Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · History

Food Explorer Storyteller with 63 million+ reads 📧

History of Bak Kut Teh ● From Coolie's Tonic to a President's Favourite

✍ 29 Mar 2024. The origin of bak kut teh is still lost in the sense that, so far there are no documents or artefacts to conclusively prove any of the claims on where the first bowl of bak kut teh was brewed.

Cooking pork and bones with medicinal herbs has a very long history in China, but only in Singapore and Malaysia is it called bak kut teh. 

For example, a herbal pork rib soup similar to Malaysian bak kut teh which is popular at Taipei night markets is called 藥燉排骨 or 十全排骨. There's also Quanzhou (Fujian province of China) niu pai which is beef ribs stewed with spices called 泉州红烧牛排骨. It is speculated that Klang bak kut teh could be derived from Quanzhou stewed beef by switching the meat used. 

No one knows for sure now why the name bak kut teh 肉骨茶 was coined instead of simply calling it herbal pork ribs 藥燉排骨 or herbal pork bones 藥燉肉骨 or stewed pork ribs 红烧排骨.

There is no dish in China known as 肉骨茶.

Oral tradition is replete with various versions of bak kut teh origin stories but it always involve coolies in either the port of Singapore, Klang, or the mines of Selangor.

Coolies are indentured labourers recruited from the southern China provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. The peak of coolie arrivals was from around the 1820s to 1920s to work in the ports, mines and plantations of British Malaya (which included today's Malaysia and Singapore).

During that 100 years, the corrupt and collapsing Qing dynasty of China was in its final death throes. Civil wars, foreign invasions, famine, natural disasters, led millions to seek a better life abroad. It was also a time when the ports, mines and plantations of British Malaya were hungry for cheap labour.

We can surmise that bak kut teh originated either in Singapore or in Selangor state of Malaysia. This debate has become regular clickbait fodder since the advent of social media in Malaysia and Singapore. It is an easy way to stir up emotions and social media "engagement" from both sides of the Causeway.

One urban legend has it that coolies at the port of Singapore picked up some pepper that fell off the gunny sacks, and used it to cook with pork bones. Voila, Singapore Teochew peppery bak kut teh was born.

We can dismiss this theory as so-called Singapore Teochew peppery bak kut teh was a relatively recent creation which emerged in the 1950s or 60s. Bak kut teh (but not the peppery kind) was already well documented by the 1930s.

Another legend attributed bak kut teh to a tin mine boss in Selangor who created bak kut teh with the help of a Chinese physician / herbalist. The kind hearted boss wanted a herbal tonic which could strengthen and fortify the coolies' health.

I find this mining boss theory tying together coolie, herbalist and bak kut teh intuitively appealing. I am still looking for documents that support this theory.

If true, bak kut teh originated in mines and spread to the coolies working in the ports. It would also put the origin of bak kut teh in Malaysia since there are no mines in Singapore.

Even today, we can simply walk into a traditional Chinese herbalist shop in Malaysia and buy a bundle of herbs for making bak kut teh. The herbs are still hand picked, hand wrapped in traditional pink paper. Now, we just need documents or artefacts to confirm this mine boss and herbalist theory.

One thing that weakens the mine and herbalist theory of bak kut teh is its strong association with the ports of Singapore and Klang, not with any mining towns e.g. Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Kampar, etc.

A recent claim from Klang town in Malaysia suggests that bak kut teh was the creation of Lee Boon Teh who came to Klang from Fujian after the Second World War (1941 - 1945). According to this theory, the "teh" in bak kut teh came from the name of Lee Boon Teh. 

As bak kut teh is already mentioned in newspapers since the 1930s, the Lee Boon Teh origin theory can be dismissed. Lee Boon Teh's family is, however, the most influential bak kut teh in Klang as many of Klang's bak kut teh restaurants today are run by Lee Boon Teh's descendants.


Lee Boon Teh's bak kut teh restaurant known as Teck Teh is still in operation today. It is the oldest bak kut teh shop in Klang.

