Beng Thin Hoon Kee: going for the long haul

/ EdgeProp Singapore
August 6, 2021 7:00 AM SGT
Family members of the second generation managing Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant standing at the carpark with the main entrance to the restaurant beyond (from left): Lim Lay Bee, Lim Chee Chng, Tan Poh Kok (Lim Chee Chng’s brother-in-law, who is also one of the partners in the business) and Lim Lai Lai (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp SIngapore)
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant at Chulia Street turned 72 years old this year. Its authentic Fujian cuisine include signature dishes such as Prawn Ball Ngo Hiang, Fujian Fried Noodles (Hokkien Mee), Oyster Omelette and Braised Pork Bun (Kung Bak Pao), which generations of Singaporeans grew up eating. (See also: Commercial shophouse in Thomson for sale at $6.5 mil)
As Singapore continues to battle the Covid pandemic, a vicious cycle of shutdown, reopening at reduced capacity, and shutdown, has exacted a toll on restaurants. It has claimed many victims over the past 1½ years. Even heritage names have not been spared. Swee Kee Eating House on Amoy Street closed at the end of May. Famous for its Cantonese-style fish soup, Swee Kee was founded in the 1930s. Yet Con Restaurant on Purvis Street closed last year. The Hainanese hotpot restaurant first opened in 1940. Prima Tower Revolving Restaurant at Keppel Road, one of only two revolving restaurants in Singapore, closed last year, after operating for 43 years.
The demise of these heritage names has made the owners of Beng Thin more determined to keep their family legacy alive. “We are doing the business to preserve the name of Beng Thin,” says Lim Lai Lai, on behalf of her siblings, who are the second-generation owners of the restaurant. “That is our priority.”
She believes it is timely to draw from the lessons learnt from the struggles of the previous generation of immigrants to Singapore, like her father, Lim Yew Hoon, who founded Beng Thin in 1949. “When Beng Thin started, it struggled too, just as Singapore struggled after the World War II and before its independence,” says Lim.
The main dining hall of Beng Thin Hoon Kee today, It was renovated a few years ago (Photo: Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant)

Early years

The elder Lim had arrived in Singapore in 1940 at the age of 17. He came from Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian province, and arrived in Singapore penniless and hungry for a better life. His only work experience had been helping out in kitchens and cooking in restaurants back in Quanzhou. When he first arrived, he found shelter at lodgings operated by one of the Hokkien clan associations for new migrants. They could live rent-free until they found a job. After they found a job, they only needed to pay a nominal rent of $2 a month.
For 1½ years after he arrived, he could not find any permanent work. “He did whatever odd jobs that came along, but couldn’t find a permanent job,” recounts Lim. He even took up a job as a painter, even though he could not paint then, but that landed him full-time employment. His income improved from 70 cents a day to $1.20 a day.
When he earned 70 cents a day, he would limit his daily expenses to 20 cents a day, and save the rest. Once he hit the daily limit of 20 cents, even if he had not had his meal, he would rather starve for the rest of the day. He continued that strict discipline even after he had a permanent job. “He continued to scrimp and save, so that he could start his own business,” relates Lim. “By the age of 22, he knew he wanted to be a business owner.”
To save money, he would buy a loaf of bread and cut into three portions — for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If he was still hungry, he would fill himself up by drinking water. The only indulgence he allowed himself was cigarettes. Even then, he would cut each cigarette into three, to make them last longer.
Eventually, he saved enough to start a business with three other chefs. “Most people would start by opening a hawker stall or coffeeshop first, instead of a full-fledged restaurant,” says Lim. “But he wanted to open a restaurant right from the start.”
original Hokien Street - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
The original Hokien Street, built in the 1820s, is one of the oldest streets in Singapore (Photo: Beng Thin Hoon Kee website)

Shophouse at Hokien Street

The elder Lim and his three partners rented the ground floor of a shophouse along Hokien Street, and opened Beng Thin in 1949. He was 26 years old then. “The early years were a struggle, as it was after World War II, and times were tough,” says Lim.
The partners chose Hokien Street, so named because it was the main settlement of the Hokkien immigrants, the largest of the four dialect groups in Singapore. Built in the 1820s, Hokien Street is one of the oldest streets in Singapore. Today, Hokien Street is a pedestrianised walkway between Great Eastern Centre commercial building and the shophouses that make up Nankin Row. (See: Find Singapore commercial properties with our commercial directory)
As the business struggled in the early years, the other three partners decided to sell their shares to the elder Lim and left. “Unlike my father who was still single then, the other partners were married with children, so they found it difficult to continue while supporting their families,” says Lim.
The elder Lim did not have enough money to buy out the other partners, so he asked his father in China to help. With his father’s help, he managed to buy out the other three partners’ shares, and became the sole owner of the restaurant. That was when he added his name in, and the restaurant became Beng Thin Hoon Kee, as it is known today.
Following the departure of his partners, the elder Lim realised he needed help in the kitchen. He recalled a chef in Quanzhou whom he had worked for, and contacted him to ask if he would like to come over to Singapore to help him with the business. Fortunately, the chef was not working at that time, and agreed to come to Singapore to help him. And he remained with Beng Thin until he passed away. “My father was destined to succeed,” says Lim. “He always had people who helped him along the way.”
In the initial years, a lot of the business came from referrals and by word of mouth. “There was one particular banker who really helped him a lot,” relates Lim. “This person was a bank teller who knew a lot of people and introduced them to the restaurant. My father said he would always be grateful to this person.”
The 52-storey OCBC Centre, once Singapore’s tallest skyscraper, showing the carpark podium and the open rooftop carpark on the fifth floor, where Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant is located (Photo: The Edge Singapore)

