Towgay towkay

The bean sprout is big business for one enterprising man who built his farm from scratch with just $120

Mr Chiam Joo Eng's beginnings as a bean sprout farmer were as humble as his produce.

He started working life as a labourer transporting newspapers and as a gardener with a landscaping firm. But he soon grew frustrated with the low wages.

In 1969, with capital of just $120, the plucky man with no formal education started growing bean sprouts (or towgay in Hokkien) for sale in his kampung in Hougang.

He worked tirelessly with some help from his brother and grew the business, moving from their Hougang farm to Lim Chu Kang in 1997.

Chiam Joo Seng Towgay Growers and Supplier was one of 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang affected by redevelopment plans made known to them in 2014.

But last Thursday, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said that tenures will be extended until the end of 2019.


The farm is a big part of my life. My wife and I went back to delivering towgay (Hokkien for bean sprout) in the night immediately after hosting our wedding banquet.

MR CHIAM, on depending on the farm for his livelihood.


I will be heartbroken if I have to give up this farm. I built this farm with my bare hands.

MR CHIAM JOO ENG, on redevelopment plans made known in 2014 to 62 farms in Lim Chu Kang, including his.

Mr Chiam, 72, said in Mandarin: "I will be heartbroken if I have to give up this farm. I built this farm with my bare hands.

"The farm is a big part of my life. My wife and I went back to delivering towgay in the night immediately after hosting our wedding banquet."

Mr Chiam has since handedover the daily running of the farm to his son, Mr Chiam Yu Feng, 40, and his nephew, Mr Thomas Tan, 47.

Challenges abound. Mr Tan, the farm director, said the business is much harder than one may think.

The former engineer, who joined the farm full-time in 2005, said the bean sprout market is saturated.

The rising cost of labour and the stagnant price of bean sprouts make for low profits.

Then, there is also the question of land leases. The AVA also said last Thursday that new agricultural land will be leased in 20-year blocks rather than the previous 10 years to give farmers investing in automation time to reap returns.

But Mr Tan thinks this may not be enough. He said: "It is not as easy as growing bean sprouts on cotton wool in plastic cups like you did in primary school.

"The lease may have been extended but any new technology will take a long time to yield returns.

"If we want to roll out new produce like alfalfa sprouts, the market will take some years to mature and see enough demand. By the time that happens, our lease would have expired again."

According to the AVA, there are six bean sprout farms in Singapore and they supply 70 per cent of the vegetable sold here.

The volume of bean sprouts from both local and imported sources was about 15,100 tonnes last year.

Mr Chiam's farm currently produces three to four tonnes of bean sprouts a day, and they go to local supermarkets and eateries.

The production process is straightforward but laborious. The mung beans are first rinsed and sorted because bad ones could spoil the whole batch.

Then, they are stored in plastic barrels in a warm and dark place, where they germinate, sprout and get harvested in about five days.

"One advantage of growing bean sprouts is that it's not dependent on sunlight.

"That's why I always tell others I'm doing a jian bu de guang de sheng yi," joked Mr Tan, using the Mandarin term for shady business.

Although it is a simple and common item, the bean sprout holds a special place in Mr Chiam's heart.

"I depended on the towgay for everything. I was able to raise my family because of it," he said

• The Kranji Countryside Farmers' Market will take place this weekend at 240, Neo Tiew Crescent. Mr Chiam will be selling his bean sprouts there.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline 'Towgay towkay'. Subscribe