LIVING HISTORY

Meaty profits

(From left) Madam Betty Kong and her husband Ha Wai Kay, who built up Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint, with Aztech Group chairman Michael Mun, who bought it for $4 million, and his eldest son Jeremy Mun.
(From left) Madam Betty Kong and her husband Ha Wai Kay, who built up Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint, with Aztech Group chairman Michael Mun, who bought it for $4 million, and his eldest son Jeremy Mun.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

LIFE & TIMES: HAWKERS

The moon-faced hawker, a tourist attraction in his own right, was often seen in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz although he told ST it was his father's car. Fatty's restaurant was eventually relocated to Bencoolen Street and although he died in 2000, it continues to draw crowds.

The transformation of Singapore's street food culturehappened quietly in the mid-1970s, as hawker centres with modern amenities arose. The Government doggedly pursued the hawkers, coaxing them to move in, educating them and holding them to higher standards of hygiene. Newspaper coverage focused mainly on the benefits of this uniquely Singaporean attraction: the availability of affordable local fare in clean surroundings.

The first hawker centre built by the Government in post-independent Singapore was Yung Sheng Road Hawker Centre, now called the Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre. At its opening in July 1972, Health Minister Chua Sian Chin spoke of the role hawkers had played in keeping the cost of living down, which was among the reasons millions of dollars were spent in setting up hawker centres.

By 1986, all the hawkers had been resettled. At last, the Singapore hawker had a roof over his head, with all the facilities - water, electricity, gas, waste disposal, ventilation, freezer and wash areas - that made for a safe and pleasant dining experience.

Recently, some university graduates made news when they swopped their briefcases for frying pans to become hawkerpreneurs. At the same time, many famous hawkers, now in their 70s, are giving up as their children show no interest in taking over the business.

The rating of the hawker stalls for cleanliness and food handling, from A to D, offered an assurance that the era of suspect hawker hygiene, associated with typhoid and cholera outbreaks, had passed.

For more than 20 years after that, no hawker centres were built. Residents of new HDB estates especially longed for these eating places which offer good food at affordable prices. People also mourned that the nation's food heritage was on the wane amid growing recognition that the hawker was a uniquely Singaporean institution worth preserving. In October 2011, the Government announced that 10 hawker centres would be built in new towns such as Pasir Ris, Jurong and Punggol. And in March this year, plans were announced for 10 more hawker centres by 2027 to make affordable hawker fare more widely available.

Recently, some university graduates made news when they swopped their briefcases for frying pans to become hawkerpreneurs.

At the same time, many famous hawkers, now in their 70s, are giving up as their children show no interest in taking over the business.

Some, however, are quitting with a tidy profit while keeping Singapore's food heritage alive.

Madam Betty Kong, 68, and her husband Ha Wai Kay, 64, made headlines in 2012 when they put up their 30-year-old hawker business for sale, at an eye-popping $3.5 million. Of the asking price, $2 million alone was for their secret Guangzhou-style barbecue recipe.

The couple had hoped their 32-year-old son would take over but he chose to stay on in Australia after his studies. Last year, their Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint, in an old shophouse in Upper Paya Lebar Road, was sold for $4 million to Aztech Group.

The conglomerate made it a franchise and opened several outlets. Madam Kong said she and her husband would work with the new owners to ensure the signature Kay Lee style survives.

"We wanted the name to continue successfully and we will support them. When I'm 90 years old, Kay Lee will still be here," she told The Straits Times on Oct 21 last year. In other words, the hawker has not left the building. • ST

LIFE & TIMES: OUR CITY continued...


2008

RAZORTV

RazorTV, The Straits Times' online video news channel, is launched.

My Paper is relaunched as the first bilingual newspaper in Singapore.

The Straits Times is revamped to feature a new masthead and a layout that incorporates some elements from the original 1845 design, reflecting the rich heritage of the paper.

2009

ON SMARTPHONES

The Straits Times' iPhone application is launched.

The Straits Times' Twitter account, @STCom, is started.

2011

PRINT-PLUS-DIGITAL

The Straits Times' print-plus-digital pricing strategy is launched, reflecting a growing focus on multi-platform media and the need to boost digital circulation, given the worldwide decline in print readership.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Meaty profits'. Print Edition | Subscribe