Foodie Confidential

Foodie Confidential: From telecoms to bubble tea

Mr Goh Chee Cheng knew little about tea when he decided to make the career switch

For 15 years, Mr Goh Chee Cheng's life revolved around setting up telecommunications infrastructure for devices such as pagers and mobile phones as well as Internet networks.

The 47-year-old held project management roles in telecommunication firms such as Keppel T&T, Ericsson and Tektronix.

While in the business of connecting people, he ironically was not interacting with people, which he missed.

He recalls: "It was an endless chase of achieving faster bandwidth and speed, and it became boring to deal with the same machines and software that had to be upgraded constantly."

In 2010, he was approached to join the Taiwanese bubble tea chain Gong Cha franchise, which was run by Mr Rodney Tang. It was converted to home-grown label LiHo in May this year, following the sale of Gong Cha's parent company Royal Tea Taiwan to Gong Cha Korea.

The two men had met on a telecommunications project in their previous jobs. Despite "being only able to tell green tea from black tea", Mr Goh jumped at the opportunity.

He says: "It was more meaningful to interact with people from all walks of life, from customers to tea suppliers to staff, than upgrading and troubleshooting machines."


    Mee sua soup with scrambled eggs, as my mother made this dish for my birthday when I was younger.

His five years as operations director of Gong Cha saw a "crazy expansion" which gave him "little time to think". The chain expanded to 84 outlets within eight years.

In 2015, he left the company as "business had become quite established" for a 1½-year stint as general manager of French patisserie-restaurant, Antoinette.

Last September, he struck out on his own with Yuan Cha, a local bubble tea outfit, which has two outlets, in Bukit Panjang Plaza and Far East Plaza.

Besides bubble tea, Yuan Cha also offers a premium range of high- mountain oolong tea from a 200-year-old tea plantation, Sheng Sheng Tea in Nantou, Taiwan.

The teas, which are served hot and without sugar, include red oolong that has a smooth hint of milk tea flavour; Lishan, which has a gentle sweetness; and the famed Alishan tea, known for its floral flavour.

Yuan Cha has a menu of about 40 drinks made from six types of tea. The teas are sourced from a supplier in Taiwan, which customises blends for the shop.

The menu also features a fruit vinegar series that combines tea and vinegar flavoured with lime, plum or apple.

Mr Goh intends to open two more outlets in Jurong Point and Nex by January next year. There are also plans to expand to Vietnam and Malaysia next year.

Mr Goh, who is married to a 45-year-old secretary in a loss adjusting firm, has three children, aged 12 to 14, who love bubble tea. But they do not get the drink any time they want.

He says: "I do not take bubble tea home for them. If they want to drink it, they need to make the effort to visit my stores."

If your house were on fire, which tea from your tea cabinet would you save first?

Ziya Shan tea. It is a unique oolong tea leaf from the 200-year-old Sheng Sheng Tea plantation in Taichung. It has a natural mint flavour with a soothing aftertaste.

How many cups of tea do you drink daily?

One or two. I like to brew a pot of red oolong tea at home. Tea has a long history and brewing it is my way of preserving a slice of tea culture.

What is a common misconception about bubble tea?

That it is a very sweet beverage. You need sweetness to give tea flavours a lift, especially milk teas. But I do not add sugar excessively.

What are your fondest memories of food from your childhood?

I grew up in a kampung in Choa Chu Kang, where my parents ran a chicken farm. We were not well-off, so my memories of food are very basic. However, I remember that Chinese New Year was the most happening time as I got to eat bak kwa.

You eat hawker food daily. Which are your favourite places?

I like the fish soup at Hong Kong Street Zhen Ji in Commonwealth Crescent Market as the flavourful soup has a hint of Chinese rice wine and good portions of fish. I grew up near Bukit Timah Food Centre, so I have been visiting He Zhong Carrot Cake for a long time. Its "white-style" carrot cake has an old-school taste and is very crisp. I also go to Ah Poh BBQ Seafood in the same hawker centre as its barbecued stingray and sambal are done very well.

What is the best thing you have eaten?

Xiang yu (barbecued freshwater fish) at a restaurant in Taipei. The fish can survive only in a very clean environment, so its flesh has an unadulterated sweetness.

What is your favourite overseas foodie destination?

I go to Taiwan two or three times a year to visit my tea supplier and I love the vibrant food culture there. The glutinous rice in Dong Fa Hao in Raohe Night Market in Taipei is my must-eat. The rice is simply cooked, with dried shrimps and pork, but it is so fragrant. In Danshui, I go to Danshui A-gei stall, which is famous for its fried tofu stuffed with rice noodles. In Pingtung, the steamed crabs in Dongsheng Restaurant have a great natural sweetness.

Do you cook these days?

I hardly cook. I am the "head chef" who tastes and gives comments on the food my wife cooks. I learnt how to cook curry chicken from my mother, but it is a lot of work for one dish, from making the paste and extracting the coconut milk to peeling potatoes.

If you could dine with anyone, who would it be?

Mr Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. We share similar work backgrounds in the telecommunication industry. I would like to find out how he does business and get him to invest in my company over dinner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'From telecoms to bubble tea '. Print Edition | Subscribe