.
His pushcart stall was located at the foot of a staircase along Chin Chiew Street or "tau fu kai" as it was better known at the time. Although he did brisk business, that sliver of space was a veritable border between opposing Cantonese and Hokkien gangs who often clashed right by the stall.
To avoid getting caught in the crosshairs, Kay Eng moved his wares to a shophouse along New Bridge Road in 1956, where Lim Chee Guan continues to operate.
Today, Lim Chee Guan boasts two other outlets at ION Orchard and People’s Park Complex, as well as its headquarters and production facility in the Ulu Pandan area. With over 100 employees, the business has come a long way from its humble roots.
THE BUSINESS OF FAMILY
In the early days, the Lim family lived on the second floor of a shophouse near Eu Tong Sen Street. For Kay Eng’s son Rod, the shop was also his playground, where he spent all his free time imitating the workers and “helping” with sales. Without realising it, he was absorbing the ins and outs of running his father’s establishment, so much so that by the time he completed his education, his father deemed him ready to join the family business.
Although he had hoped to find work elsewhere, Rod did what was expected of him. “My father never actually said he didn’t approve of me working outside (the family business), but I knew that’s how he felt,” he recalled. In 1988, when his father passed away aged 79, Rod took the helm of Lim Chee Guan.
Like his dad, Rod raised his sons, Jerre, 42; Benny, 39; and Darryl, 25, around the business. “We lived our lives in the shop (along New Bridge Road). It was our playground, where we studied and where we worked. Customers loved Jerre and I — two cute, round boys running around, selling stuff and handling money,” said Benny, laughing.
“Now that we are parents ourselves, we realise that we were spending quality family time together in that shop. These days, parents go to work and kids go to school. They don’t have as much time to really be a part of one another’s lives. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve learned to appreciate that family time and how it’s bonded us over the years.”
All the time spent around the business also meant that joining it wasn’t much of a choice for Jerre and Benny (their brother Darryl is still studying in university). Though their father never pressured them to enlist in it, Benny said it was almost impossible not to.
“At the end of the day, this is our family’s business. Even if we worked outside of it, we would still be a part of it, so it didn’t take much for us to decide once we graduated university.”
TASTE OF TRADITION
Bak kwa-making is a time-consuming process. In the early days, Kay Eng cut thin slices off a slab of pork with a long, sharp knife and marinated them in a mixture of sugar, fish sauce and other ingredients, before spreading the meat over a bamboo sieve to dry in the sun. He would barbecue the slices only when his customers ordered them.
Today, the process remains much the same, except machines are used to cut the large slabs of pork into smaller pieces and to transport the meat from one production station to another. Everything else is still done by hand.
“Once the meat is broken down by the machines, we marinate it by hand before spreading it out across large bamboo sieves,” explained Benny. “Then we pick out any sinews or veins that might be in the mix. These are things a machine cannot do as effectively as the human hand. For one, you have to physically rub the marinade into the meat so that it can penetrate better.”
The meat-lined sieves are then transferred to large charcoal ovens to dry before workers cut them into squares and barbecue them, piece by piece, over a charcoal fire.
This updated method of production was the result of a hard-won agreement struck between Rod and his scions. “When we formally joined the business, we quarrelled a lot about how we wanted to run it and how we should modernise it,” said Benny.
“But at the end of the day, we realised that everyone is rooting for the business and for the family, so we came to a happy compromise. We agreed that when we make plans to implement any new technology, we must ensure that it does not alter the way our bak kwa is made or the quality and taste of our product.”
Rod was also insistent that the meat should continue to be grilled over charcoal. Having experimented with other cooking methods, the family agree that charcoal is still the only form of heat that imparts that distinctive smoky flavour to the meat. At the same time, they are also mindful that charcoal is a sunset industry.
“In the next 10 to 15 years, we may not be able to get enough charcoal to produce our bak kwa, so we are still experimenting with alternative ways, but so far, nothing beats cooking bak kwa over charcoal,” explained Benny.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY
While customers no longer have the time or patience to wait for a kilogram’s worth of bak kwa to be cooked to order, waiting for bak kwa is something many Singaporeans are willing to do in the weeks preceding Chinese New Year. The snaking queues outside Lim Chee Guan’s outlets during the festive season are legendary and customers have been known to stand in line for up to six hours to make their purchase. Yet for some, the queuing has become tradition as well.
“We have regulars who have been queuing since they were young girls and now are mothers. They got to know each other while queuing and now call each other every year and come to queue together so the wait is not so boring,” Benny said.
Customers like these have become family friends to the Lims, who value relationships over all else in their business. Family and friends, after all, are the foundation upon which Lim Chee Guan has been built.
“For Dad, growing the business was very much about managing family and friends,” explained Benny. “We have since grown to a point where we don’t have enough family and friends to maintain the business, so we have employees, who we see as family as well. We have staff who have been with us for over 30 years. Some have spent their youth with us, so we need to take care of them and appreciate them.
“To this day, my father tells us that we cannot just look at dollars and cents. He always tells us to consider how we treat our customers, how we treat each other and everyone else.”
If a business is a mirror of the people at its helm, then Lim Chee Guan is a fine reflection of Rod’s quiet and kindly but firm manner, and his wife Ires’ affection towards their customers. These are qualities their sons embody in their younger, more modern and energetic ways.
Benny is father to two young boys, while Jerre has two daughters aged eight and 10. They, too, hope that their children will join the family business, but like their father, want them to make that decision for themselves.
“Times are different,” said Benny. “Our children don’t enjoy the kind of closeness we enjoyed with our parents growing up, where our entire lives revolved around the business. The closest thing to that is when I take my eldest son to do deliveries with me during Chinese New Year. That way he learns a bit about what we went through when Jerre and I were young.”
Until the next generation of Lims are at an age where they can join the family business, the current generation will continue to run it as their father and grandfather did. “It’s taken a while, but we have aligned our vision for the business. It will always be based on family, tradition and quality, and these will continue to serve as our guiding principles.”