There are no known documents about bak kut teh in Klang earlier than Lee Boon Teh's story. But, my intuition is Klang bak kut teh should be at least contemporous with Singapore bak kut teh i.e. there was bak kut teh in Klang before Lee Boon Teh's.

For Singapore, the earliest reference is a newspaper article in Nanyang Siang Pau dated 1934. The article mentioned that bak kut teh in the 1920s cost $1.80 a meal and was popular with coolies who earned up to $10 a day. In their heyday, the coolies earned a good income. 

It was hard work but trade was thriving, so demand for coolies was high, hence their relatively high income. A bak kut teh meal at $1.80 wasn't cheap as a dinner at the Raffles Hotel could be had for $2, merely 20 cents more.

As traditional Chinese medicine view bak kut teh as "heaty" food, and tea as "cooling", drinking tea and eating bak kut teh together keeps the body in balance. In the beginning, bak kut teh was paired with inexpensive tea and often provided free of charge by the hawker as part of the meal. (This pork soup and tea custom could explain the term "bak kut teh or pork bone with tea" but lacks evidence at the moment.)

As coolies became better off and businessmen / traders acquired a taste for bak kut teh, the dish became gentrified. Better quality ingredients and premium teas became the norm. Bring your own prized tea became like today's bring your own vintage wine. 

In 1930, Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants launched Wuyi Iron Arhat tea which cost five times the price of average tea for bak kut teh at that time. It was well received and solidified the emerging trend of enjoying the art of tea appreciation together with bak kut teh. Till today bak kut teh and tea appreciation go hand in hand together.

Today, there is a perennial debate about whether it was Hokkien dark sauce bak kut teh or Teochew peppery bak kut teh first.

A Nanyang Siang Pau article in 1949 listed a few popular places for bak kut teh in Singapore. It said that good quality soy sauce was the key to good bak kut teh, so it was most likely referring to Hokkien dark sauce bak kut teh. There was no mention of Teochew peppery bak kut teh. It can be surmised then that Teochew peppery bak kut teh hasn't emerged in 1949 or was not pervasive at that time.

Today, Teochew peppery bak kut teh is synonymous with Singapore bak kut teh while there is only a small handful of Hokkien bak kut teh remaining.

Hokkien bak kut teh in Singapore are all small hawker stalls mostly run by elderly hawkers. Many young Singaporeans may not even be aware of Singapore Hokkien bak kut teh. The once popular dish is in its last legs in Singapore unless there is a revival.

Singapore Teochew peppery bak kut teh is popular with tourists in Singapore. Singapore Teochew bak kut teh brands have also set up overseas outposts such as Song Fa in Bangkok, Jakarta, Shanghai, Taipei, etc. In Taipei, the Singapore Big Three bak kut teh are even vying for for market share.

However, Singapore peppery bak kut teh hasn't got a good foothold in Malaysia so far. Malaysians who have tried Singapore peppery bak kut teh in Singapore often felt it is too much like peppery pork soup. To Malaysians, bak kut teh needs to be herbal, otherwise it is not bak kut teh in their books.

Similarly, Klang bak kut teh did not become pervasive in Singapore. Lee Boon Teh's grandson once ran a bak kut teh shop in Singapore's Chinatown (in People's Park Centre) but closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps, Klang style bak kut teh could make a comeback in Singapore.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans are eager to travel to Johor and Klang for bak kut teh there. If you go to Kiang Kee bak kut teh near Kota Tinggi, a stall beside the Johor Bahru to Mersing trunk road, you will find the stall packed with many Singaporeans from morning till closing time after lunch. The car park will be filled with many Singapore registered cars. Kiang Kee serves a dark soy sauce based bak kut teh.

Soon Huat bak kut teh is Malaysia's biggest bak kut teh chain now with over thirty outlets in Johor, Malaysia, and overseas. It's a bak kut teh with a light savoury soup with a bit of soy sauce, herbs and spices but no pepper. Soon Huat is popular with Singaporeans since its first shop opened in Taman Sentosa in the 1970s.

