From The Straits Times Archives: Katong Laksa revisited

A file photo of 328 Katong Laksa eatery in Katong.
A file photo of 328 Katong Laksa eatery in Katong. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Back in 2000 when the Katong Laksa war was at its peak, the 50m stretch of East Coast Road at the junction of Ceylon Road was a cauldron of activity.

Employees from the five rival stalls selling the noodles would call out to passers-by that theirs were the 'original' noodles, posters and banners screamed 'Original Katong Laksa' and hawkers shot each other dagger looks.

Things have cooled down since. A visit to the area last week revealed that there are only three laksa stalls operating there now. Competition is less frenzied, and employees no longer call out to customers although the posters touting each stall's merit are still there.

'I don't need to rope in customers anymore. I have a steady stream of regulars. I now also own the whole coffee shop, so why would I need to do so much?' says Mrs Teo Hee Cheng, 48, who runs the stall at No. 49.

After the spurt of publicity about the feud, two of the original five stalls started franchise arrangements, resulting in branches being set up all over Singapore.

However, both decided to give up the franchise business last year.

The Katong Laksa saga began in 1963 when brothers Ng Juat Swee and Ng Chwee Seng started selling laksa at the coffee shop at No. 49.

The stall, then called Marine Parade Laksa, was very popular and, till the early 1990s, was the only one selling the noodles in the area. Mrs Teo was the landlord of the coffee shop.

In 1998, the brothers moved out when the landlord wanted to raise their rent, and took a two-year hiatus. The stall was taken over by a food stall helper from Clementi, Ms Nancy Lim, now 42. She named it 328 Laksa.

After about a year, Mrs Teo wanted to take over the stall herself, so Ms Lim moved across the road to No. 51.

Meanwhile, three other laksa stalls popped up. The sons of the original Katong Laksa Ng brothers restarted the business at No. 57, and two other stalls opened up at Nos. 45 and 47. And so laksa fans found themselves having to decide between the noodles at Nos. 45, 47, 49, 51 and 57.

In 1999, Sunday Plus, the predecessor of LifeStyle, ran a story on the feud. It included a review of the stalls by food consultant Violet Oon.

She rated stall No. 47 the worst. A week after the report, the owner, Madam Ah Ang, reported that business had dropped by half.

She closed her shop about three years ago. The other stall owners could not recall when No. 45 closed down, but guessed it was between 2001 and 2003.

Today, only three out of the five stalls remain: No. 57 Katong Laksa, the original run by the Ng family; Ms Lim's 328 Katong Laksa which is now at No. 53; and No. 49 Katong Laksa, which belongs to Mrs Teo.

The Ngs say they sell more than 200 bowls a day and have four branches around the island.

Ms Lim says she sells about 300 bowls a day. She also has another laksa shop down the road at No. 216, away from the warzone.

In 2002, she started supplying her gravy to 10 franchise stalls at foodcourts but gave this up in August last year.

'Some of the franchisees learnt to make their own gravy,' she says in Mandarin. 'I was also receiving complaints from customers about the laksa from these stalls, so I decided to stop it all.'

Mrs Teo, who says she sells 300 bowls a day, also had five franchisees in 2003 but they did not last long either.

'It was troublesome. They'll call and ask for help on cooking and I'll have to go down, plus some of them added water to the gravy making the laksa sub-standard,' she says.

Meanwhile, the three stalls continue to have their own following. Student Suanggita Emerlin, 18, who was eating a bowl of laksa at No. 53 last Wednesday, says: 'I don't know which is the original Katong Laksa, and even if I did, it won't change anything because this one is tasty.'

This story was first published in the Straits Times on January 8, 2006.