In this series of light-hearted interviews, BiTES celebrates homegrown food companies headed by their next generation of family members. We get a glimpse of the stories behind the brands and the personalities in the boss’ seat.
How is grandfather like?
Ye ye passed away when I was very young. He came from China and lived a relatively simple life. I don’t have a strong impression of him, except that he loved selling his kok kok noodles.
What made you decide to expand Wah Kee?
Dad is not getting any younger. Despite his age, he is still pouring his heart and soul into the business to serve his diehard fans; it’s not just for money. As his son, I don’t want to see his legacy disappear. I was very fortunate to meet one of my partners, Andrew Tan, who is a veteran F&B player in Singapore. He broadened my vision of the expansion and found me this space at Esplanade.
When did you first start working at Wah Kee?
At five. My first lesson was how to boil and peel the prawns fast. In the olden days, we did not have fridge or coolers. We just used normal tap water to keep the prawns cool, so the speed in which to peel the prawns was very crucial.
Was continuing Wah Kee always part of your ambition?
No. Dad always wanted me to do my own thing and was reluctant for me to take up the business. He clocks in 16 hours daily and didn’t want me to live the hawker life. But as I grew older, I saw the potential in Wah Kee. I actually have other businesses handling cars—Elite Auto Salon and Italia Motor.
What’s next for the business?
We are in the works of opening up another store in Singapore as well as bringing Wah Kee overseas. But before I do all this, I must make sure that the taste of the broth and noodles stay consistent throughout.
How do you feel about today’s hawker scene?
I feel sad that the youth of today have no desire to continue their family’s hawker businesses—a lot of good food will be lost. But I guess it’s understandable as being a hawker is very difficult, what with the irregular hours and lack of annual leave. In 10 years’ time, food served in hawker centres will no longer be authentic local food. We will see more and more `bistros’ opening up at our hawker centres.
What kind of food did you grow up eating?
I’m Cantonese, and my mom makes the best soups. I also really enjoy hawker food. When you go to places like Europe, you can’t get such local dishes. My favourite hawker dishes are carrot cake, char kway teow and orh jian. They are simple yet delicious.
How do you unwind?
Watching TV on the internet, especially Hong Kong dramas.
What is your greatest strength?
I will take it in my stride to master a skill when I want to accomplish something. For example, I spent hours learning how to make the broth. Everything must be pre-measured and follow a strict standard operating procedure. Even the timing (of brewing the broth) must be precise. In fact, I also went to source for my own mee kia—it’s different from the Pei Kio branch and is of higher quality, using more egg than flour.
Valentine’s Day is coming up. Where will you be celebrating with your wife?
I will be working. If I have time, I will get a small gift for my wife. To me, every day is Valentine’s Day anyway (laughs).
The Brief Story of Wah Kee Prawn Noodles
Lau Fook Wah helped his father Lau Cheong Lam sell kok kok mee at Starlight Road since nine years old. They would push the cart from Starlight Road all the way to Bendemeer Road, where the old Kickapoo soft drink factor was, to peddle for business. Prices started from $0.20 for the traditional normal prawn noodle featuring a pork bone base soup.
Wah Kee relocated to Owen Road. Prices rose and ranged from $0.70 to $1.50.
Moved to Farrer Park Food Centre. Fook Wah started to use big prawns instead of the normal size prawns to stand out from his competitors. He also improvised the soup base by using only seafood instead. During this period, he removed all the pork dishes off the menu.
Wah Kee Prawn Noodles relocated again to Pek Kio Food Centre.
Third generation Kevin Lau brings Wah Kee to Esplanade and continues the legacy. His dad, Fook Wah, serves as an advisor to Wah Kee @ Esplanade and continues to run his stall at Pek Kio.