How then did Teochew peppery bak kut teh came about? I believe it was derived from Hokkien dark soy sauce bak kut teh. Hence, it is still called bak kut teh even though it is a pepper (and garlic) pork soup.

In the Teochew enclave around Clarke Quay / River Valley Road near Singapore River, there were a few bak kut teh stalls run by Teochew. They sold a bak kut teh which was more light handed in dark sauce, medicinal herbs and spices. Double Happiness at Zion Road Hawker Centre still serve this version of bak kut teh.

In the 1950s, Ng Mui Song started a bak kut teh stall at Clarke Quay which pioneered a bak kut teh which was light handed on dark soy sauce, no medicinal herbs, but more garlic and pepper. 

Ng Mui Song was succeed by his son Ng Ah Sio who achieved fame, winning fans like the former president of Taiwan, prime minister of Thailand, chief executive of Hong Kong, and more. Ng Ah Sio did the most to bring international fame to Singapore peppery bak kut teh.

In the 1970s, Rong Cheng bak kut teh at Sin Ming Road pioneered the use of "dragon bone" pork rib for bak kut teh. Contrary to what many people assumed, "dragon bone" was actually a cheaper cut and was chosen as a cost cutting measure. However, the photogenic huge rib in peppery soup caught the imagination of the public and it became the icon of Singapore bak kut teh.

Song Fa bak kut teh which was founded in 1969 as a push cart stall was the first to open a full fledged bak kut teh restaurant in Singapore in 2007. The second generation owners applied modern management and operations concepts which led to Song Fa's rapid expansion in Singapore and overseas.

Peppery bak kut teh kept gaining ground at the expense of dark soy sauce bak kut teh in Singapore.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, dark soy sauce bak kut teh still reigns. In Mar 2024, the Malaysian government gazetted bak kut teh as a national heritage object.

Is bak kut teh originally from Singapore or from Malaysia?

Current evidence supports Singapore's case but I feel the evidence going back to 1925 doesn't go back far enough. I am still searching for evidence on where the first bowl of bak kut teh was brewed. I will update this post with new information and evidence.

For further reading:

Join 76K followers of Johor Kaki

Written by Tony Boey on 29 Mar 2024

🎗 This blog is powered by passion and voluntary contributions from appreciative readers to Tony Boey Johor Kaki PAYNOW 96888768 in Singapore $

Old Tiong Bahru Bak Kut Teh
✍ 17 May 2020. Bak kut teh together with Hainanese chicken rice is one of the iconic dishes of Singapore. How did the unique Singapore style of pork bone soup come about? How did it become world famous?

Making soup with pork bones is not unique to Singapore, indeed it is ubiquitous throughout China since time immemorial. Everywhere there are Chinese communities, there is some form of pork bone soup. But, the unique Singapore style of bak kut teh - the most famous of all pork bone soup in the world - is a fairly recent creation.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The demand for manpower by the flourishing British free port of Singapore coincided with wars and famine in China, bringing largest waves of Chinese immigrants from the 1850s to 1920s. Mostly from the southern China provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, many worked as coolies at the thriving port.

Singapore hawkers in the 1890s. Image credit: National Archives Singapore
For the poor coolies, there was little to eat. No pork (meat) soup but soup made of garlic cloves, soy sauce and pork bones with scraps of meat on special days, maybe.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In the early 1900s, some hawkers began selling pork bone soup at Ellenborough Market known also the "New Market" 新巴刹 or "Teochew Market" 潮州巴刹. New Market because there was an Old Market or Lau Pat Sat at Teluk Ayer. Teochew Market because it was located in the Teochew enclave at the mouth of Singapore River. 

This was the ideal place for pork related businesses as the abattoir was also located near here on Pulau Saigon island. Pork bones with scraps of meat could be had for cheap. (Not to be mistaken for pork ribs which is synonymous with bak kut teh of today.) The pork bone soup was popular with coolies as it was desired as a kind of essential "energy tonic" for their back breaking work in Singapore's blistering tropical heat. Bone marrow was also believed to fortify the immune system. The dish can be called Coolie Tea 苦力茶.


