Foodie Confidential

Catching up with the times

Mr Chong Yik Hwee, vice- chairman of a group which organises Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations, hopes to attract youth to the event

At the age of 11, Mr Chong Yik Hwee, 63, managing director of home-grown food and beverage empire, Gao Ji Food, was already plying the streets of Chinatown, helping his parents push their makeshift yong tau foo stall and collecting water in buckets to wash the bowls.

At 13, he dropped out of school after his father died of a stroke in 1965 to help his mother run the stall. Three years later, they moved their business off the streets and into People's Park Food Centre, where he toiled for 20 years, cooking and serving customers.

Gao Ji Food has 53 eateries across eight brands, including House of Roasted Duck and the popular Koo Kee Yong Tow Foo Mee chain.

Even though Mr Chong grew up in the Chinatown area, he never took an interest in the neighbourhood's Chinese New Year festivities.

He says in Mandarin: "I was too busy focusing on the business and had no mood to relax. It is something that I regret."

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Yong tau foo with noodles with minced meat and kangkong.

But things have changed.

He is now the vice-chairman of the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens' Consultative Committee, which organises the annual Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations.

These days, he and his family of 20 will gather for an early reunion dinner at 5pm. He then rushes to Chinatown to soak up the convivial atmosphere at the Countdown Party on the eve of Chinese New Year.

To ring in the Year of the Rooster, the heritage precinct has been decked out with 5,500 hand- crafted lanterns - the highest number of lanterns in the event's history. Taking centre stage amid a sea of lanterns fashioned after roosters, chickens and eggs is a towering 13m-tall rooster lantern that lets out a crowing sound every 15 minutes from 7 to 11pm daily.

Also new this year is YouthEats @ Temple Street, a section of food stalls run by 12 entrepreneurs, who sell Instagram-worthy street food such as rainbow-coloured bagels, nitrogen pops (meringue doused in liquid nitrogen) and braised duck shabu shabu burger.

On the rooftop of People's Park Complex, there is a YHFLEA: Come Lepark edition, a flea market held at Lepark restaurant. The flea market, which features handcrafted items from more than 100 local brands and independent designers, local music performances and graffiti art, is on today.

Mr Chong, who is a grandfather of four, believes that it is crucial to introduce such youth-oriented elements to the event to catch up with the times.

"Festive bazaars are already happening in various neighbourhoods," he says. "We hope to attract youth to check out the food and flea market, while re-visiting Chinatown."

Growing up, what are your memories of Chinese New Year?

I come from a poor family, so Chinese New Year was the only time that we could eat steamed chicken, roast duck and abalone.

Where do you like to eat in Chinatown?

I like Heng Ji Chicken Rice in Chinatown Complex Food Centre as its white chicken is smooth and tender. The small bowls of rice are so fragrant that I used to eat six of them and a whole chicken by myself when I was a student in the 1970s. I would eat there in between tending my parents' street-side stall.

Another stall in the hawker centre that I like is Lian He Ben Ji Bao Fan, which serves claypot rice. The ingredients are fresh and the owner has perfected the skill of cooking the rice. It is so tasty that I always eat at least two bowls of it.

What do you cook to celebrate Chinese New Year?

For the past two years, I have cooked claypot rice over a charcoal stove, and adding five to six types of preserved meats such as Chinese sausage, liver sausage, waxed pork belly and duck, and turnips. The fragrant oils from the meats are infused into the rice.

When you add dark soya sauce and lard to rice, it is my No. 1 dish to eat.

Do you cook your signature yong tau foo for Chinese New Year too?

No, my family eats yong tau foo almost every day as I bring home the dish from my eateries. I also eat it frequently when I meet my friends for meals. Why do you think my complexion is still so smooth? It is because I always eat tofu.

What are your favourite yong tau foo ingredients?

I will always have fried tau kee (beancurd skin), as it gives the bowl of noodles a crispy dimension. I also like Hakka-style noodles and minced meat - it is one of the first dishes I have to eat after an overseas trip.

What are your favourite dishes and where do you go to eat them?

I like to eat roast duck. Even though I have a roast duck restaurant, I visit places such as London Fat Duck in Scotts Square and Royal London Duck in Mandarin Gallery to try their ducks. A perfectly roasted duck needs to have a good amount of oil in its meat and crisp skin. I especially like it when there is an aromatic squirt of oil when I bite into the meat.

What is the most adventurous thing you have eaten?

I got tricked into trying scorpions. My business associates from China told me that they were healthy. The texture was slippery and smooth like soya beancurd. I have also tried fried worms which are crunchy.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would that be and why?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He is a businessman whom I admire, who is also involved in philanthropy. He seems easy-going and I would like to learn business management techniques from him.

• The Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations is on till Feb 25. For more information, go to www.chinatownfestivals.sg

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Catching up with the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe