From The Straits Times Archives: Mee pok war - Clone Wars
If you live in the East and are an ardent lover of mee pok, chances are, your tastebuds could be confused by now.
Of late, the stretch of road from East Coast Road to Bedok Road has become mee pok central, with at least four noodle-sellers - all operating within 4km or so of each other - slugging it out for business.
It's not far from Katong, where a laksa war heated up in the late 1990s when up to five stalls tussled to claim the title of the 'original Katong Laksa' stall.
In the case of the mee pok war, three of the hawkers are based around Upper East Coast Road while the fourth is some distance away in Simpang Bedok.
The players are: 132 Mee Poh Kueh Teow Mee at 53 Upper East Coast Road; 321 Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee at 727 East Coast Road; Ah Lim Mee Pok You Mian Kway Teow Mee at 15 Upper East Coast Road, and Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee at 308 Bedok Road
For the culinary challenged, mee pok is typical Teochew hawker fare where flat yellow noodles are drowned in chilli sauce and served with fishballs, prawns, fish cake slices, minced pork, pork slices, herkeow (minced pork in fish skin) and sinful cubes of pork lard.
All four stalls serve this traditional version of mee pok, though the noodles can also come in the form of kway teow (flat white noodles) and mee kia (skinny yellow noodles).
As LifeStyle discovered, the story behind the mee pok war is a tangled web of food feuds and alleged betrayals worthy of a TV soap opera.
Each stall claims to be independent, yet all are seemingly associated by name or ownership.
One may think, for instance, that 321 Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee and 132 Mee Poh Kueh Teow Mee - just 200m apart - are run by the same family with a penchant for auspicious numbers.
The numbers 321 sound like 'sang yee yat' in Cantonese and roughly translate as 'having business every day'. 132, which sounds like 'yat sang yee', means the same thing but in a different syntax.
Then there's Ah Lim Mee Pok You Mian Kway Teow Mee, which, by name, seems related to Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee at Simpang Bedok.
And, hey, isn't the noodle-seller at the latter stall a former worker at 132 Mee Poh Kueh Teow Mee?
Foodies like stockbroker Jenny Tan, 36, are confused. Moans the Siglap resident: 'I no longer know which one is the best or the original.'
Pure coincidence or copycats at work?
What LifeStyle uncovered is this: 132 Mee Poh Kueh Teow Mee, run by Mr Chan Sek Inn, 63, is the undisputed pioneer of the area. Not surprisingly, the affable Mr Chan is also the central figure in a series of disputes with the other players.
It turns out that hawkers behind 321 Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee and Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee - two men named Mr George Khoo, 53, and Mr Lim Kim Heong, 40, respectively - used to work alongside Mr Chan before leaving to strike out on their own.
Mr Chan, who runs the stall with his wife, Madam Hia Yam Hua, 62, and their son, Chan Choon Wing, 36, set up a mee pok stall at the old Siglap market in the 1970s. Madam Hia's family was also in the noodle business.
When the market was demolished to make way for Siglap Centre, he moved opposite to a row of HDB flats in 1989.
Between 1990 and 1995, he moved twice again, first to the Star-Leaf Food Paradise coffee shop next to Siglap Centre, and later to the Soy Eu Tua coffee shop in Jalan Tua Kong.
In 1995, he left the area to set up shop in Lengkong Tiga in Kembangan. Last April, he returned to his roots and his current location is along Upper East Coast Road. Business is brisk and he sells up to 400 bowls of mee pok a day, he says.
Despite having left the vicinity for a good 10 years, Mr Chan still boasts of being 'the first in the East Coast'.
'132 is still the original,' he insists in Mandarin when we paid him a visit last week. 'I was the one who initiated the other players into the business.'
As it turns out, 321's Mr Khoo is Mr Chan's brother-in-law. Mr Khoo is married to Madam Hia's sister.
Mr Khoo had a stall in Kembangan for a few years in the early 1990s, in the same spot Mr Chan moved to in 1995.
He says that when 132 was in Jalan Tua Kong, also some time in the early 1990s, he and Mr Chan ran the business together as partners.
