Tuesday, December 12, 2006

from up north start-up @ kawan street to marie biscuit

What has the Khong Guan Biscuit got to do with Ipoh?

I was reading the book ‘Stepping Out – the making of a Chinese Entrepreneur’, and interestingly & incidentally it mentioned that the founder of Khong Guan Biscuit, Chew Choo Keng (周子敬)ventured into his first start-up business in biscuit making in Ipoh!

It reads:

'His first business start-up was in Ipoh together with a former fellow school-mate Chan Beng Tee, with a capital borrowed from Boon Tee’s uncle & his friend. Boon Tee came to work in his uncle’s rubber packing firm in Ipoh. His uncle Chew Boon San was the President of the Hokkien Association in Ipoh and a well-known business man.

They formed the Khong Leng Biscuit Factory at No 5 Cowan Street, Ipoh, with a staff of about 40 people who were all unmarried people. He was 24 then in 1940. He was the manager, his younger brother the director, and his wife was the assistant chemist. The workers were all school mates in China and their own people.

On a trip back to Ipoh last month, I went looking for where No 5 Cowan Street is. It was not difficult to find where Cowan Street is, as it is one of the main roads in the Ipoh New Town. However to my pleasant surprise, the address is located in a row of shop houses which all along for the residents of Ipoh has been well known for its concentration of bakery shops. This bakery row is located in the same block as the old Grand Cinema & Amusement Park. The shop house is now the Goodways Enterprise Sdn Bhd selling Yamaha motorcycles. (The Sdn Bhd stands for Senderian Berhad – meaning Private Limited in Malay).

In this row of 6 to 7 shop houses, there used to be at least three bakery shops, run by Indian or Pakistani Muslims. There is now only one left doing business – Noor Jahan Bakery Sdn Bhd, located at 7 Cowan Street. The shop lots next door were closed and the front barricaded with zinc sheet. It is probably the victims of the repeal of quit rent act, which was lifted a few years back.

I went into the Noor Jahan Bakery, and chatted with the boss who is in his late sixties or early seventies, about the history of the bakery shops in this area. He told me that his dad came from Pakistan after the War. He was working in a bakery shop owned by a Chinese, and he later took over the business. He said that bakery shops were concentrated in this northern part of the new town, because during the colonial days this area was nearer to where the Orang Putih, the White Man lived. He said that the oldest bakery was a century old, in the shop next to his, which is closed now.

I inquired how did the name Cowan came about. He said that it was from the Malay word kawan, meaning friend. My guess is that the in the olden days the fellow bakers from among the ethnic Indian Muslim and the Chinese could be addressing each other as kawan, and the word came to be corrupted as Cowan. Or the colonial masters could have addressed their bakers as kawan, and they got their daily bread from kawan place.

Just like the tale that Smith Street in Singapore Chinatown came from the corruption of the word Hokkien word si-mi-su ( 什么事), which means ‘ What is it?’ Cowan could be have originated from kawan.

This aerial view photograph of Ipoh with Cowan Street in the middle was taken in 1962, when Ipoh became a municipality. The circular building known as the Yau Tet Shin Market or Bat Gog Lau (八角楼) in Cantonese is now gone. Itwas demolished not too long ago and what is left is a vacant lot. now. The complex to the mid-left is the Grand Cinema & Amusement Park. It was akin to the Great World City or Gay World of old in Singapore.

After the War Chew Choo Keng returned to Singapore, and with the capital he got from selling off his business in the peninsula, he started the Khong Guan Biscuit at Paya Lebar. As they say, the rest was history.


1. The Khong Guan story continues:

'During the Japanese occupation, cos Chew Choo Keng was unable to get flour for his business due to shortage, and refusing to use flour substitute, he dissolved the business.

He then went to Telok Anson to live with his father-in-law, and stared a soap making business. Business was good and he sold 400-500cases of soap per day. He soon became rich and with the money he made he started other businesses investing in coconut oil factory, rice trading company and salt company employing a few hundred workers.

The success of there trading activities boosted his confidence as a businessman and set the momentum for his gradual business expansion

During the war years in Telok Anson, the communist regarded him a traitor as he could drive his cars which served his company freely with permit from the Japanese military. He was arrested and interrogated by the communist in the jungle. It turned out later that the interrogator was a former female classmate of his in China. Chew met up with Chin Peng who instead of the charges, solicited his contribution to the communist cause, which involve usable products such as soap, salt, and oil as well as $10,000 cash. Upon his release, Chew was interrogated by the Japanese Military Police in Taping jail, on the events that took plaec in the jungle.

