Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

A History of Singapore through the Story of Hock Lam Beef Noodles

History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles

The story of Singapore's legendary Hock Lam beef noodles start 109 years ago, 3,000km away in Swatow 汕头 in China's Guangdong province. In 1911, Tan Chee Kok started a Teochew beef noodle stall in his hometown, Swatow.

Swatow townsfolk loved Tan Chee Kok's hearty, comforting savoury beefy slightly herbal soup with flat rice noodles and chunks of beef, tripe and tendons.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

1911 was also the year, the 275 year old Qing dynasty finally collapsed after decades of rot and turmoil. The shattered empire descended further into more chaos and anarchy with warlords vying for power, waging war throughout the newborn Republic of China. Hundreds of thousands then millions were forced to leave China to escape wars and poverty.

Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
This long period of near anarchy in China coincided with heightened demand for labourers in British Malaya including Singapore.

Peak inflows of Chinese indentured labourers known as coolies and also sinkeh ("new guests" in Hokkien language) were between 1823 and 1891, after Singapore became a free port. From 1910 to 1911, before World War I began (in 1914) and the imminent collapse of the Qing dynasty. Another surge came in 1926 but quickly tapered off with the onset of the Great Depression in 1927.


Among the sinkeh was Tan Chee Kok who came to Singapore (which was part of British Malaya). (My own grandfather too came to Singapore in the 1920s, from Toishan in Guangdong.)



Once Tan Chee Kok arrived in Singapore, he started selling beef noodles, the only trade he knew - thus, bringing Swatow hometown flavours to Singapore. He didn't have a stall, but sold beef noodles from two large pots balanced on a bamboo pole slung across his shoulders.

Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
Tan Chee Kok lived in Simon Road, Hougang in Singapore's northeast and walked 10km down to the Fort Canning area near the former Anglo-Chinese School to sell his beef noodles. Tan Chee Kok was exactly like that hawker in the picture of ACS above, plying their trade on foot. The hardiness of Singapore's pioneer generation is amazing.

In those days, and to a lesser extent today, beef noodle is a minor luxury. It costs a little more than staples like Teochew bak chor mee (minced meat noodle) or Cantonese wanton noodle etc.


Photo credit: National Archive Singapore
In 1921, Tan Chee Kok's son Tan Jin Seah (Tan Chin Sia) joined his father in Singapore. Tan Jin Seah worked at his father's beef noodle stall in Swatow since he was 11 years old and was 21 when he arrived in Singapore.

Together, Tan Chee Kok and son set up their street side stall at Hock Lam street, a stone's throw from Fort Canning. In those days, food stalls often have no name and would adopt the name of their location. Hence, Tan Chee Kok's stall became known as Hock Lam beef noodles.

Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
Tan Chee Kok and Tan Jin Seah's (Tan Chin Sia) beef noodle stall prospered and they soon owned a coffee shop 叙欢园 in the 1930s. Tan Chee Kok picked up the opium habit and left the business to Tan Jin Seah. 


Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
The good times were interrupted when the Japanese came in 1942, defeating the forces of British Malaya. The Japanese ruled for 3 years till 1945, during which food was scare and was rationed. Hock Lam beef noodles had to suspend operations.

During the Japanese occupation from 1942 - 1945, the Japanese Army conducted Operation Sook Ching, a systematic purge of Chinese who were perceived to be hostile to the Japanese. All Chinese males age between 18 and 50 were screened by Japanese military police and local informants. Those suspected to be anti-Japanese were executed. Tens of thousands lost their lives and were buried in mass graves in many parts of Singapore. Both Tan Chee Kok (age 50s) and Tan Jin Seah (age 40s at that time) survived Operation Sook Ching which was the most harrowing experience for many during the War.

Coffee shop at Hock Lam street (not 叙欢园). Photo credit: National Archives Singapore
Business gradually recovered after the Japanese left. At its peak, Tan Jin Seah's 叙欢园 coffee shop had 7 stalls serving beverages, Hainanese curry rice, Hainanese porridge, stuffed intestines 灌肠, and Tan Chee Kok and son's Teochew beef noodle stall.

Hill-Street-Char-Kway-Teow
Photo credit: National Archives Singapore
There is no archive picture of 叙欢园 coffee shop but Tan Jin Seah's son Francis recalled that there was a char kway teow stall in front of their coffee shop. The char kway teow stall later moved to Hill Street Hawker Centre (now demolished). The son of the char kway teow boss today operates the Hill Street Fried Kway Teow stall in Chinatown Complex Food Centre.




Hock Lam beef noodles remained here till the 1970s when the street was demolished to make way for the old Funan Centre which opened in 1985 (later demolished and replaced by Funan Mall).


Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
Today, the name Hock Lam exists only in the name of Hock Lam beef noodles. Hock Lam street itself is gone - buried under where Funan Mall stands today. The Romanised name Hock Lam 福南 has been pinyin-ised to Funan.

Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

Hock Lam beef noodles together with many other Hock Lam street hawker stalls moved to the carpark at Capitol Theatre where they remained for 7 years.

