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The men behind the $31 million coffeeshop deal

Mr Paul Kok Kuan Pow reportedly runs more than 20 coffee shops in Singapore. Mr Tan Han Swee and his wife, Madam Yiap Moi Hiang, at a Hungry Ghost Festival event in 2004. Yong Xing Coffee Shop at Bukit Batok Street 11 (left) is a popular dining spot
Yong Xing Coffee Shop at Bukit Batok Street 11 (above) is a popular dining spot because there is no hawker centre in the area and the nearest mall is a 15-minute walk away.PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Mr Paul Kok Kuan Pow reportedly runs more than 20 coffee shops in Singapore. Mr Tan Han Swee and his wife, Madam Yiap Moi Hiang, at a Hungry Ghost Festival event in 2004. Yong Xing Coffee Shop at Bukit Batok Street 11 (left) is a popular dining spot
Mr Tan Han Swee and his wife, Madam Yiap Moi Hiang, at a Hungry Ghost Festival event in 2004. PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Mr Paul Kok Kuan Pow reportedly runs more than 20 coffee shops in Singapore. Mr Tan Han Swee and his wife, Madam Yiap Moi Hiang, at a Hungry Ghost Festival event in 2004. Yong Xing Coffee Shop at Bukit Batok Street 11 (left) is a popular dining spot
Mr Paul Kok Kuan Pow reportedly runs more than 20 coffee shops in Singapore. PHOTO: WEBSITE OF RIDE FOR RAINBOWS 2014

Life tracks down the parties involved in the record sale of an HDB coffee shop in Bukit Batok

The seller ran a noodle-making business

The seller of Yong Xing Coffee Shop in Bukit Batok, which was sold for a record $31 million, had bought the 4,521 sq ft coffee shop for $3.4 million.

Mr Tan Han Swee, 77, who has been in the food and beverage business for about 50 years, made more than an 800 per cent profit in the record-breaking deal for a Housing Board coffee shop.

Mr Tan is the managing director of Eng Heng Realty, which is registered as an investment company. The buyer of the coffee shop is a new company set up by the younger brother of Mr Ricky Kok Kuan Hwa, founder of coffee shop operator Chang Cheng Group.

Mr Tan, a Malaysia-born businessman who is now a Singaporean, is overseas and could not be contacted for comment. He and his family have been in the food and beverage business since the 1960s. Business records show they own another coffee shop in Jurong West through another company.

Some companies previously owned by Mr Tan were registered as manufacturers of noodles, vermicelli and macaroni.

Records also show that he owned a cake shop here in the 1960s and a noodle house in the 1980s. His family was also known to own a noodle factory in Taman Jurong.

Former Member of Parliament for Jurong, Dr Ho Kah Leong, 77, who has known Mr Tan since the 1980s, describes him as a hardworking businessman. "Every day, he would supervise the making of the noodles at his factory. They would be delivered by his wife, who drove a van to hawker centres and coffee shops. He is hardworking, jovial and his people skills are good."

Buying the Bukit Batok coffee shop is only one of Mr Tan's many shrewd business moves. Several of his contemporaries say he bought a nougat factory in Australia in the 1980s.

Records from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission list Mr Tan and several of his family members as directors in Golden Boronia, a nougat manufacturer with facilities in Perth. The brand is a household name in Australia and is billed as Australia's No. 1 nougat.

Dr Ho says: "In the 1980s, nougat was not popular. From my knowledge, he was the only one who produced it in Perth.

"But because he created new types of nougat, people started buying them and business became good. He is a brilliant businessman who can look far ahead."

News reports say Mr Tan was the vice-chairman of the Singapore Kway Teow and Mee Manufacturers Association. At the Singapore Food Manufacturers' Association, he is an honorary life president, a position that honours the contributions of key appointment holders upon their retirement.

An active member in the community, Mr Tan was also on the advisory committee of Yuan Ching Secondary School in the 1980s and served on a Citizen's Consultative Committee in Jurong in the 1990s.

He has donated money to charitable causes, including $10,000 towards the rebuilding of a temple in Boon Lay.

Mr Tan comes from a big family. A 2003 obituary for his mother in Lianhe Zaobao showed that he has three brothers and four sisters.

According to the Facebook pages of his family members, he has at least six children and 18 grandchildren. He is married to Madam Yiap Moi Hiang, 75, a Singaporean. The family man is a fixture at family events such as birthday celebrations and graduation ceremonies.

