Founder of famed Hokkien restaurant dies at 91

He came to Singapore from China in 1939, alone, with nothing.

And here, he suffered through periods of hunger and homelessness.

After struggling for six years, he opened a food shop so he would not go hungry and would have a place to live in. That shop later became the famous Beng Thin Hoon Kee Hokkien restaurant on Chulia Street.

Its founder, Mr Lim Yew Hoon, eventually made enough to send seven of his nine children overseas for studies.

Mr Lim, from Quanzhou in Fujian province, died of pneumonia on Sunday, at the age of 91.

The youngest of his five sons, Mr Albert Lim, 49, said that in the early days, his father was the only one working at the Hokkien Street restaurant.

He was cook, waiter, cleaner, all in one.

And he was so poor he could not afford to keep food supplies.

"He would take orders and run to the nearest market to buy whatever they ordered. If someone ordered a fish, he would go to buy fish.

"He couldn't buy a whole sack of rice and could only buy it in a can."

He would start the day with one can of rice - enough to feed five or six people -buying more as the day progressed.

"The day he felt successful was when he could start buying things in sacks; buy chicken and keep it in a fridge," he said.

The shop did not have tables and chairs. Instead, wooden cartons were used. And the senior Mr Lim would sleep there.

"Everyone in the family knows his story. I think by telling us, he was trying to say that no matter what you're doing, if you work hard you get something out of it," said Mr Lim.

Madam Lim Lay Bee, his second daughter and third child, recalled that they hardly saw their father when the business was still at Hokkien Street.

Starting out as a single shophouse unit, it expanded to two units and moved to its present location in 1979.

Her father would wake up early, before everyone else, and head for the market, said Madam Lim, who is in her 50s.

"He'd be back late, but being kids, sometimes we'd be later. He would still sit up and wait for us to come home."

Mr Lim retired in 1987, but cooking continued to be his passion.

"He loved his food. I could tell because he would prepare it himself including getting the ingredients."

Bicker

His wife, Madam Wong Poh Chan, 84, is a good cook too, and the couple could not be in the kitchen at the same time.

"He's Hokkien, she's Cantonese. They'd argue over what to do with the ingredients and which steps should come first," said Madam Lim.

Growing up, their home had at least two commercial fridges, with another fridge to keep drinks, she recalled.

Their backyard stored much of the restaurant's supplies, which Mr Lim occasionally dipped into - preparing shark's fin for the family if he was free, for example.

"We learnt that if we have guests over, and they clean their plates, it means we didn't prepare enough food - never mind if we had leftovers," she said.

Even after his children married and moved out, the restaurant founder continued to shower them with food.

Said Mr Lim: "Once you told him what you wanted to eat, he would give it to you immediately."

For example, when told of a craving for nasi lemak from a particular stall, his father visited the stall, queued and bought 200 packets. "The same with char siew paus. He would buy a hundred!"

Food was the means by which their father provided for the family. Seven of his children graduated from US universities - two are architects and one started ice cream parlour Island Creamery.

But the last thing he wanted was for them to be in the food business. "He'd say, 'It's a hard life, long hours. You have a family and it's important to look after your family'," said Madam Lim, who with three siblings, helps out at the restaurant.

Said Mr Lim: "It's like he was the farmer and we (the family) got all the fruits."

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