China veterans dish out advice to succeed as a food entrepreneur

Dr Tan Eng Han organises monthly talks in Beijing to help young Singaporeans learn from those who have lived and worked many years in China.
Dr Tan Eng Han organises monthly talks in Beijing to help young Singaporeans learn from those who have lived and worked many years in China.PHOTO: GOH SUI NOI

Some like Mr Ng Zhipeng, 23, a National University of Singapore (NUS) student on an internship in Beijing, went because they were at a loose end on a Friday evening.

Others like Mr Eric Li, 35, a creative director at an international advertising agency, harboured thoughts of starting their own food outlets.

Many left with sobering thoughts on what it would take to be a food entrepreneur in China.

About 80 Singaporeans went to the talk in Beijing on July 14 given by the executives of Singapore food and beverage (F&B) chains Jumbo, Koo Kee and TWG as well as independent entrepreneurs William Ding and Thomas Tian.

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They gave the brutal truth about running a restaurant in China - it is tiring, difficult and fraught with risks. One of them, Mr Ang Kiam Lian, the China CEO of Jumbo Seafood, said: "If you are new to F&B, my advice is don't (start)."

But if anyone was bullheaded enough to do so, his exhortation was "enjoy what you do". "As long as you enjoy what you do, you are going to do well,... and have deep pockets to last."


Still, Mr Li was unfazed, saying the challenges meant he needed a detailed plan and strong funding. And if he were to start a restaurant, it would be in China as he has been there five years, long enough to understand the market, he said.

For Mr Teo Jun Wei, 23, an NUS student on an internship in Beijing who also had thoughts of starting a food business, the evening's talk was a good learning opportunity.

"It's a bonus that I can learn from some of the entrepreneurs in Beijing," he said.

This was what organiser Tan Eng Han was hoping to achieve with his series of talks, of which this was the third - for young Singaporeans to learn from veterans who have spent many years in China.

Dr Tan, 48, an educationist who has been in China for 23 years, was inspired to start the series of talks by the Committee on the Future Economy report in February, particularly its first recommendation to "deepen and diversify Singapore's international connections".

He felt passionately about this but thought there was a need to change young Singaporeans' minds if this was to happen.

"Singaporeans can be quite myopic. They are too comfortable, they ignore developments overseas and they refuse to acknowledge that there are countries out there that are doing much better and they can learn from," he said.

Through the monthly talks, which are all filmed and put on YouTube, Facebook, WeChat and QQ, he hopes to influence young Singaporeans, both in Beijing and at home in Singapore.

Dr Tan funds the talks himself and has a team of Singaporean helpers who believe in what he does. He is now planning a mentoring programme to match young Singaporeans with suitable seasoned Singaporeans overseas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'China veterans dish out advice to succeed as a food entrepreneur'. Print Edition | Subscribe