As Coolie Tea, the meat bone was just cooked with garlic cloves and dark soy sauce.

As coolies working hard under harsh conditions suffered from pains and fatigue, Chinese herbs like dang gui and liquorice, etc were added as remedies for common coolie ailments. Spices such as cinnamon and star anise were added to the garlic and soy sauce to improve the taste of the herbal concoction. It is uncertain whether it was the Hokkien or Teochew who did this first, but it is possible that both communities had herbal versions of bak kut teh.

Nankin Street in 1981. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Ong Say Bak Kut Teh 李旺世肉骨茶 founded in the 1920s is the oldest known bak kut teh brand in Singapore. Their popular shop at Nankin Street was packed to the rafters and customers spilled out onto the five foot way during their heyday. Unfortunately, it closed in 1989 when the shops here were demolished to make way for China Square.


One of Ong Say's workers Mdm Teo opened Nankin Street Bak Kut Teh 南京街肉骨茶 using Ong Say's recipes with the family's blessings.

It's the Hokkien style. The soup is dark with lots of black soy sauce and lots of Chinese medicinal herbs. If you are looking for pioneer Singapore bak kut teh that tastes savoury herbal, it is here at Maxwell Food Centre stall #01-89.


As Singapore became more prosperous and affluent, coolies had less need for medicinal herbs in their bak kut teh. The Teochews began in the 1950s to add Sarawak white pepper while cutting back on medicinal herbs and black soy sauce in their bak kut teh. The famous premium white pepper of Sarawak was shipped around the world through Singapore, so there was plenty of it at the port.

Over the years in Singapore, this peppery tasting bak kut teh grew more mainstream, edging out the savoury herbal Hokkien version which became more niche.

It's a different story across the Causeway in Johor Bahru. It's the savoury herbal taste profile exemplified by Bak Cheng bak kut teh that has a stronger foothold.

It is interesting that in Singapore where the Hokkien community is the majority clan, it is "peppery Teochew bak kut teh" that is most popular.

Yet, in Johor Bahru which is known as "Little Swatow" as the Teochews are in the majority, it is "non peppery bak kut teh" that is preferred.

Something to explore further.

Song Fa Bak Kut Teh
Thanks to growing prosperity, bak kut teh evolved from literally bone with scraps of meat to premium cuts like meaty loin ribs being the norm today.

Some time along the way as more gentrified meat bone tea got more established, the name Coolie Tea 苦力茶 faded away leaving only the name bak kut teh 肉骨茶.

In Singapore, Chinese tea and bak kut teh always go hand in hand. When bak kut teh was humble Coolie Tea, a cheap Chinese tea was provided free-of-charge to go with the meat bone soup.

As bak kut teh graduated to the towkay's choice by the 1950s, Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants pioneered pairing more premium teas with meat bone soup (with better cuts like pork ribs). Eating bak kut teh and sipping tea became a favourite towkay pastime, in a way like businessmen meeting up over a round of golf today.

Of course, as Singapore became more prosperous, most people can enjoy bak kut teh with Chinese tea at any time.

Clark Quay in the 1970s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In 1968, Ellenborough Market was destroyed by fire and the hawkers moved slightly upriver to the River Valley area around Clarke Quay and the foot of Fort Canning 王家山腳.

黄亚细 Ng Ah Sio and his father 黄美松 Ng Mui Song who started selling bak kut teh in 1955 moved here along with other bak kut teh hawkers.

Ng Ah Sio bak kut teh in 2019
In 1977, 黄亚细 Ng Ah Sio moved his shop to New World Amusement Park (Kitchener Road) and then in 1988, to Rangoon Road.

Ng Ah Sio was doing well enough, minding his own business here until a twist of fate in 2006 changed everything.

Ng Ah Sio bak kut teh in 2019
One day, he received a telephone call at the shop for a reservation for the coming Monday. Ng Ah Sio informed the unidentified caller that Monday was his off day. The caller hung up and that was that. (Most bak kut teh shops in Singapore are off on Monday as there is no fresh pork in the market because the abattoir closes on Sunday.)

