It takes a brave man to open a tau huay shop right next to the famous Rochor Original Beancurd in Short Street.
But David Koh, 38, has no fear.
He is confident that his tau huay (beancurd custard with syrup) can stand up to Rochor’s, even though the latter is a household name known for its super-smooth beancurd texture.
After all, he is none other than the younger brother of Rochor’s shop owner, William Koh, 47.
David was also the one who had helped churn out the original Rochor tau huay for 23 years. He left the family business in 2002 to set up his own outlet, Beancurd City, in Jalan Besar.
Then last month, in a move that could spark off an ugly, head-to-head sibling slugfest, he opened his second outlet right next door to his brother’s in Short Street, off Selegie Road.
LifeStyle visited both shops last week and uncovered a sticky family saga that involved not just David and William, but also a third brother, Koon Meng, 61, who too had left the family business to set up his own shop.
We got wind of the story when we were forwarded an e-mail from Mr Joseph Tan, 40, founder of the voluntary group Crime Library, who is a friend of David’s. He sent it to a few journalists urging them to check out the new challenger in Short Street.
“I just wanted to support David because his tau huay is really good,” he told LifeStyle.
The Rochor legacy began in the 1960s when the three men’s parents started peddling tau huay from a pushcart in the Rochor and Beach Road areas.
Their eldest son, Koon Meng, helped them from the time he was 12, and the trio went on to improve the recipe through years of trial and error.
Their brand of silky smooth beancurd comes from watering down soya milk to the right thickness, and adding just the right amount of coagulant and sweet potato flour.
The second son, William, was an electrician and joined the family business in 1991. He was more responsible for serving customers than making tau huay.
The youngest son, David, joined the business after completing his national service, learning tau huay-making skills from Koon Meng.
The only daughter, Chay Luang, 44, is now helping David in his shop in Short Street.
After their father died in 1986, the stall operated out of shop units in Selegie Road and Middle Road in the early 1990s before it settled in Short Street in 1998.
Their tau huay, at 60 cents a bowl, was in such demand that they sold up to 50 pails of beancurd a day, with each pail weighing about 30kg.
Retiree Casey Heng, 65, a regular customer of more than 10 years, said: “They are one of the best in Singapore.”
David, a ruddy, somewhat shy man who speaks in calm, measured tones, said that despite their hard work, he and Koon Meng had no share in the business.
They were only given salaries of about $3,000 a month each by their mother, Madam Tan Kim Keow, now 78.
He claimed that she favoured William because she lived with him and his family, and split the company’s shares with him. In 2003, when she suffered a partial stroke, she gave her share to William’s wife, Madam Eng Ah Moi, now 46.
“I’d be satisfied if I was given a small share. But William said to us, ‘You can have some shares but only after I retire’,” recalled David in Mandarin.
“In fact, he said we are welcome to open a shop next to him and fight it out,” he revealed with slight bitterness.
Demoralised, he and Koon Meng left the business, though at different times, leaving William to eventually take over the making of the tau huay.
David set up Beancurd City in Jalan Besar in 2002, but had trouble drawing customers because of its poor location.
In April 2004, Koon Meng opened a shop called Rochor Beancurd House in Geylang Road. It has done well, and he recently opened a second outlet in Tanjong Katong Road.
David said he isn’t setting up a branch in Short Street as a vengeful challenge to William’s business.
“I just want to be at a place where people always go for tau huay,” he said.
He is on good terms with Koon Meng, crediting all his tau huay-making skills to him. But he is clearly unhappy with William’s wife, Madam Eng, and blames her for the breakdown of the brothers’ relationship.
“William listens to her too much. She controls everything. But my Mum likes her... She is very li hai,” said David. Li hai means “formidable” in Mandarin.
He hasn’t spoken to William for years, not even after he opened the shop in Short Street. “Even when we see each other at our shops, we don’t say anything,” he revealed.
But conflict has emerged in other ways. David claims that Madam Eng, who also sells fried glutinous rice and egg tarts at her shop, asked her suppliers not to sell those items to David.
“The suppliers told me that if they did, she would cancel half her orders,” he said. “I don’t want to put the suppliers in a difficult position, so I don’t sell those items. I just sell soon kueh.”
Soon kueh is steamed rice flour skin filled with turnip.
He pays $6,000 a month in rent for his ground-floor unit. William owns the entire two-floor shophouse next door, which he bought in 2001 for $1.2 million, said David.
Neither William nor his wife would be drawn into discussing the family tussle. They were not at the shop the few times LifeStyle tried contacting them.
When we got hold of William’s mobile phone number, Madam Eng answered our call and spoke on his behalf.
“We have nothing to say,” she said brusquely in Mandarin, when asked what she thought about her brother-in-law setting up shop next door. “People can do whatever they want to make themselves happy. We have no right to say anything.”
Meanwhile, Koon Meng refuses to take sides. On good terms with both his brothers, he said: “There’s no need for them to fight over customers. It’s fair competition so let the customer decide.”
So far, David’s shop has not threatened his established neighbour.
When LifeStyle dropped in late last Wednesday night, Rochor Original Beancurd had customers spilling out onto the sidewalks, while Beancurd City was virtually empty.
Customers, it seems, prefer a famous name that is tried and tested. Lawyer Marcus Oh, 27, a Rochor customer, was surprised to see a new tau huay stall next door.
“But it’s natural to stay with Rochor because I’ve been coming here for 20 years and I‘m comfortable with it.”
But here’s the thing that might turn the tide: Our taste test shows that David’s tau huay is actually better than the original shop’s.
Meanwhile, Madam Tan is unaware that two of her sons are now gearing up for a full-on beancurd war. She had a stroke last November and is now wheelchair-bound and unable to speak.
While David is confident that his tau huay will triumph eventually, he is sad that his relationship with William has turned this sour.
He said with a shake of his head: “After all, people have a chance to be brothers only once.”
This story was first published in the Straits Times on July 16, 2006.