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Kim Choo bak chang war

Two rice dumpling shop owners in Katong are in the midst of a spat over their name. -TNP
Audrey Kang

Thu, Jun 13, 2013
The New Paper

One shop, Kim Choo, said on its Facebook page that customers have been sending mail complaining about the quality of its bak chang, or rice dumplings.

But these dumplings, packaged under the Joo Chiat Kim Choo brand, are not made by Kim Choo, said Mr Edmond Wong, assistant director of the shop, which applied for a trademark in 2000.

Mr Wong said in several e-mails to customers that these dumplings are produced and sold by Joo Chiat Kim Choo, a company that registered the name as a trademark in 2006.

For years, both companies have been aware of this and relatively tolerant of each other's existence.

Until the past year.

Kim Choo posted on its Facebook page on June 14 last year: "The business name 'Joo Chiat Kim Choo' or 'Joo Chiat Kim Choo Traditional Rice Dumpling' is not part of our establishment. Their dumplings are not produced or catered for by us."

On his Facebook page last month, Mr Wong said: "At the end of the day, please do take note that their dumplings are not produced by us!"

Kim Choo has engaged lawyer Samuel Seow to advise them on this issue.

Joo Chiat Kim Choo has also employed a lawyer, and said it is waiting for the other company to make a move.

Kim Choo was founded by Madam Lee Kim Choo in 1945.

The now 83-year-old matriarch learnt to make rice dumplings from her grandmother, and sold them on the street.

The fourth of eight children, she had wanted only to survive when she started the business.

With four children to feed and a gambling addict for a husband, she needed to make ends meet.

So she borrowed money from a loan shark to set up a stall at the junction of Joo Chiat Place and Everitt Road.

And the business has been kept within the family since then.

When The New Paper tried to talk to Madam Lee, Mr Wong said she was unwell and unable to comment on the issue.

Bought From Uncle

Mr Johnson Oh, 53, managing director of U-Market Place Enterprise, which produces the Joo Chiat Kim Choo dumplings, said he bought the business over from Mr Wong's uncle.

"I bought the business over from the younger brother in 2006," he said.

The business, which he said has been in operation at 34, Joo Chiat Place for at least a decade before he bought it, was named Joo Chiat Kim Choo.

He said he then trademarked the name, as he wanted to protect the company's interest.

"What's the point of me changing the name of the business, when the name is already famous before I bought it?" Mr Oh said.

Mr Oh declined to name the brother whom he bought the business from.

The alleged brother then worked for him for two years, aiding and advising them on production.

After things took off, the alleged brother resigned. They have not been in contact since then.

But when TNP contacted Mr Wong, he said his only uncle is a taxi driver, and that business has always been in the hands of his parents.

His uncle was never involved in the business, Mr Wong said.

We were unable to contact this uncle.

When asked about the complaints over the quality, Mr Oh said: "The customers can buy the dumplings and taste the dumplings (both Joo Chiat Kim Choo and Kim Choo's) themselves and make a decision."

A spokesman for NTUC Fairprice, which carries the Joo Chiat Kim Choo dumplings, said: "As a responsible retailer, FairPrice seeks to ensure that the products we offer do not infringe trademark laws.

"All our buyers have a code of conduct to ensure suppliers they work with comply with the law and do not misrepresent the products. These suppliers are also reviewed regularly to ensure compliance. If products are found to have infringed trademark laws, we will take action accordingly and this could include stopping the sale of the product."

What lawyers say

It is highly unusual for the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (Ipos) to allow two "confusingly similar" names to be trademarked, said Mr Cyril Chua, a lawyer from ATMD Bird & Bird.

Mr Chua said it is extremely rare for Ipos to let two conflicting trademarks exist, and the trademark which was applied for later will normally be subjected to opposition from the original company.

If the trademark is not met with any objection, then the company will be able to obtain rights to the name, Mr Chua said.

Mr Benjamin Ang, a law lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, said: "It's not normally possible, unless the words are very common.

"But if it was common, Kim Choo wouldn't be able to apply for a trademark in the first place."

He said though both trademarks have something in common, the key thing is the possibility of consumers getting confused.

If there is enough differentiation to avoid confusion, then it is possible for both to apply for trademark.

About Kim Choo

The Australian Herald Sun included Kim Choo in their list of the world's best airport food, while Reuters named them as one of the best restaurants in Changi Airport.

Madam Lee has reigned over operations since the beginning, selling her dumplings on a street before progressing to a small coffee shop stall in Joo Chiat in the 1970s, naming it Kim Choo Kueh Chang.

In the late 1990s, she handed the business to eldest son Wong Sin Min, and daughter- in-law Helen Lim, who expanded the business by buying up more shophouses in East Coast Road and opening spin-offs such as Peranakan restaurant Kim Choo's Kitchen, dumpling and nonya kueh shop Kim Choo Kueh Chang, and fashion boutique-cum-gallery Rumah Kim Choo.

The husband and wife team took care of business until their son, Mr Edmond Wong, returned from the United Kingdom in 2009.

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