Before he knew what happened, Hong Kong newspaper headlines were screaming blue murder that Ng Ah Sio snubbed the Hong Kong Chef Executive Donald Tsang 😱 Obviously, the sensational story caused a furore which ripples tremors were felt all the way back in Singapore. It turned out that the unidentified caller was from Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs trying to arrange a lunch for Donald Tsang. 

Ng Ah Sio's business boomed due to the unintended fame or notoriety. Many people were curious to taste what was this bak kut teh that turned away Hong Kong's Chief Executive.

This incident catapulted Ng Ah Sio bak kut teh, and Singapore bak kut teh in general onto the world stage. (Reminds me of a public relations adage that there is no bad publicity, all publicity is good publicity. I don't quite agree though.... but..  .)

Ng Ah Sio's fans included many dignitaries such as Taiwan's former President Ma Ying Jeou (hence the title Coolie Tonic to President's Treat).

Founder Bak Kut Teh in Taipei
Now, many Singapore bak kut teh restaurants have outposts around the world. For example, all the Big Three - Founder, Ng Ah Sio and Song Fa - are in Taipei.

Ms Gwee Pek Hua worked for Ng Mui Song at his River Valley shop in the 1960s. She later started her own shop Ya Hua Bak Kut Teh which is one of Singapore's top brands today.

Lau Ah Tee worked for his uncle Ng Mui Song in the 1960s. Lau Ah Tee's shop in Boon Keng is still one of the best bak kut teh in Singapore.

Chua Chwee Huat was a pig farmer before he founded Founder Bak Kut Teh in the 1970s. He developed his own recipe independently and Founder is now one of Singapore's Big Three bak kut teh brands.

Song Fa is another top bak kut teh brand in Singapore. It was a push cart stall along Johore Road founded by Yeo Eng Song in 1969. 


The Untold History of 黄美松
Pek Sin Choon Tea Merchants

Written by Tony Boey on 17 May 2020 | Reviewed 1 Mar 2023


  1. Dear Tony,
    Thanks for sharing your S'pore BKT tales.

    After reading your article which I find very interesting and revealing I could not resist sharing some history and fact from another Bak Kut Teh heartland, Klang.
    Part 1
    - The Teh 茶 in Bak Kut Teh
    As you had described drinking Chinese tea has been a constant companion to consumption of BKT, both in S’pore and Klang. However, the word “Teh” 茶 in Bak Kut Teh 肉骨茶 did not come from this association, at least not in Klang.

    The origin of Bak Kut Teh (BKT) here goes back to the opium smokers of the 1850s, particularly by coolies who consume them as energy booster to assist their back breaking labour. They could afford only the cheapest grade which has side effects of dry throat and mouth, among others. Local TCM practitioners here had than developed and formulated various type of herbal tonic, locally known as herbal tea, to remedial this. Such herbal drinks were prepared and sold by vendor from baskets hanging off shoulder pole at the dockside along the bank of Klang River. This was the age before the larger harbour at Port Klang came about.

    Similar to S’pore “Coolie Tea” history, the opening of abattoir upstream of Klang River made available bone/meat scrap, catering to the demand for cheap and strength building tonic. These too were cooked with herbs to address health and heat element. [Sidebar: Parts and waste discarded from the abattoir also attract the famous Klang Rivers buayas (crocodiles)]

    Eventually, all three elements (Opium cure tonic, bone/meat scrap and herbal supplement) were combined into a nutritional meal by a TCM hall owner. In the early days, cooked rice and soupy BKT were served and consumed from a single bowl with a pair of chopstick, while squatting at the pier front. That is the reason why Klang’s BKT display a stronger and complex herbal element in our offering.

    The rest are history as one can put it, with introduction of better cut of pork, and moving from pier side into shop, as the society becomes more affluent.

    1. Thank you Crawler for your wonderful insights. Can you recommend me some books or articles on this please. Appreciate much.

