It Changed My Life: From coffee boy to top hawker

Mr Gwee with Madam Low, now his wife, in a picture taken before his accident in 1987 which fractured his spine and blinded his right eye. Makansutra named Mr Gwee and sister Guek Hua as Singapore Street Food Masters, a title given to only 12 hawkers.
Makansutra named Mr Gwee and sister Guek Hua as Singapore Street Food Masters, a title given to only 12 hawkers. Their stall had the honour of serving former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang in 2006. Mr Gwee says the secret to his bak kut teh is good ingredients cooked with love and care.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Mr Gwee with Madam Low, now his wife, in a picture taken before his accident in 1987 which fractured his spine and blinded his right eye. Makansutra named Mr Gwee and sister Guek Hua as Singapore Street Food Masters, a title given to only 12 hawkers.
Mr Gwee with Madam Low, now his wife, in a picture taken before his accident in 1987 which fractured his spine and blinded his right eye.PHOTO: FRANKIE GWEE

Bak kut teh chain owner's fortune turned after motorcycle accident that left his face maimed

The year was 1987. It was the first day of the Hungry Ghost Festival, when the gates of hell are supposed to open for a month, allowing wandering spirits to roam the mortal world.

Just before leaving for work as an office boy at a Chinese dried foods wholesaler, Mr Frankie Gwee told his mother: "It's been a long time since I've been to a hospital."

The inauspicious remark earned the then 24-year-old an earful.

That night, as Mr Gwee was riding his motorcycle to visit his girlfriend, he crashed into a road divider.

"I don't know how it happened. I wasn't speeding. I'd be finished if I were. It's as though someone blocked my vision," says the now 53-year-old.


Mr Gwee and Madam Low at their shop in Kim Tian, with their children Mario and Fiona, who wish to grow their father’s business. PHOTO: FRANKIE GWEE

PAYING IT FORWARD

Because I had a leg-up, I told myself I must not forget people who are struggling or who are disadvantaged.

MR FRANKIE GWEE, who has written generous cheques to many who needed help. In 2006, he donated $10,000 to the family of a man who was killed by an oncoming train at Chinese Garden MRT station.

The impact was so great it cracked his spine, smashed his face in and blinded his right eye.

Warded in the intensive care unit of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, he was unconscious for eight days. Doctors told his loved ones to prepare for the worst.

The accident changed his life in more ways than one. The loss of sight in his right eye and his disfigurement caused him so much despair that he thought of killing himself.

There was, thankfully, a silver lining. With his insurance payout, the Primary 2 school dropout started a bak kut teh eatery in Outram Park with his sister which got so famous that it even attracted the likes of former Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang.

Last December, he opened his own Tuan Yuan Pork Ribs Soup in a Kim Tian coffee shop which he acquired for about $4.75 million.

"Before the accident, I didn't have a very high IQ. I never imagined I'd have my own business," he says with a laugh in Mandarin.

Soft-spoken and humble, Mr Gwee was born into poverty, the 12th of 14 children. His father peddled herbal tea from a roadside stall in River Valley; his mother sold newspapers alongside her husband.

Home was a rented tiny one-room flat in Clarke Quay.

Because his father could give him only five cents for pocket money each day, the former pupil of Ngee Ann Girls' School - now known as Ngee Ann Primary - in River Valley often went hungry at recess time.

"Walking to school made me thirsty so I'd spend the five cents on a drink. That left me no money for food at recess. I could only salivate while other pupils had noodles and fishballs. I was so hungry I sometimes ate their leftovers, I'm not kidding," he says.

The rumblings in his stomach got so bad that he decided to play truant in Primary 2 so that he could earn a few cents and a meal or two by being a hawker's assistant.

"In the morning, I'd hide my schoolbag in the bushes behind the Van Kleef Aquarium," he says, referring to the former tourist attraction at the foot of Fort Canning. "But one day, a gardener chanced upon my schoolbag and called the school, which in turn called my father. He gave me a thrashing."

When his old man refused to let him stop school, he ran away from home to become a coffee boy in a coffee shop near Hong Lim Park.

His employer provided food and lodging but Mr Gwee's day started at 5am and did not end until 11pm, seven days a week.

"My father eventually came around. I earned $90 a month, and handed all of it to my mother who would give me $20 for expenses," he recalls.

For the next decade, he worked as an assistant to various hawkers - selling everything from chicken rice and yong tau foo to bak kut teh and prawn noodles - in Clarke Quay, Chinatown and Orchard Road.

Ambition was an alien concept, says Mr Gwee, adding that his only enterprising endeavour during this period was to sell drinks from a pushcart during Thaipusam.

After completing his national service, he found a job as an office boy for a wholesaler of shark's fin, abalone and other dried goods.

To boost his income, he took on a night job as a stall assistant for a bak kut teh seller in River Valley.

The accident upended his life.

"My spine cracked, my head swelled to the size of a basketball, my nose collapsed," says Mr Gwee, whose face was so smashed in that he could not talk and had to be fed through a tube for several weeks. He lost more than 20kg as a result.

Although he repeatedly asked for a mirror after he woke up, his loved ones refused to hand him one.

