Amidst the deluge of “trendy” foods and Western sweets such as Basque burnt cheesecakes, gelato and the like, traditional snacks like Nonya kueh are often forgotten, especially with younger folk.
Not for local kueh maker Kueh Ho Jiak, which gives these old-school snacks a fun modern spin with cute, colourful iterations and interesting flavours — think fresh durian, fresh cempedak, and chendol.
They aren’t just cute too — Kueh Ho Jiak’s confections are made healthier by using sweet potato dough and are free of preservatives and artificial colouring.
It’s helmed by Sandy Tan, 56, and her daughter Elizabeth Chan, 32, who started the business in 2010.
After the passing of her husband when Elizabeth was one, Sandy flew to Australia to work in a bid to provide for her daughter while the latter was cared for by her grandmother in Singapore. It wasn’t until the birth of Elizabeth’s daughter that Sandy returned for good.
Starting with a home-based business, Sandy’s delicious kueh became a hit through word-of-mouth. And it wasn’t long before Elizabeth, who then helped out while running her own curtain business, decided she had to make a choice.
A year later, she jumped on board to turn it into a full-fledged business and Kueh Ho Jiak was born.
The two shed the light on toeing the fine line of their relationship as mother and child while navigating the intricacies of running a business.
Why did you decide to work together? Is the whole family involved?
Elizabeth Chan (EC): Yes, the whole family is involved, even my daughter. Our business is also about female empowerment and both my mom and I have tough, dominant characters.
We’re also both single mothers – my dad passed away when I was a year old. The business is what brings our family together. We do things together, and we make plans together. There are arguments but at the end of the day, this is something that unites us
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What do you love about working with each other?
EC: We got to understand each other better. I helm the sales and business management aspect, but I have to understand what goes on in the kitchen (which is under my mum) as well, and vice versa.
Having lived apart for so many years, miscommunication happened and we had our fair share of thrashing things out.
But through it all, it’s actually built our relationship and we learnt how to work and communicate with each other. We learnt what each other boundaries are, what we don’t like, and how not to step on each other’s tail.
Sandy Tan (ST): To see Elizabeth working hard. She always gives her best in what she does.
And your least favourite part of working together?
ST: It’s when I have to listen and give in to her – she can be quite insistent when it comes to what she feels is good or right for the business.
EC: It’s a love-hate relationship, really. When there aren’t enough sales, I have to stress over finding more business. But when it picks up, it means my mum has to work more. It’s painful to see her working long hours. And of course, there are the disagreements.
Have there been disagreements when you tried to implement new ideas or concepts?
EC: My mom is pretty cool. She allows me to try new things – and even at the expense of the business losing money. But of course, the profits of the business is really important and that’s where I learnt.
At least I got to make mistakes when the business was still small and I was still young.
She gave me a chance to try out every proposal I made, and shared her thoughts. But for the most part, she gave me the green light even when she was worried.
In fact, the cute kueh designs that have made us stand out are done by Mum – she wanted younger people to get acquainted with and savour traditional kueh.
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Has going into business together changed your relationship or perception of each other?
EC: In the past, I never understood her much but she’s my Superwoman now. She’s never complained when she’s tired, is always positive and really loves us a lot. She’s really creative and adventurous too!
I really understand how tough it was for her to be a single parent, and how she gave selflessly to the family. I also appreciate how much she has given to the business.
ST: She changed a lot after we started Kueh Ho Jiak, and learnt to work and do things together as a family. She has gained a lot of wisdom.
Your advice for young entrepreneurs starting out in the business
ST: Young entrepreneurs must be hardworking and not be afraid of failure.
EC: Don’t let fear overcome you or stop you. Thinking about finance, it already stops you from moving forward. If it’s something you want, follow the flow.
You’ll find a way. It’s just how much you want it; you’ll fight for it. There’s definitely a way to go around it, and to get to where you want to be.
Kueh Ho Jiak is at #02-20 Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market, 6 Tanjong Pagar Plaza, Singapore 081006, and #02-149 Chinatown Complex Hawker Centre, 335 Smith Street, Singapore 050335.
Visit its website for more information or to order.
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This article was first published in The Singapore's Womens Weekly.