    2. Dear Tony.
      Unfortunately, references, scholarly research and research thesis into Klang’s BKT history is sorely lacking. The details provided are oral history from the alders.

  2. Part 2
    - Claims to Fame
    Some party has claimed the term Teh in Klang’s BKT is due to the surname of the original inventor. Unfortunately, this is a fallacy propagated for cheap marketing. The said party’s family is the third to start BKT business in Klang, or maybe the forth.

    The first family of Klang BKT has ceased their operation due to lack of interest among the younger generation to carry on. The patriarch was originally a TCM hall owner and practitioner who formulated the herbal concoction for opium smoking side effect, combined with health and “heatiness” supplement. With the creation of this All-in-One herbal formula he took upon the creation of a robust meal for the lower rung of the society. The TCM hall near Klang Rail Station was operated as their family main business, with BKT as a sideline.

    - Different Cut
    Another common BKT business practice in Klang is “head to hoof” cooking. Whole hog are delivered slaughtered, cleaned and hair scrapped from the abattoir on daily basic, except Monday when the abattoir close for cleaning, disinfection and rest. Better BKT stall operator will then dissect the hog into different parts and cook them in separate pots. The herbal formula and flavouring condiments are then adjusted to suit the flavour, texture and tenderness/toughness of that particular cut of meat.

    This resulted in the soup flavour and texture from a bowl of pork belly三層肉 tasting differently from a mouthful from another bowl of pork hock豬蹄肉, so on and forth. The soup are infused with the specific but delicate flavour of that cut of meat, and the herbal formula /condiment used to bring out the best, and suppress the undesired, flavour of that particular cut of meat.

    Various BKT store here has been graded and gain fame base on the taste they achieved with one specific cut of meat by BKT expert. There will never ever be a consensus among these expert on which stall has the best flavour for each cut of meat, as the saying goes by “one man's meat is another man's poison”. There are older generation of connoisseurs that still go to different stall for one specific cut of meat.

    - Claypot Buffet
    Another BKT invention from Klang, known as the Claypot, is for disposing of less popular cuts of meat to unsuspecting visitors. There are some cuts of pork, such as the rib, that turn out poorly in this method of cooking, hence have lower demand. The mixing of various cheaper cut of meats disguised in a common pot, combined with vegetable, tofu, mushroom and whatnot that camouflage the delicate meat flavour, allow for profitable disposal of unpopular cuts.

    That’s my 2 cents work of history for your enjoyment and thank you for allowing me to pass some time fruitfully during this MCO/CB or ours. As the details and information in this write-up are common knowledge, some call it old folk tales or grandmother/grandfather story, I claim no rights to it.

  3. Part 3
    - Claypot Buffet
    Another BKT invention from Klang, known as the Claypot, is for disposing of less popular cuts of meat to unsuspecting visitors. There are some cuts of pork, such as the rib, that turn out poorly in this method of cooking, hence have lower demand. The mixing of various cheaper cut of meats disguised in a common pot, combined with vegetable, tofu, mushroom and whatnot that camouflage the delicate meat flavour, allow for profitable disposal of unpopular cuts.

    That’s my 2 cents work of history for your enjoyment and thank you for allowing me to pass some time fruitfully during this MCO/CB or ours. As the details and information in this write-up are common knowledge, some call it old folk tales or grandmother/grandfather story, I claim no rights to it.

  4. Ong Say BKT was originally at the now defunct Cheang Hong Lim Street (near Peking/Nanking Street). Ong Say was the boss of the stall. The stall was a BKT stall in the morning and cze char stall at night. Ong Say’s fried Hokkien noodle (dark sauce version) was very famous. It later moved to Nankin Street and was helmed by his assistant Ah Wei (he was a short man). Mdm Teo who worked for the 2 bosses eventually took over the stall at Maxwell Road. It is probably the best Hokkien style BKT although there are a couple of stalls at Hong Lim Complex with similar taste. My siblings and I have been eating from the original stall since the late 50s and still patronise the stall at Maxwell to this day.


All comments submitted with genuine identities are published