From The Straits Times Archives: What's your beef?

A file photo of Mr Anthony Tan. He and his brother Francis Tan both claimed they were the true successors of the famous Hock Lam Street beef kway teow.
A file photo of Mr Anthony Tan. He and his brother Francis Tan both claimed they were the true successors of the famous Hock Lam Street beef kway teow.PHOTO: ST FILE

Two Sundays ago, Anthony Tan flipped open the pages of LifeStyle and was dealt a crushing blow. In our Oct 5 special on Singapore's 50 Disappearing Foods, we listed the famous Hock Lam beef kway teow at Purvis Street as a heritage food stall.

When Anthony, 57, read that his youngest brother, Francis, was described as the third-generation hawker continuing a food legacy that was passed down from their father, he was distressed.

Since the age of 12, he had helped his father cook at their stall in Hock Lam Street, carrying on the culinary tradition to this day at his food stall in Far East Square. It is called Original Popular Hock Lam Street Beef Kway Teow.

But Francis, 51, a former export trader who entered the beef noodles business five years ago, seems to have swooped in and taken all the credit. His Purvis Street stall is called Hock Lam Street Popular Beef Kway Teow.

'My father couldn't sleep that night,' says Anthony's 28-year-old daughter, Tina, who wrote us an e-mail to set the record straight.

'My uncle Francis is definitely not the third generation of Hock Lam Street beef kway teow. My Dad has been in this business since he was 12,' wrote the investment banker.

When LifeStyle paid both brothers a visit, a family feud was found stewing in counter-accusations worthy of a TV soap opera.

The brothers have rival stalls that are both clearly successful, and both are laying claim to one thing - they are the true successors of the famous Hock Lam Street beef kway teow.

The heated sibling spat will be upped another notch soon. Tina says she is planning to file a lawsuit against Francis to stop using the Hock Lam name at his stall.

'We're planning to expand,' she says. 'If there are so many Hock Lams around, our customers wouldn't know which is the real one.'

Thrown into this family potboiler is a little-known, third offshoot of the Hock Lam legacy.

David Lim, 47, son of the founder's eldest daughter, is also selling beef kway teow in Marine Parade Central.

His father had learned how to make the dish from the founder for a few years, but had branched out to start his own stall in Empress Place in 1971.

Lim named his stall Empress Place Beef Kway Teow in honour of his father's version. 'I don't want to use the Hock Lam name, even though our noodles originated from there,' he says.

'There's so much jealousy there. I don't want to have anything to do with it. Let them fight it out.'

- How it all began - 

The Hock Lam story began in 1921 when founder Tan Chin Sia set up a beef kway teow stall in Hock Lam Street, near the former Capitol cinema.

A stern, whisky-loving immigrant from Guangdong province, he served a Teochew recipe that was passed down from his father, who was a food-seller in China.

Tan had seven sons and three daughters, of whom only Anthony was roped in to run the business full-time.

'My Dad wasn't good in school, so Granddad taught him how to cook, so at least he would have a career in the future,' recounts Tina.

When the founder died in 1982, Anthony carried on the business through several locations: Funan Centre; Singapore Swimming Club; and, in 1998, Purvis Street, in a partnership with Francis and three other friends.

Anthony was the chef, but left the venture after a year because 'they kept telling me I had to cut down on this ingredient or that ingredient', he says. 'I didn't like it. They were only thinking about profits, and it affected the quality of the food.'

In 2000, he set up his own stall at Far East Square, where he still wakes up at 6am to prepare the food - slicing the beef, making the soup and chilli sauce, and cooking for the customers.

Despite the stall's popularity, he does not own a car and lives in a four-room HDB flat in Upper Boon Keng Road. 'My Dad saves all his money for his children,' says Tina.

She and her elder sister, a 31-year-old accountant, went to university in Australia. Her brother, 19, is set to study chemical sciences at the National University of Singapore.

Anthony says when he and his brother parted ways at Purvis Street, Francis made a verbal agreement not to continue using the Hock Lam name.

Shaking his head, Anthony says: 'He think he got money, very ya-ya. I don't like to talk to him.'

Francis, on the other hand, has a different tale to tell LifeStyle.

He says he was the closest child to their father, having spent time chit-chatting with him every night after dinner for years, when his father would 'teach me all about the recipe and the cooking'.

Francis was in business before opening his food stall in 1998. He owned a garment manufacturing company for 15 years before turning to export trading for another 11 years.

Brash but eloquent, he has three children aged 32, 31 and 22. He drives a Mitsubishi with the words 'Beef Kway Teow King' etched on the licence plate.

Asked about Anthony's contribution to the family food business, he says: 'Anthony never helped lah, he only washed bowls and cleaned tables. He was only serving. Serving is not cooking.'

He claims Anthony left their joint venture after two months because he refused to make changes to his recipes. 'His tasting is not so good. Too salty,' Francis sniffs.

When told that Anthony insists that he had learned the skills from their father since he was 12, Francis retorts with a wave of a hand: 'Okay lah, let him say he learned lah. I don't want any conflicts. Let him win, I don't want to win.'

As for the news that his brother plans to sue him over the use of the Hock Lam name, he widens his eyes and says: 'Sue me lah, how can he sue me? The name is already registered. I'm going to call them and scold them.'

True enough, Anthony got a call from him that evening, scolding him and his daughter for getting the media involved.

'But I'm not surprised,' Tina says. 'This is not the first time he's treated my Dad like this. And it won't be the last time.'

This story was first published in the Straits Times on October 19, 2003 .