The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants Awards

Owner of Singapore's oldest restaurant, Spring Court, talks about how she overcame the odds

Clockwise from far left: Owner and managing director of Spring Court Soon Puay Keow, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award; Summer Pavilion's Chinese executive chef Cheung Siu Kong, who is Chef of the Year; and Peach Blossoms' executive Chinese ch
Owner and managing director of Spring Court Soon Puay Keow, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award.PHOTO: HEDY KHOO, THE RITZ-CARLTON, MILLENIA SINGAPORE, MARINA MANDARIN SINGAPORE
Clockwise from far left: Owner and managing director of Spring Court Soon Puay Keow, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award; Summer Pavilion's Chinese executive chef Cheung Siu Kong, who is Chef of the Year; and Peach Blossoms' executive Chinese ch
Summer Pavilion's Chinese executive chef Cheung Siu Kong, who is Chef of the Year.PHOTO: HEDY KHOO, THE RITZ-CARLTON, MILLENIA SINGAPORE, MARINA MANDARIN SINGAPORE
Clockwise from far left: Owner and managing director of Spring Court Soon Puay Keow, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award; Summer Pavilion's Chinese executive chef Cheung Siu Kong, who is Chef of the Year; and Peach Blossoms' executive Chinese ch
Peach Blossoms' executive Chinese chef Edward Chong, who is Rising Chef of the Year.PHOTO: HEDY KHOO, THE RITZ-CARLTON, MILLENIA SINGAPORE, MARINA MANDARIN SINGAPORE

Madam Soon Puay Keow, 76, is one of three personality award winners

Her father-in-law founded Wing Choon Yuen, as Singapore's oldest restaurant Spring Court was formerly called, but Madam Soon Puay Keow did not have the business handed to her on a silver platter.

She started running the restaurant with her then husband in 1978 and officially took over in 1997, the year after she and her husband divorced.

Friends and family - as well as her accountant - advised her against taking over the restaurant, which was then in the red.

"There was no one to guide me... I couldn't confide in my friends and relatives," Madam Soon, 76, told The Straits Times.

Tears welled up in her eyes when she recalled how shortly after she took over the business, it was hit by the Asian financial crisis.

In 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome hit Singapore, affecting the restaurant's business.

Through the rocky times, Madam Soon did not retrench any staff, but cut costs by asking them to work fewer days, among other measures.

"It was the dedication of our staff, the support of our customers and my children which helped me weather the tough times and get to this point," said Madam Soon, who has three children and eight grandchildren.

Spring Court, which was founded in 1929 at the now-defunct Great World Amusement Park, is still around today in Upper Cross Street and recognised for its heritage.

Madam Soon, who is its owner and managing director, said: "Life is about overcoming obstacles so that we can grow up. I told myself to not be afraid and do my best."

For her decades of hard work in rebuilding the business and transforming it into an icon of Singaporean Chinese cuisine, Madam Soon is this year's winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award in The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants Awards.

It is one of three personality awards, in addition to restaurants ranked in the bronze, silver and gold categories, in the third edition of the awards, which celebrates the best in Asian dining in Singapore.

Madam Soon said: "As a homegrown business, we are on a mission to promote Singaporean Chinese cuisine. I want our restaurant to keep the local food tradition alive and, when foreign visitors taste our food, they can spread the word about Singaporean cuisine back in their home countries."

The other two personality award winners are Cantonese restaurant Summer Pavilion's Chinese executive chef Cheung Siu Kong, who is Chef of the Year, and Peach Blossoms' executive Chinese chef Edward Chong, who is Rising Chef of the Year.

Hong Kong-born chef Cheung, 49, credited his colleagues and the restaurant's strong culture of teamwork for his win.

Cheung, who joined the restaurant in 2003 as an assistant chef, said: "Winning any award is a vote of confidence from guests and industry peers.

"It motivates my team and me to continually focus on ensuring that we deliver the tastiest dishes and the best dining experience to our guests."

Summer Pavilion, which is at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore, won a silver award in the Best Asian Restaurants Awards 2017 and a gold award last year.

Chong, 36, of Marina Mandarin Singapore's Peach Blossoms, is known for putting modern touches to Cantonese cuisine.

He said: "In the kitchen, the hours can be long and the work punishing. One requires mental strength to tide over fatigue and setbacks, as well as be bold enough to take chances and try new things."

The Best Asian Restaurants Awards is part of a year-long gourmet festival, Asian Masters, which runs till Feb 29 next year and includes dining and cocktail promotions. Main dining events are held until April 3.

Thirty-three bronze winners were announced last Saturday. The silver and gold recipients will be announced at the invite-only The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants Awards at Grand Hyatt Singapore on April 1.

The judges are Straits Times' food editor Tan Hsueh Yun, senior food correspondent Wong Ah Yoke and food correspondent Eunice Quek, as well as Lianhe Zaobao correspondents Ng Yimin, Ng Chin Chin and Esther Yiu.

The seventh edition of the annual Asian Masters, presented by Citibank Singapore, is jointly organised by Sphere Exhibits, a wholly owned subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings, and food-and-beverage consultancy firm Poulose Associates.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2019, with the headline 'Spring Court owner honoured'. Print Edition | Subscribe