Several of his family members are registered to be living in two landed homes - located side by side - in Boon Lay. Property records show they bought the houses for more than $3.3 million in the late 1990s.

Mr Tan shuttles between Singapore and Australia, where some of his family members are based.

It is understood that the Tans did not know the coffee shop's buyer before the deal, which was done through an agent. The contract to transfer the coffee shop is dated Dec 15 last year and the transfer was completed on May 29 this year.

When contacted, Mr Tan's son, Mr Tan Beng Gim, 47, says his family is "very sad" about the sale.

Referring to the coffee shop business, he adds: "My father is old. If others can do it, let them."

The deal beats the previous record of $23.8 million set in 2013 for a coffee shop in Hougang.

He says: "If the buyer dares to put in $31 million, he has a strategy. If you think he's stupid, do you think the banks will lend the money to him? He knows the market."

News reports have noted that the coffee shop at Block 155, Bukit Batok Street 11, has an attractive location because there is no hawker centre in the area and the nearest mall is a 15-minute walk away.

Since the transfer, some tenants have reportedly said the rent has doubled to $6,500 a month.


The buyer runs more than 20 coffee shops

Singapore's new coffee shop king is no stranger to the business.

According to news reports, Mr Paul Kok Kuan Pow already runs more than 20 coffee shops here.

His older brother, Mr Ricky Kok Kuan Hwa, 46, is also in the same business and heads the Chang Cheng Group which, according to its website, runs more than 220 food outlets and 30 coffee shops, including the Chang Cheng Mee Wah chain of coffee shops.

The younger Mr Kok, who is in his early 40s, is one of two directors of EH 155, which paid $31 million for the coffee shop in Bukit Batok. The other director is a Malaysian named Cho Kim Wing.

Mr Paul Kok declined to be interviewed. Business records show that he is also a director in at least 36 food and beverage-related companies here, and a shareholder in at least 31 of them.

The sixth of seven children was born into a poor family in Seremban, Malaysia. His parents died in a car accident when he was about 16.

He attended university in Malacca and operated a fast-food restaurant there.

In 2000, he came to Singapore and joined his brother's Chang Cheng Mee Wah chain of coffee shops.

After working for his brother for 10 years, Mr Paul Kok rented his first coffee shop, in Tampines, with the help of his brother.

Mr Ricky Kok tells Life: "I took care of the finances and he managed it. Since our parents died, our family has always supported one another whenever we could."

From there, the younger Mr Kok built up his business. Brushing aside suggestions that his brother might one day outshine him, Mr Ricky Kok says: "This industry is so large. Even if you wanted all the money for yourself, you won't be able to earn it all.

"My brother is more hardworking and much more educated than I am. He deserves all the success he gets."

Mr Paul Kok is married to Ms Tan Swee Lai, a Singapore permanent resident in her 30s.

The couple have four daughters - aged 10, eight, five and three - and live in a condominium in Bukit Batok.

Friends and employees describe him as a quiet and unassuming man who prefers to keep a low profile. Not one to flaunt his wealth or authority, he is known to visit the workers at his coffee shops dressed simply in a polo shirt and pants.

He drove a small Lexus until last year, when he switched to a Toyota Wish MPV to accommodate his family.

Says an employee who has worked for Mr Kok for five years: "He's not a picky boss. I've seen him scold workers when things go wrong. But he'll also praise workers for good work."

Mr Kok is a patron of the Clementi Town Shop Owners' Association and was a committee member.

Says the association's chairman, Mr Lim Hai Teck, 56, who has known him for about 10 years: "Even though he was our youngest member, his feedback was thoughtful. He is capable and extremely hardworking. He would start work before the sun rises and finish after it gets dark."

Mr Kok enjoys singing karaoke and is known to sing with his friends and business associates in the VIP rooms of Chinese restaurants such as Yunnan Garden Restaurant, off North Buona Vista Road.

He loves belting out Mandarin and Cantonese songs, such as the ballad Just Want To Spend My Life With You by Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung.

He is also an avid cyclist and took part in a fund-raising cycling event last year for Club Rainbow (Singapore), which helps chronically ill children and their families.

According to the event's website, Mr Kok raised more than $42,000 - the third-highest amount by an individual rider.

His tagline, which was published on the website, read: "To make the world a better place for all".

Benson Ang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'Men behind $31m coffee shop sale'. Print Edition | Subscribe