Some owners of popular food stalls at the ageing Beauty World Food Centre have been contemplating putting their prized recipes up for sale.
That money-spinning idea comes just as a potential $17.5 million collective sale of the open-air food centre has stalled. The High Court ruled last Tuesday that it would not give its trustees the power to go ahead with the deal, which had faced opposition from a few stall owners.
The shabby food centre, which occupies the fourth floor of the strata-titled Beauty World Centre in Bukit Timah, houses 41 stalls, but the property's title is contained in a single strata certificate.
This means that all the stall owners must agree before the centre, built in the 1980s, can be sold.
While much remains up in the air, many stallholders, who are in their late 50s to early 70s, told The Sunday Times that they are hoping to turn their investment into cash. They are likely to retire in a few years' time and their children have no interest in taking over the trade.
Hawker Tan Lip Hong, 57, who owns Feng Ji Shu Shi Char Kway Teow, is among those hoping to find recipe buyers before he pulls down the shutters. Mr Tan has been frying his popular char kway teow in a cramped and hot corner stall, which draws a strong lunchtime crowd on weekdays, for more than 30 years. "If someone is interested and has a good proposal, I am willing to discuss," he said in Mandarin. "But it must be a reasonable price that everyone is satisfied with."
Mr Tan, who backed the collective sale, will continue to operate his stall for now.
LOOKING FOR THE RIGHT BUYER
The person must have the heart to do it well. If not, they will not be able to come up with the same dish, even if they have the money.
MADAM ANNIE CHEONG, of Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Noodle Rice stall, on who she would consider selling her recipe to. She has already turned down a few requests.
"We are uncertain what is going to happen next," he said. "If the stalls want to go ahead with the sale again, I will still go along."
Other operators of well-known stalls, such as Hong Wen Mutton Soup and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Noodle Rice, also do not mind selling their recipes.
These days, famous recipes can change hands for tidy sums, with firms and individuals paying thousands of dollars to learn the secrets from popular hawkers.
Madam Annie Cheong, who has been renting her Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Noodle Rice stall for seven years, has had a few parties interested in buying her recipe but she has not agreed to their requests.
"The person must have the heart to do it well," said the 66-year-old, whose corner stall boasts a queue of more than 10 people at any one point during lunchtime. "If not, they will not be able to come up with the same dish, even if they have the money."
Most stall owners were in favour of the collective sale as they stood to make about $400,000 to $500,000 each. While the stalls are privately owned, some are leased by hawkers.
One owner, who only wanted to be known as Mr Chung, said talks surrounding the sale have been around for the last two years.
"I am not young and am planning to retire," said the 70-year-old, who has been a hawker at the food centre for more than 30 years.
"Some stall owners are going with the flow because we don't want to think about it any more."
Like others, Mr Chung felt the sale price was too low: "It can be better. Who would say no to more money?"
Talks of a possible sale began in 2016, when a potential buyer expressed interest to acquire the centre for $17.5 million. The potential buyer paid an option fee of $175,000 to the stall owners, but seven people who owned six stalls between them rejected the money.
The trustees - Mr Lai Chong Lee, Mr Tan Kock Meng and Mr Tan Han Soong, who are also stall operators - believed they could override this objection and carry on with the deal.
But the transaction was put on hold until the court decided whether the trustees did in fact have the power to sell the centre.
The trustees asked the court to enable them to proceed, although the trust documents neither spell out nor imply that they have the power to sell the property.
However, the court said last Tuesday that the trustees had fallen short in their duty to obtain the best price for the stallholders. It noted that no valuation on the property was done before the sale was agreed, nor was there an open call for other interested buyers.
The ruling does not preclude the trustees from going back to court to ask for the power for another collective sale, their lawyer said.
One stall owner who opposed the sale said the price offered was below the market value. But she does not rule out agreeing to a sale, "if the price is attractive".
"We just want to continue making a living," she said, adding that her business has still seen a steady increase in customers over the past decade.
Despite looking like it is trapped in a time warp, the food centre, which can be hot and stuffy at times, draws a strong crowd at lunchtime of office workers, students, retirees and even tourists.
One hawker, who did not give his name, said that while there are a few dissenting voices, hawkers are still cordial and would greet one another. Some hawkers have known each other for more than 30 years.
He said it would be hard to say goodbye should the centre be eventually sold.
"Some regular customers used to bring their kids here. Now their kids bring their own children here," he said. "It holds a lot of good memories for many families."