"When I could finally move and get out of my hospital bed on my own, the first thing I did was to go to the toilet and look in the mirror. It was like a scene from a movie; I was so stunned, I couldn't believe it was me."

Convinced that his future was bleak, he told his girlfriend Emily Low, a salesgirl in an electronics store, she would be better off without him.

She refused to leave him; they got married two years later.

Madam Low, now 50, says: "We'd been together for half a year then, and I was very happy. I couldn't bring myself to leave him just because he had an accident. My friends and relatives asked me if I knew what I was doing. When we decided to get married, my father said, 'You picked your husband'."

She adds: "He's also a good man and very hard-working. I knew I would be okay."

Recovery was long and arduous.

"I looked so hideous that when my nieces and nephews came over, I'd just hide in my room because I didn't want to scare them," says Mr Gwee, whose countenance still looks a little frozen.

He owes a lot, he says, to his oral and maxillo-facial surgeon who not only fixed his teeth and got him a glass eye but also referred him to a visiting plastic surgeon from Denmark who performed extensive facial reconstructive surgery on him twice in two years. He had to pay only for his hospital stays, but not the operations.

"He pulled down the skin of my face and did a lot of things to realign my features," says Mr Gwee, pointing to the scar which goes up the side of his head and over his crown.

Without being self-conscious, he offers to take out his glass eye.

"This right eye is badly damaged, there is no muscle to hold the pupil down, that's why it is there above my eyelid."

It took him a long time before he found employment, first as a general dogsbody in a car-repair shop, and, later, as a driver in a vehicle rental company.

Life took a different turn when he received an insurance payout of $40,000. He used part of it to get married in 1989.

While out one day with an elder sister Peck Hua -who was a bak kut teh chef in a hotel - he bumped into an old friend.

"He asked us if we'd thought about setting up our own bak kut teh stall since both of us were not strangers to the trade," he recalls. "I thought it was a good idea; my sister thought so too."

With the rest of his insurance payout as well as a loan from his brother-in-law, he and his sister each put in $40,000 to set up Ya Hua Bak Kut Teh in Outram Park in 1991.

Several of their siblings, who had also worked in bak kut teh stalls in River Valley and Clarke Quay, chipped in to help.

Although he was boss, no task was too lowly for Mr Gwee, who cooked, took orders, cleared tables and mopped floors like all his staff.

Word of Ya Hua's flavourful broth and friendly service soon spread; business was brisk.

"We recouped our investment in one year," he says, adding that another sister Guek Hua also came on board as a partner.

Ya Hua relocated to the PSA Complex in Tanjong Pagar several years later when Outram Park was acquired by the government for redevelopment.

The stall made headlines in 2006 when former Hong Kong chief executive Tsang paid them a visit after being turned away at another bak kut teh stall, Ng Ah Sio in Rangoon Road.

That same year, food guide Makansutra named Mr Gwee and Guek Hua as Singapore Street Food Masters, a title given to only 12 hawkers.

Thankful that fate not only pulled him out of despair but also gave him a new stab at life after his accident, he started becoming actively involved in charity.

"Despite my accident, I have been really blessed. I married a good wife and have two very obedient children," says Mr Gwee, who has a 26-year-old son, Mario, and a 22-year-old daughter, Fiona.

"Because I had a leg-up, I told myself I must not forget people who are struggling or who are disadvantaged."

He has written generous cheques to many who needed help. In 2006, he donated $10,000 to the family of a man who was killed by an oncoming train at Chinese Garden MRT station.

He has been equally generous with his time, making weekly food deliveries to the poor in Chong Pang and helping to build schools, offer scholarships and deliver clothing and other essentials to needy communities in Thailand and Cambodia.

Last year, he decided to set up Tuan Yuan with his family. His sisters still run Ya Hua, which now has several outlets.

The idea, he says, came from his children.

"Because I've not had an education, I wanted my children to finish university. But they told me they wanted to help me grow this business," he says, adding that he needed a lot of persuading before he agreed.

Fiona, who has a polytechnic diploma in materials science, says: "My brother and I owe a lot to my father and bak kut teh. My father has worked day and night selling bak kut teh since his 20s to give us a good life. You could say bak kut teh helped to raise us."

Mario agrees. "We have a lot of feelings towards bak kut teh. We want to keep the family legacy going, we want to help him grow the business," says the polite young man, who dropped out of SIM University's business degree programme after completing his second year.

The siblings have certainly helped to modernise Tuan Yuan's operations by streamlining workflow and introducing, among other things, a phone app for customers to order their food in advance.

Working closely with Mr Gwee, they have also expanded the menu beyond bak kut teh and other staples to include a wide variety of dishes, including abalone soup, steamed grey mullet and glutinous rice balls.

Asked if there are plans for expansion, Mr Gwee laughs.

"I dare not think so far ahead. One step at a time."

It is more important, he says, to keep improving and making his famous broth and other dishes better.

And what is his secret to a good bak kut teh?

"No cutting corners. Fresh meat. Good ingredients. Cooked with lots of love and care."

VIDEO: Frankie Gwee on how he overcame his horrific accident - http://str.sg/4qJy

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'From coffee boy to top hawker'. Print Edition | Subscribe