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thesundaytimes April 22, 2012

Chicken rice war


Former Tian Tian chef now sells dish two stalls away from ex-employer
Kenneth Goh The man who has been cooking at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice for more than 20 years has set up his own place just two stalls away from his former employer at Maxwell Road Food Centre. Mr Wong Liang Tai, 53, opened Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice last month, four months after being fired by Tian Tians management. Other workers at the stall have taken over his cooking duties. A quarrel at the stall in October last year led to his dismissal. Mr Wong said much of the tension stemmed from his disagreement with the new management style after the owners daughter, Ms Loi Mui Yin, 39, started running the company in 2010. The business expanded, and today, Tian Tian has air-conditioned branches in Bedok and Joo Chiat. Mr Wong said: The shop started running more like a large company, based on rules and regulations, than a hawker stall, which used to be run by feelings. Instead of acknowledging my contributions as a chef there all these years, I was blamed for minor wrongdoings, like not managing my workers well. Speaking to The Sunday Times at Tian Tians Joo Chiat branch, Ms Loi said that the incident last year was the last straw. He often threatened and shouted at his co-workers over minor slip-ups, to the point where they felt unsafe at work, she said. She added that her family would receive calls from other hawkers in the centre, telling them that he was creating a ruckus. On her management style, Ms Loi, who worked as an accountant before going into the family business, said: I am no longer running a five-man hawker stall, but a company with over 30 employees. If I give preferential treatment to one employee, how will the others feel? She added that his monthly salary was $4,000 for one year before he was fired, and his daily working hours were cut down from 12 hours to 10. Mr Wongs elder sister was married to Tian Tians founder, the late Mr Foo Kok Heng. Mr Wong started working for Mr Foo at his stall in a Tampines coffee shop in the early 1980s. The shop relocated to Whampoa and then moved to Maxwell Road in 1986. Mr Foos younger sister, Madam Foo Kui Lian, 62, took over the stall with her husband, Mr Loi Chi Sam, 65, two years later. The stall is a favourite among Singaporeans and tourists, drawing long queues at lunchtime. American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain wrote about it in a story for the New York Times magazine in 2006, drawing even more customers to Tian Tian. During lunchtime last Thursday, there was a queue of about a dozen people in front of the stall, while there was no queue at Mr Wongs stall. He charges $2.50 for a plate of chicken rice. Prices at Tian Tian start at $3. Ms Loi said it was not logical to open another chicken rice stall in the food centre as it already has more than four. What is he trying to prove? Mr Wong said: My regular customers have been so used to coming here for chicken rice, so I want my shop to be in a location that is familiar to them. Asked about his relationship with his sister-in-law, Madam Foo, he said: She does her business, and I will just keep to mine. kengohsz@sph.com.sg

ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Mr Wong Liang Tai in front of his new stall, Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice, just two stalls away from his former employer Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Maxwell Road Food Centre. Mr Wong was fired after a quarrel at Tian Tian and he opened his new stall four months after his dismissal.

ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

ST FILE PHOTO

Customers queueing at Tian Tian at Maxwell Road Food Centre. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has written about the popular stall.

Ms Loi Mui Yin with her mother, Madam Foo Kui Lian, the sister of Tian Tians late founder Foo Kok Heng. Mr Wongs elder sister was married to Mr Foo.

Feeling unappreciated Instead of acknowledging my contributions... I was blamed for minor wrongdoings, like not managing my workers well.
Mr Wong Liang Tai, 53, who opened Ah Tai Hainanese Chicken Rice last month

Hard to work with He often threatened and shouted at his co-workers over minor slip-ups, to the point where they felt unsafe at work.
Ms Loi Mui Yin, 39, on Mr Wong. She started running the Tian Tian company in 2010.

PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES, KWAN WENG KIN

Thye Hong employee Pang Ching Neng (left) holding up a plate of fried Hokkien mee in its kitchen in Singapore, where Mr Genna Kojima (right) spent two months learning to fry the dish before opening the YacMan eatery in Tokyo (centre).

Serving up fried Hokkien mee in Harajuku


Kwan Weng Kin Japan Correspondent A cosy eatery located just off the tree-lined boulevard in Tokyos fashionable Harajuku district opened last week offering just one item on its menu: fried Hokkien noodles. Not just any old fried Hokkien noodles, but the popular version served up at 11 outlets in Singapore by Thye Hong, a family-run business. At YacMan, the name of the new eatery, the dish is simply called Hokkien Mee. Fried Hokkien noodles lurk in the menus of many restaurants in Japan that serve Singapore hawkerstyle dishes. But the new arrival is arguably the most authentic version, claiming to be indistinguishable in taste and appearance from the 6,000 portions Thye Hongs cooks whip up daily in Singapore. Thye Hong follows on the heels of other Singapore brands that have successfully established a culinary presence here, such as leading soya bean food and beverage chain Mr Bean, high-end tea salon and boutique TWG Tea, and kaya toast chain Yakun. What is surprising about YacMan is that Mr Genna Kojima, the man behind the wok, is a 30-yearold Japanese who had never been in the catering business until he decided last June that Thye Hongs fried noodles would go down well with the Japanese. I wanted to bring a new Asian venture to Japan. I tried several things, including a low-cost carrier, but failed. Then I hit upon Thye Hongs signature dish, he said. Mr Kojima met Thye Hong executives in Singapore and wrapped up the deal in a week, with Thye Hong owning half of the Japanese outfit. Mr Ben Tan, a partner at Thye Hong, said: We never dreamt of having a shop in Japan. But we were impressed by Mr Kojimas passion and interest... We decided we should consider Japan as it is a big market. If the Japanese accept our noodles, I think it will be a big achievement. But first, Mr Kojima had to learn how to fry a plate of noodles properly. He spent two months in Singapore wielding a wok under the watchful eyes of Thye Hong cooks. It takes only a few weeks to learn, if one is an experienced cook, said Mr Tan. But since Mr Kojima had never cooked before, he needed two months. Mr Kojima is definitely not your typical Japanese. While in university, he set up a firm to invest in foreign currencies. With the profits, he travelled to Myanmar, Indonesia and other Asian countries, and filed stories for magazines about little-known frontier communities. He made frequent stopovers in Singapore, where he had his first encounter with fried Hokkien noodles in 2005, although it was not until 2007 that he first tasted Thye Hongs version, at its Wisma Atria outlet. When I first tried the dish, it reminded me of what my grandmother used to cook for me. It was a taste that was not out of place in Japan, he said. It is no wonder that it tasted familiar to him. Fried Hokkien noodles have similar Fujian roots with Japans champon, a soup noodle dish first served in the late 19th century by a Chinese restaurant in the port city of Nagasaki, which once had a sizeable Fujian community. The choice of Harajuku to launch YacMan, despite the stiff rents, was deliberate. I feel its a good place to introduce something new, said Mr Kojima. The line between winner and loser is very clear-cut in Harajuku. If we win, we will go very far. Thye Hong, whose menu in Singapore includes oyster omelette, fried carrot cake and char kway teow, is already thinking ahead. We hope to set up at least five more outlets within two years, said Mr Tan, whose firms only other overseas outlet is in Kuala Lumpur. And if sales at YacMan are on target, it hopes to introduce fried carrot cake as well.

Clear-cut location I feel its a good place to introduce something new. The line between winner and loser is very clear-cut in Harajuku. If we win, we will go very far.
Mr Genna Kojima, on the choice of Harajuku to launch YacMan