Fowl play turned serious

Fowl play turned serious

Rows of glistening poached and roast chickens hang from a display window in a shop unit facing Thomson Road, signalling that popular chicken rice shop Wee Nam Kee is open for business.

Walk inside the 2,800sqft airconditioned shop at United Square, and the aroma of piquant chilli sauce coupled with the fragrance of rice cooked in a rich chicken stock engulfs you.

The familiar smell of chicken rice at Wee Nam Kee, which has been serving diners since it was founded in 1987, is comforting and alluring.

The chain has stalls in Marina Square and I12 Katong, both of which opened two years ago, and in Gluttons Bay, which opened last November. The United Square outlet is the only full-fledged restaurant.

It is also a bastion for Singapore chicken rice overseas.

Not only has it had franchise outlets in Manila since 2011 - its eighth opened two months ago - it also recently showcased chicken rice at Denmark's annual gourmet event, Copenhagen Cooking. It also prepared hundreds of servings of the dish for overseas Singaporeans at Singapore Day in Sydney earlier this month.

Sitting at a table at the back of the United Square restaurant is a face familiar to many who have dined there.

It is the eatery's founder, Mr Wee Toon Ouut, 75, who is chatting animatedly with a couple of friends and long-time customers over afternoon teh and kopi.

Indeed, he can be found at the restaurant for several hours on most days, saying hello to diners and asking for feedback, a practice he has been doing for years.

These days, Mr Wee says he just "helps out", while his second son Liang Lian, 50, who joined the business in 2001, runs it and has been driving its local and overseas expansion in the last two years.

Wee Nam Kee's chicken rice is known for being one of the more popular family eateries in town.

Mrs Anna Low, 70, a housewife who lives in the Bukit Timah area, has been patronising the eatery for about 10 years.

She says: "I can always count on the chicken here to be smooth and succulent. The rice is fresh and not too hard or chewy. At other popular stalls, the breast meat is sometimes dry or overcooked."

Founder of street-food guide K.F. Seetoh, 50, who has seen first-hand how the shop prepares its chicken rice, can vouch that "everything is made from scratch and no shortcuts are taken", and the chefs "understand the craft very well".

Whereas many other tasty chicken rice stores may use ready-made mixes or oils, Wee Nam Kee, he says, does not. Pandan leaves, ingredients and herbs are infused into the oil until they are browned. And it is this oil, Mr Seetoh says, which is then added to the rice, together with stock made from boiling chickens.

"Few understand their craft as well as Wee Nam Kee and what it serves is delicious," he adds.

The chicken rice here is also healthier than most because it uses a mixture of onion oil, ginger and garlic combined with chicken stock, instead of chicken fat. To ensure the meat is of the perfect texture, the shop uses only chickens that weigh between 2 and 2.2kg.

Its chicken remains tender because of the thin layer of fat under the skin that keeps the meat juicy and moist.

The family restaurant, which also serves dishes that include pork chop and cereal prawns, relocated its flagship restaurant to United Square in July. It had previously been located further up the road, at the now-demolished condominium and shop development Novena Ville, opposite Church of St Alphonsus, better known as Novena Church. The old shop was just 1,600sq ft and not air-conditioned.

"You know, it is a crime to come to my restaurant and not eat," says Mr Wee with an earnest smile when you decline an offer of a meal, even though it is 3pm and well past lunchtime.

"I will get you some barley water. Or would you like chrysanthemum tea?" The sprightly gentleman, dressed smartly in a pale pink shirt and a black waistcoat, excuses himself briefly to ask for the drinks, meanwhile, stopping to exchange greetings with a diner. His tales are speckled with his views on business and the world, and stories about his personal life.

Years before he became a restaurateur, he had worked first as a trainee account executive and later a production manager in an advertising agency. Advertising was a fairly new industry when he started working in the late 1950s, he says. But the "ang moh" company that he worked for was willing to put him through a night-school advertising diploma.

Then, in the mid- to late-1960s, he saw opportunity in the printing business, having been exposed to it at the agency, and formed a printing partnership, subsequently going solo in 1973.

He entered the chicken rice business by chance. A friend who owned a chicken rice stall "was in trouble" and had to "get away from the business". Mr Wee spent $100,000 to take over it, and changed the chicken rice shop's name to Wee Nam Kee because he wanted it to include his surname.

Ask him the shop's previous name, and he will say only that it was "something Nam Kee". He says: "I had to change the name because if I didn't, I would have become responsible for the old debts." The friend has since left the country.

Mr Wee says: "I took the restaurant on as a hobby. I saw it as a 'play-play' kind of restaurant. I thought I could sell it later and had no intention of carrying on the business."

At the time, he was running Harper Press, a successful printing business whose clients included airlines and banks. He was very involved in the industry and served as president of the Master Printers' Association in the late 1970s.

Mr Wee pretty much left Wee Nam Kee to run on its own for a few years and did not pay much attention to it.

But business, he says, was quiet. It was only busy at weekends when church-goers from across the road would dine at his eatery after service.