Upwards to Singapore’s tallest skyscraper of the 1970s-80s

The business became so successful that the elder Lim decided to expand the restaurant from one unit to two adjoining units. As the restaurant became famous, many landlords approached the elder Lim about moving to their building. “But my dad always said no,” says Lim.
That is, until he was approached by Tan Chin Tuan, the former chairman of OCBC Bank, who was a regular customer of Beng Thin. At that time, the 52-storey OCBC Centre was the tallest skyscraper in Singapore. It was the first high-rise structure in Singapore to be designed by an international architect, namely IM Pei. The building opened on Oct 1, 1976, and remains a landmark at the Raffles Place financial district today.
The novelty of the building was the restaurant unit at the rooftop carpark on the fifth floor of the skyscraper. The previous tenant, also a Chinese restaurant, had failed. Hence, Tan invited Beng Thin to move in. “My father hesitated, but Tan Chin Tuan made it possible with favourable rents and terms,” Lim relates. “There were so few restaurants in those days, and we were the only authentic Fujian restaurant in the financial district. So my father agreed.”
Beng Thin moved into its premises of more than 5,000 sq ft at the carpark of OCBC Centre in 1979, and has been there since. “After we moved in, business flourished,” relates Lim. Customers included the Who’s Who in Singapore, from businessmen to politicians and movie stars — the likes of Hong Kong actors Jackie Chan and Fung Bo Bo, as well as Chinese-turned-Singaporean, Gong Li.
Lim’s mother, Jenny Wong, helped in the business too. While the elder Lim was humble, shy and soft-spoken, his wife was “gutsy and outgoing”, says Lim. “Even though she didn’t speak English very well, she wasn’t afraid to speak to the expatriates who came to our restaurant,” she recounts. “Given our location in the financial district, we had a lot of expatriate customers too.”
On weekdays, the office crowd frequented the restaurant for lunch. In the evenings, the customers went there to meet friends or clients, or to celebrate a corporate or family event. On weekends, the business came from families, typically comprising three generations. There were birthdays, anniversaries and even wedding celebrations. Not only did they have wedding dinners at the restaurant, Beng Thin did private dining and catering too.
Lim Yew Hoon, founder of Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant and his wife, Jenny Wong. The couple has eight children, four sons and four daughters. The two elder sons and two elder daughters are now running the business

Second generation

The elder Lim officially retired from the business on Oct 1, 1987, and handed over the business to his children. He and his wife have eight children — four sons and four daughters. The two elder sons were roped into the business when they were young, and learnt to cook from the chefs. They helm the kitchen today, and ensure that the quality of the food is consistent. Meanwhile, the two elder daughters also joined the business in the mid-1980s. Lim joined the business a few years after she graduated in 1984.
“We were handed the business on a silver platter,” recalls Lim. “But it’s very important that we run the business properly and make sure that the name Beng Thin lives on.”
To be sure, there were ups and downs along the way. There was the recession in the mid-1980s, the Asian Financial Crisis in 1996/97, the bursting of the dotcom bubble followed by the recession in 2001/02, SARS in 2003, and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008/09. Beng Thin has weathered all these crises well.
However, Covid-19 and the recent return to Phase Two (Heightened Alert), from July 22 to Aug 18, “is a time to pause and think about things; and to pivot if we have to”, says Lim.
Since only food delivery is allowed for now, Lim wants to focus on ensuring that when the food arrives at the customer’s place, “it’s still restaurant quality, and still hot”, she says. “The packaging is really important, and we put a lot of effort into that.” As it is a family restaurant, she also wants to ensure that the portions are generous. “When it comes to food delivery, you only get one chance: if someone receives the food and they are not happy with it, we won’t get a repeat customer,” she adds.
And this is where Beng Thin stands out: “Fortunately, we have a lot of regular customers, and they have been ordering our food delivery for 1½ years already,” says Lim. She is now thinking of adding some new dishes to the menu, on top of the traditional favourites.
It has been a long journey for the second generation that is managing Beng Thin. “To me, running this business is like a marathon — we really want to go on for another 70 years,” Lim says.

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