Lim Chee Guan: The Bak Kwa Specialist.
The story of Singapore bak kwa specialist Lim Chee Guan goes back 80 years.
For the Chinese, the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year are a flurry of activity, housewives would busy themselves with spring-cleaning and filling their homes with an abundance of auspicious foods and ornaments. Wherever possible, only the best must be purchased, which might explain the snaking queue that always form along 203, New Bridge Road in Chinatown. This is the headquarters of Bak Kwa retailer Lim Chee Guan.
Widely regarded as one of the best quality Bak Kwa in town, the store sees a massive hike in sales in the run-up to the festivities. Those in line often wait up to forty-five minutes to buy their precious package of Bak Kwa – sweet, sticky and tender slices of pork jerky grilled to smoky, charred perfection.
Bak Kwa is essentially thin marinated slices of meat [usually pork] cooked over a hot charcoal grill, Lim Chee Guan also sells lap cheong, also known as Chinese sausage.
The Lim family, led by second-generation owner Mr Rod Lim
Lim Chee Guan was started by Xiamen native Lim Kay Eng, who came to Singapore in the late 1920s as a teenager. Kay Eng’s parents had hopes that he would study hard and become a doctor in China, but studying was what Kay Eng dreaded most. So he packed his bags and came to the new land as a penniless lad. Whether or not his parents approved was unclear. “This was essentially what he told me about his coming here,” says his son and second-generation owner of Lim Chee Guan, sixty-year-old Rod Lim.
Kay Eng did whatever work he could find. He held stints as a provision shop assistant, a plantation helper and a coffee shop assistant, and eventually saved enough money to start his own little stall selling titbits and – having learnt the art of preserving meats from his mother and grandmother in China – bak kwa. His first shop was located at the foot of a nondescript staircase along Chin Chiew Street before Kay Eng upgraded to a better venue in a coffee shop corner along New Bridge Road.
In the early days, Kay Eng prepared his meat by cutting thin slices off a slab of pork with a long, sharp knife. The slices were marinated in a mixture of sugar, fish sauce and other ingredients and then spread over a sieve to dry. “In those days, my father only barbecued the meat when a customer came to order it. People were willing to wait.”
Rod recalls simpler times in old Chinatown when evening outings constituted a night out at the movies at either the Oriental Theatre or the Majestic Theatre across the road from the shop on New Bridge Road. They lived on the second floor of a shophouse near Eu Tong Seng Street above a watermelon seed shop. Their immediate neighbours were the Tang family, who own Swee Kee (Ka Soh) Fish Head Noodle House. “Our house faced their pantry area. We could look right into it and see what they were doing,” says Rod. “Every morning I would wake up and wait impatiently for my maternal grandmother to take me to the nearby market to have something to eat. In those days, the food was simple. I loved the char kway teow (fried rice noodles) from Mosque Street and the fried bee hoon (vermicelli) from the street peddlers. After school, I would head down to my father’s shop to play.”
This ‘play’ include imitating workers at the shop, helping with sales and inadvertently , learning the ropes of the business. By the time he had completed his education, Rod was, in his father’s eyes, ripe and ready to join the family business. “I tried to look outside the family for work when I left school,” he says, “but my father didn’t approve. He never said it explicitly, but I knew that was how he felt.”
Rod joined the family business and took its helm when his father passed away in 1988 at the age of seventy-nine.
Today, he runs Lim Chee Guan with the two sons, Jerre and Benny, who have injected their own brand of modernity to their traditional family business. Their bak kwa is now prepared in a modern factory and some of their packaging is in sleek black, once considered as an inauspicious colour for any Chinese business.
“I never expected my sons to join me in the business,” says Rod. “But I’m glad they have. With their good education, they can take it to another level.”
Lim Chee Guan Bak Kwa new shop at Jewel Changi Airport
Source: Book “Savour Chinatown” by Annette Tan, photography by Mervin Chua and other unidentified contributors for materials posted on this blog to share with thanks.