Back then, the chicken rice shop was among several other eateries located in a row of shophouses opposite Novena Church, in front of a dilapidated bungalow off Chancery Lane. The area was barely populated and there were no condominium developments there, Mr Wee recalls.

"I lost a little bit of money, but not much, so I thought I might as well bring my own customers there.

"Then I started to get interested in it."

The recipe for chicken rice, says the Hainanese boss, is no secret to anyone who can cook.

After all, his late mother, a housewife, used to make it from scratch at their family's kampung home in Paya Lebar when he was growing up.

His late father, who was a chief chef on a steamship, had also exposed Mr Wee to good food, from steaks to cakes, whenever the seafaring chef was ashore.

Mr Wee, who attended Playfair Primary and Siglap Secondary School, has a sister who is 85 years old.

On becoming more involved in the chicken rice business, he says: "If I told you that I didn't aim to make money, I'd be a liar. I wanted to make money, but I wanted to make sure that people who spent their money here would leave feeling happy. I became very serious about service and quality, and put my heart and soul into the business."

He could focus on it because by the 1990s, he had sold his printing business.

He decided to turn the chicken rice shop into a family-style restaurant, and started to recruit chefs so that he could introduce new dishes, in the hope that it would attract more people.

If told in advance, the restaurant could even prepare live seafood, from fish to frogs, sometimes selected, by Mr Wee.

He says: "Those days, I had to show the staff how serious I was about the business."

He thought it imperative to lead by example. For instance, when there were leftovers or almost untouched dishes at dinner tables, he would take them back into the kitchen. There, he and the chefs would try the food to evaluate what went wrong: Maybe it was not tasty or was not to the customers' liking. Perhaps, the customers ordered one too many dishes.

He cleared tables, too, which he still does today. "I was passionate. It wasn't that I wanted to prove that I was, but I just enjoy serving people. I do it because I like it."

Before long, Wee Nam Kee's reputation for quality food and service started to spread by word of mouth. No advertising, other than the yellow and red sign above the restaurant, was needed.

It seemed then, in the mid-1990s, that Wee Nam Kee had everything, from the food to the service, down pat. Business was good and became profitable. That aside, Mr Wee says he is all for constant improvement.

He says: "There is always room for improvement. If there are no changes, there will be no improvement."

He saw a future in the business given its popularity and thought it would be nice if Wee Nam Kee could remain in the family. So he asked his second son Liang Lian if he would be keen on learning the ropes and taking over.

First son, Liang Chee, 51, is the president of Northeast Iowa Community College in the United States.

Mr Wee has two grandchildren, aged 20 and 14, from Liang Lian. Liang Chee is not married.

Liang Lian has a degree in printing and packaging from a university in the United Kingdom, and had worked at Harper Press and then another printing firm.

He recalls: "My father told me that the business would eventually be mine if I was keen. I had seen my father's passion.

"Now that I am part of the business, my interests are not about taking over, but I see our role as a steward to keep tradition and Singapore chicken rice alive."

His father says: "I told my son that if he wanted to be a chicken rice towkay, he needed to know how to chop, cook chicken rice, char siew and so on. I don't know how to do it, but he will be the boss in a different era - staff may just walk away."

Liang Lian spent a couple of years learning the ins and outs of the kitchen and says it was "part and parcel" of running a business. He says: "My father is very sociable and enjoys talking to customers, so he still comes to the restaurant, even though he doesn't need to."

These days, loyal customers refer to Liang Lian as Junior Wee and his father as Senior Wee.

Senior Wee's wife, Madam Sim Suy Gek, who suffered from dementia, died last year from pneumonia at the age of 72.

"I was a wreck," says Mr Wee, who lives in an HDB flat in Sengkang and drives a Mercedes-Benz. He has a Filipino nurse who looks after him.

He suffers from liver cirrhosis, a result of "too much brandy" from having to entertain clients in his advertising days and while he was a printer.

He and his wife were childhood friends from the same kampung and used to play badminton together. They tied the knot when he was 24 and she was 22. They were married for 50 years.

His liver condition has not stopped him from playing badminton at least twice a week with other seniors from the Harper Valley Badminton Party, which he founded decades ago. It has more than 40 members. He had served as the national team manager and vice-president of the Singapore Badminton Association in the 1980s and 1990s, alongside then association president and former president of Singapore, the late Ong Teng Cheong.

Good friend, Mr H.K. Keong, 78, a semi-retired Chinese-Vietnamese businessman who runs a steel company, says: "He is always the life of the party, happy and smiling most of the time."

The fellow badminton player adds: "We have been friends for 40 years. He is open and never gets angry, and is always ready with a listening ear."

On working with his father, Liang Lian says: "When you have a father who is very passionate about the business, he will tell you off even when you don't want to hear it, but he will always give you the benefit of the doubt. He is also always ready to offer a helping hand when you need it."

At the restaurant, the cheeky Senior Wee places his index finger on his dimple as he hams it up for the camera: "I have suddenly become a model."

"Shuai bu shuai?" He says with a chuckle in Mandarin, asking if he is handsome.

"Maybe I can have a fourth career. I'm still young."

rltan@sph.com.sg


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