The two joined forces briefly, but in a strange case of musical chairs, in 1996, Mr Khoo decided to set up his own stall at Star-Leaf Food Paradise after Mr Chan vacated it.
Not wanting to lose the customer base he had built up with Mr Chan, he named his stall 321 Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee.
When pressed about the separation, the hawker, who is polite and well-spoken, is hazy about details and cites the 'long hours'.
But Mr Khoo does admit that the two are 'not friends anymore'.
He also concedes: 'The ingredients in the mee pok are all the same, but over here my customers come back because of the service I provide them. I have known some customers for so long, I know what their orders are instantly.'
Still, he declines to reveal how many bowls he sells a day, saying 'business isn't as good as it was before'.
He adds, in a huff, that he is 'thinking of quitting' because of the heightened competition from hawkers in the area.
When asked about his brother-in-law later, Mr Chan admits - without further elaboration - that the two 'didn't get along well and had to separate'.
But it is not Mr Khoo whom he holds a big grudge against. It is Mr Lim. The latter set up Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim in Simpang Bedok after working with him for 10 years. Mr Chan and Mr Lim's father, who was also in the noodle business, were sworn brothers back in their youth.
So when Madam Hia fell ill and underwent an operation in the early 1990s, Mr Chan began grooming Mr Lim to run his stall, then at Jalan Tua Kong.
He then stopped work at the stall to care for his wife, and Mr Lim took over entirely. In exchange for using the 132 name, Mr Lim paid Mr Chan about $100 to $200 a week.
When Madam Hia recovered, Mr Chan resurrected his business in Kembangan, also under the name 132. Both stalls operated concurrently until Mr Lim stopped paying Mr Chan about two years ago and changed his stall name to Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim.
In December 2004, Mr Lim moved to Simpang Bedok. Much to Mr Chan's dismay, his former worker's business started going head to head with his stall.
Says Mr Chan: '$100 to $200 isn't a lot to pay for using my stall's name. Big stores like 7-Eleven or McDonald's would charge tens of thousands.'
Throughout the interview, he reminds you repeatedly: 'You have to say he was my worker, not my disciple'.'Asked if he would hire non-family members to help out in his stall again, he spits a vehement 'No'.
But Mr Lim, who also sells about 400 bowls a day, gives a different version of the story. He says he agreed to take over Mr Chan's stall and pay the weekly fees because the latter had said he was retiring from the business.
'Imagine how I felt when he set up a stall in Kembangan and began robbing me of my business,' says the jolly, rotund man.
Two years ago, he asked if he could buy over the business. But Mr Chan quoted an exorbitant price of $10,000, he says.
But when questioned about this later, Mr Chan says 'there was no such thing'. He says he offered to sell his business for $10,000 when Mr Lim first took over, but the latter turned it down.
He doesn't think he was wrong in entering the business again. 'We never agreed that I couldn't. And I didn't set up a stall in the East Coast area.'
That leaves the question of the Ah Lim Mee Pok You Mian Kway Teow Mee in Jalan Tua Kong, which replaced Mr Lim's old stall there.
When approached, its owners flatly declined to be interviewed but said they had 'no relation' to Mr Lim's stall. But Mr Lim believes the newcomer was recruited by the coffee shop owners to 'mimic my name and style of cooking'.
When asked if he approves of the mee pok there, he says he did 'not want to criticise'.
Complicated food soap opera aside, the more important question to the foodie-in-the-street must be: Which mee pok is the best?
Most popular by far are 132 and Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim. The other two have their following, but long-time mee pok fans are mostly divided about the quality of the former two.
Retiree Philip Chan, 62, eats at 132 almost every week but says Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim's noodles are 'too soggy'.
Human resource company director Desmond Soh, 61, prefers Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim's stall because 'the noodles have a certain crunchiness'. He has tried the other two stalls but says they 'can't match the standard of these two'.
Indeed, perhaps one person who hopes the food feuds will not detract from the quality of the food is Mr Chan's son, Choon Wing.
Set to take over the business once his father retires, the former sales manager says with a sigh: 'This is the squabble of a different generation.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to customers' tastes.'
This story was first published in the Straits Times on January 8, 2006.