Chew in fact saw the war as a turning point, an opportunity to change his business venue from Malaya to Singapore. In the communist camp, Chin Peng warned him that Malaya would fight for its independence from the British, a revelation which started him thinking of going elsewhere for his business development.

Start-up in Singapore

Two months after the war, he returned to Singapore. He has sold all his businesses in Malaya for about $70-80,000. He was unemployed in Singapore and had spent about $10-20,000. He then ventured to start up the Khong Guan Biscuit Factory in Paya Lebar with the remainder of $50-60,000 as capita.'

2. In Singapore History Gallery of the newly opened National Museum of Singapore, Khong Guan Biscuits and the Chew brothers Choo Keng and Choo Han are featured in the Personal Path in the Merdeka zone on self-governing.

1. Stepping Out –The making of Chinese Entrepreneurs, by Chan Kwok Bun, Claire Chiang, Prentice Hall 1994

2. Ipoh, The Town that Tin Built, A review of the history, progress and developmenet of Perak’s capital –commemorative book on the establishment of Ipoh as a municipality in on May 31, 1962. This book is availabe at the Middle Road National Library, Singapore.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

the rice collection center - post war

The Chinese title of the map reads, from right to left - ‘An Abridged Map of Singapore City Area’ - 新加坡市区略图。It is a 60 year old map of the city - showing the government buildings and venues that were important & helpful to the travelers from China coming to Singapore.

This map was originally from a booklet of about 16 odd pages that provide information to travelers from China on immigration matters, conditions and way of getting around the city. What is left of this booklet is this map of Singapore that covers the center pages of 8 & 9, and the prints on the back of this map which is marked pages 7 and 10.

An interesting spot marked out on the map is the ‘Rice Card Collection Center’ – 米牌领取处 . The collection center was located next to the Government Offices - 政府公署, which is where the Asian Civilization Museum, Empress Place is now, and nearby the Social Welfare Department - 社会福利部, located close to the junction of the Singapore River and North Bridge Road - 小坡大马路.

The reason for the state of ration in the city - Rice Collection -and the process of getting a ration is clearly described in the section behind the map, titled Food Ration - 粮食配给.

It summary it states that there is a world wide grain shortage, and Singapore is affected by it too. It has therefore to implement the ration system. Without the ration card one will not be able to purchase rice and sugar. The ‘Rice Card Collection Center’ is located next to the ‘clock tower’. The process of obtaining a ration card is a simple one.

It also highlighted that the ration card is obtained for FREE and one will not need to pay any money to anyone for it. With the ration card one can go to the neighborhood rice merchant to purchase the allocated amount of rice/sugar at a controlled price. The retail shop should have the price of the items clearly tagged.

Reading thro the writings, one may ask - why the tone of caution and warning to the traveler to beware of paying for more for the card?

For, after the war, the world was gripped by a serious shortage of rice. Black market, a legacy of the Japanese Occupation continues to flourish. The British returned to Singapore and set up the BMA – British Military Administration, from Sep 1945 till April 1946. The BMA was dubbed the Black Market Administration (a). The social condition was chaotic. There was much to be done to put the society back into order, and to restock the shops with cheap and plentiful goods. Thus, the cautionary tone to the traveler on the ration card.

Post-script -

1. The traveler who got this map was traveling from China on his way back to Ipoh and passing thro Singapore the port of transit, in 1948.

2. Important buildings and venue marked are on the map:
Chinese Protectorate - 华民政务司
Social Welfare Department - 社会福利部
Labor Department - 劳工部
Government Offices - 政府公署
South Bridge Road - 大坡大马路 (Dapo Da malu)
New Bridge Road - 二马路 (Er malu)
City Hall - 市政局

Clifford Pier - 克利浦马头
Kallang Airport - 加笼飞机场

3. The Chinese Protectorate was formed in 1877 by the Colonial government to stem the abuse the new immigrants. If functioned until the outbreak of WWII. After the war its responsibilities was taken over by the Minster of Labor and Social Welfare, which is now the Minister of Manpower and Minister of Law.

4. South of the Singapore River to Chinatown is known as Dapo - 大坡, while the area from north of the river to Rochor is referred to as Xiaopo-小坡.

In the early 1800's the North & South Bridge Roads and the New Bridge Road were the major trunk roads running thro the city, and the local Chinese called them the Damalu -大马路 - the Main Road, and Ermalu - 二马路 - the Second Road

5. The airport was located at Kallang where the run was is where the National Stadium is.

6. The Embassy -总领事馆 located near 经禧路 –which is probably Cairn Road, should be the Embassy of the Republic of China.


a. Singapore’s 100 Historic Places, National Heritage Board, 2004
b. A Sense of Independence – David Marshall - A Political Biography, by Chan Heng Chee, Times Book International c2001