Tan Chee Kok passed away in the 1970s, and Tan Jin Seah passed on in 1982 (at age 82). Tan Jin Seah had 7 sons and 3 daughters. Three of them, Francis Tan (youngest son), Anthony Tan (4th son), and eldest daughter Tan Sok Eng joined the trade as beef noodle hawkers.

Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore
Daughter Tan Sok Eng and her husband set up Empress Place Beef Kway Teow in 1971 at Empress Place Food Centre by the Singapore River.


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Before the clean up which was completed in the 1980s, the Singapore River was notorious for its infamous stench. Singapore River was basically an open sewer. Yes, I still wonder how we could enjoy eating with the thick smell of rotting garbage, dead animals and sewage in the air.


In 1977, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched a Singapore River cleanup which took 10 years and $170 million. By 1987, Singapore River was completely transformed into a thriving dining and entertainment hub in the Central Business District. Fish returned to the river. It was a $170 million very well spent.


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Tan Sok Eng's son David Lim took over the baton and set up his beef noodle stall at Marine Parade hawker centre, then at Wisma Atria food court before settling at Siglap for 20 years.

History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles

He shifted to Maxwell Food Centre in 2019. David now runs the Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow stall with daughter Melissa Lim. (Update: This branch of Hock Lam beef noodles closed in Apr 2020, a casualty of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Business became unsustainable when social distancing measures were implemented to stem the spread of infections).

David Lim's son John Paul Lim runs a beef stall known as Gubak Kia which serves beef dishes (though not traditional Teochew beef noodles).


History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles
Photo of Anthony and daughter Tina from Original Hock Lam Beef Kway Teow (defunct) Facebook page

Tan Jin Seah's fourth son Anthony helped out at the Hock Lam street stall since he was 12 years old.


Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

He moved the stall into the Funan Centre food court when it opened in 1985.


Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

Anthony moved to Singapore Swimming Club in 1991, and then Purvis Street in 1998 (in a brief partnership with brother Francis) before settling down in Far East Square in 2000. In 2004, Anthony's daughter Tina joined the business and initiated a rapid expansion.

During their heydays, Anthony and Tina ran six Hock Lam beef noodle outlets at Alexandra Retail Centre, Far East Square, Ion Orchard, Bukit Panjang Plaza, Upper Serangoon and MacPherson. They closed the entire business in Jul 2019 citing manpower issues.


History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles

Youngest son Francis opened his beef noodle stall at Purvis Street in 1998 (in a short lived 2-month partnership with brother Anthony). Francis continued at Purvis Street after Anthony left the partnership and later moved to Seah Street (due to rental issues).


Purvis Street and Seah Street, together with nearby Middle Road were the Hainanese enclaves of old Singapore.




After founding Singapore for the British East India Company in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles instructed Lieutenant Philip Jackson to draw a town plan. The resulting Jackson Plan or Raffles Town Plan of 1822 had a European Town in the core (east of the Singapore River), Chinese village (campong) west of the river and Arab village to the east of European Town.

The Hainanese were late comers to the party in Singapore. When they arrived, the Chinese village was already occupied by Teochews, Hokkiens and Cantonese. So, the Hainanese settled in the margin (no man's land) between the European Town and Arab village i.e. where Purvis and Seah streets are today.

History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles


It was during those years at Purvis and Seah streets that Francis tweaked his version of Hock Lam beef noodles with a few Hainanese touches.

History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles

Francis introduced a dry version with a brown sauce made by thickening the beef bone stock with starch. He added chopped preserved vegetables and crushed toasted peanuts a la Hainanese style. It was also served with cincalok or fermented shrimp which added a layer of pungent aroma and salty umami flavour.





The dry version was well received and it is still the top seller in Francis' menu.

History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles

Francis suffered a heart attack while at his Seah Street shop in 2014 and took a 2 year break. He re-established his business in 2016 at a hawker stall at Old Airport Road Food Centre where he still is today (Feb 2020).

History-of-Singapore-Hock-Lam-Beef-Noodles

Francis' son Edwin runs Authentic Hock Lam Street Popular Beef Kway Teow at North Canal Road established in 2004, not far from where his great grandfather Tan Chee Kok and grandfather Tan Jin Seah first sold beef noodles. 

Today, Tan Chee Kok's legacy continues at:


Note: This post is based mainly on conversations with Francis Tan and briefly with Edwin Tan, David Lim and Melissa Lim. If you like to share more information on the story of Hock Lam beef noodles, please post in the comments or contact me at johorkaki@gmail.com



Date: 24 Feb 2020

5 comments:

  1. The Tan family should thank you for this simple family history. Good work!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. It is my pleasure really.

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    2. Hi there, I'm one of the descendants of Tan Jin Seah, now 20 years old. Was searching online for bits and pieces of my family history when I stumbled upon your blog. You know more about my family history than I do! Thanks so much for this.

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  2. I am great fan of your blog. But I particularly grateful today for your excellent piece on the history of Hock Lam beef noodles. I have vivid memories of the coffee shop but just couldn’t remember which street it was on and couldn’t understand why there was no street in town that looked vaguely like it. Now I know why! The street was demolished.
    The coffee shop was a big part of my childhood as my parents often took my brother and I there after visiting the National Library. Thanks for jolting my memory. It means a lot to me.
    Keep up the great work!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your insight and encouragement 😊

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