Her luck is in the duck

Madam Betty Kong, owner of Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint in Upper Paya Lebar.
Madam Betty Kong, owner of Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint in Upper Paya Lebar. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Her soft hands are greasy. Her “office” – behind a chopping board and a counter framed by a window of shiny roast meats – is simple and bare.

But every evening when she leaves her no-frills coffee shop on Upper Paya Lebar Road, she returns to luxury.

She drives a Mercedes-Benz E Class to a freehold bungalow (which cost her $1.8 million 20 years ago) with expensive koi frolicking in a garden pond.

The roast meat business has been good for Madam Betty Kong, 66, and her husband, Mr Ha Wai Kay, 62.

With reporters flocking to her eatery since news broke last week of her $2 million asking price for her secret roast meat recipe, you’d expect Madam Kong to be tired of being interviewed.

But no, she is warm and sincere, apologising profusely to this correspondent: “Oh dear, please wait ah. I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”

It’s 4pm on Friday and the meats at Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint are sold out. Yet customers are streaming in. They leave disappointed.

Madam Kong finally catches her breath nearly an hour later and sits down to gobble a packet of fried beehoon. She says in Cantonese: “I’m so hungry! I have not eaten since we opened shop at 10am.”

In between forkfuls of food, she waves enthusiastically at those walking or driving past. “So sorry, all sold out,” she calls out, sometimes in Cantonese, sometimes in Mandarin and at times in heavily-Cantonese-accented English.

“Please come again tomorrow. Sorry, sorry.”

News of the impending sale has attracted long lines of customers. Business, she admits, has gone up by 50 per cent. In the past couple of days, she estimates that she has sold 50 ducks, 35kg of roasted pork and another 35kg of char siew a day. They are sold out by 4pm, three hours before the shop’s official closing time.

Her husband, Mr Ha, says in a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin: “Some people think we’re closing shop and swing by to catch us before that.”

He adds, smiling: “No lah, they must look at it this way... even though the founder (Colonel Harland Sanders) of KFC has died, his recipe lives on.”

Madam Kong, clearly the chattier one, fishes for an opinion on her asking price for the recipe: “Too steep or not? It’s jian ren jian zhi (people see things differently).”

The owners of the 40-year-old eatery have pegged their freehold, 1,300 sq ft shop space at $1.5 million. Says Mr Ha: “We bought the space for nearly $900,000, so the price is a fair deal.”

Despite the steep asking price, there have been several interested parties.

They are selling out because age has caught up with them. She suffers pain in the knees from standing all day and chopping meat.

Mr Ha says: “When we are running the business, we can’t just close shop and take off for a holiday. And since our children are not interested in taking over, we have no choice but to give up.”

Madam Kong adds: “However much money we earn, we can’t take it along with us when we die, lah. What for work so hard if we can’t even enjoy the fruits of our labour?”

The couple hope to continue to travel when they retire. Madam Kong lists China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand as her favourite places.

Business talk aside, this woman speaks as rapidly as the speed with which she chops up a duck.

Talking to her is a delight. She pulls out wacky anecdotes and shares fond memories in her booming voice, often accompanied by hearty laughter.

Just hearing the couple – who met through Madam Kong’s cousin – banter with each other is entertaining.
She boasts: “If there is a duck-chopping contest, you must tell me and I will surely win it.”

Mr Ha mocks her lovingly: “No lah, you will lose. These days, the youngsters are better than you.”

She hits back: “But can they do it like me, all in equal sizes? For sure, (they) cannot, okay?”

Ask Madam Kong what it was like when they were dating, her eyes smile: “What do you think? Our dates were, of course, confined to his roast meat joint.

“We held hands in the kitchen.”

Catching our look of disbelief, she laughs: “Really!”

She hastens to add that she was still “very slim, sexy and trendy” then.

Mr Ha prompts his wife to tell us what she used to work as. His suggestion draws more chortles from Madam Kong, who mimics a pair of snipping scissors with her fingers.

She says: “Before I was wielding the chopper, I was working with the scissors.”

Madam Kong used to be a fashion designer who sewed her own creations for a private company.

“Don’t laugh okay. I was very good,” she says.

Mr Ha adds: “Ya, not long after she left (when she married him), the company chup lup (closed down in Cantonese).”

What was it like moving on from a pair of scissors to a chopper? Madam Kong turns serious: “Tough. Really tough... Every morning I’d wake up with my hands trembling like this... And there were rashes on the hands and blisters on my palms.”

The trembling came from hours of holding the 1kg chopper, the rashes from the sauces that coated her hands and the blisters from the non-stop chopping.

Her father-in-law came up with the recipe in the 1950s and set up a stall in Chinatown.

“I’m very proud of how we’ve managed to turn this business and kept its legacy going. No one can take away the hard labour we’ve put into it,” Madam Kong says.

This included working up to the day she was to give birth to her children.

But it has given her the good life and put her children through university.

Her son, a 31-year-old accountant, holds a double master’s degree and has settled down in Brisbane. Her daughter, 26, is a teacher in a special needs school.

Despite the “tai jiao” (prenatal education), they are not keen to take over the business.

Madam Kong says: “Whenever my son returns home, he’d come down to the shop and help out, take orders and serve. My xiao jie (missy in Mandarin, referring to her daughter) does not even come down.”

Not that Madam Kong minds.

She says: “All parents want the best for their children. For us, we just want them to be happy.”

We manage to wrangle an invitation to her Hougang bungalow after they close shop on Friday night.

When this reporter arrived there later, the grey Mercedes-Benz – “it’s the only car we own” – is in the driveway. In the garden pond are 20 to 30 koi, the other love in Mr Ha’s life.

He is not home. He’s spending the night at the shop – he has been doing this since the business made the news – to prepare the meats for the following day.

Madam Kong shows us into their four-bedroom home. It’s not exactly designer-inspired or opulent, but it’s cosy.

Crowded on most shelves of the open cabinets are figurines of Chinese deities and antiques. Madam Kong says of her one extravagance: “I love collecting antiques.”

She admits she’s a TV addict and spends her time after dinner catching Hong Kong drama serials or sappy Korean soaps.

She catches up on current affairs through newspapers and TV. “You can’t just spend your time in the shop and not know what is going on outside.”

On Thursdays, when the eatery is closed, Mr Ha stays home to mind his koi and play with the family dog, a 10-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

And Madam Kong? “(She goes for) facials, lah. Spa treatments, massages and pedicure,” she replies. “Of course, I must do my hair, too.”

It is now ash-brown with purple streaks.

When she has to get down and dirty, she’s dressed in black. She says: “Must nai zhang (take dirtiness). And of course, it makes me look slimmer a bit, lah.”

For someone who runs an eatery selling one of the most delicious roast meats in Singapore, what is her favourite food? “I love durians, laksa and white steamed chicken.”

True to her effervescent nature, she gives our photographer and me a bear hug before we leave her home shortly after midnight.

“Thank you, thank you for coming by. You must remember to come and visit me again, okay?”