Founding fathers of Singapore Hainanese chicken rice stall did not attend poly or ITE

Senior Minister of State Amy Khor announced on Monday (11 Jan) that the government will launch a new work-study programme in March to train polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates to become hawkers (‘Amy Khor announces new programme to train poly and ITE grads to become hawkers‘).

The new Work-Study Post-Diploma (Certificate in Hawkerpreneurship) is a 12-month programme open to to all recent poly and ITE graduates. Dr Khor said, “With the increasing recognition and appreciation of hawker fare, setting up a hawker stall can be considered as a gateway into the F&B sector, and there could be budding food and beverage entrepreneurs who may aspire to join the hawker trade.”

She said the National Environment Agency (NEA) and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) will work together with Temasek Polytechnic (TP) to launch the programme. Students will undergo a two-month classroom-based training, followed by a four-month apprenticeship and a six-month mentorship. Both mentors and apprentices will receive a monthly training allowance of $500 and $1,000 respectively.

However, it is noted that majority of hawkers in Singapore did not attend any structured poly courses to become one. In fact, many of the older hawkers have very little education and some don’t even attend schools at all.

Birth of Singapore chicken rice

One of the most iconic hawker dishes in Singapore is none other the Singapore Hainanese chicken rice. According to Infopedia from the National Library Board, the Singapore Hainanese chicken rice was adapted from the Hainan’s version by Wong Yi Guan (王义元). It was then made famous by his apprentice, Mok Fu Swee (莫履瑞) through his restaurant Swee Kee Chicken Rice in the 50s and 60s.

In 1936, Wong arrived in Singapore from Hainan. Before he came to Singapore, Wong had heard about the famous Wenchang (文昌) chicken rice in Hainan. From his village near Qionghai city (琼海市), he travelled to Yukui (毓葵) Chicken Rice Restaurant at Wencheng Town (文城镇) in Wenchang County (文昌县) to savor it. He even asked the owner Wu Yukui (伍毓葵) for tips on cooking chicken rice.

After arriving in Singapore and trying to make a living, he saw that there were already many Hainanese as well as Chinese from different places in Singapore. He thought that they might want to try the Hainanese chicken rice, especially the Hainanese here, who majority came from Wenchang. So, he decided to sell chicken rice. Every morning, he would cook and prepare the chicken in sliced pieces, together with chicken rice balls. This was to facilitate the ease of eating chicken rice on a street. He would then put the prepared food in 2 bamboo baskets and carried them, plying the streets to sell his chicken rice. Wong’s business gradually picked up.

As business grew and with more earnings, Wong proceeded to rent a stall at a coffee shop in Purvis Street (also known as Hainan Second Street) off Beach Road. Later, the coffee shop changed ownership which forced Wong to move to another coffeeshop in Middle Road (Hainan First Street) so as to continue operating. After operating awhile, he retired due to old age. He died in Tan Tock Seng Hospital in the 50s.

Popularization of chicken rice by Swee Kee

(Source: National Archives)

Mok Fu Swee came to Singapore from Hainan in his youth. Through introduction by relatives, Mok became Wong’s apprentice, working at Wong’s chicken rice stall in Purvis Street. He was a diligent worker, learning from Wong how to cook chicken rice in the day and attending an evening school also at Purvis Street in the night so as to get some education. Every month, after paying the evening school tuition fee, he would remit the rest of his salary back to his mother in Hainan.

Not long after, Mok decided to venture out on his own. He rented a stall in a coffee shop at Middle Road and later moved to another coffee shop at Purvis Street to sell chicken rice. He named his stall “Swee Kee”. In 1949, with his earnings, Mok decided to buy over a grocery store at Middle Road and turned it into Swee Kee chicken rice restaurant. He had lofty ambitions, wanting to turn the Hainanese chicken rice into a high-quality product by improving on its aroma and taste.

One of the key skill Mok had acquired from Wong was to be able to select the chicken. It determined if the meat of the chicken would turn out well after cooking. Every morning, he would be at the back of the restaurant, waiting for the lorry to transport live chickens to his restaurant. By feeling the back and belly of a chicken, and weighing it with his hands, Mok would be able to tell if the chicken was good. That was how he selected his chickens to serve at his restaurant.

Mok Fu Swee personally selects his chickens at the back of Swee Kee Chicken Rice restaurant.

Not long after Mok’s restaurant was opened, a reporter from Sin Chew Daily visited it and wrote a review. The news attracted widespread attention and Swee Kee soon became famous. Business began to boom and diners were often seen waiting in line outside the restaurant.

In 1951, famous Hong Kong movie stars Li Lihua, Yan Jun and their entourage flew to Singapore to make a film. After getting off the plane, they went straight to Swee Kee to try Mok’s chicken rice as they had also heard of it. News spread that the movie stars were eating at Swee Kee. Soon, a large crowd was gathering in front of Mok’s restaurant trying to get a glimpse of them. The movie stars and their group were forced to sneak out from the back door to avoid the crowd. The news further fueled the popularity of Swee Kee chicken rice.

With business booming and more funds on hand, Mok then expanded into other businesses like providing banquet services, investing in rubber and palm oil plantations as well as real estate. In the hey days, Mok was listed as one of the richest in Singapore. He was even elected as vice chairman of the Hainanese association in Singapore. In 1966, he was awarded the Public Service Medal by President Yusof Ishak.

Wong and Mok are credited to have started the Singapore Hainanese chicken rice dish, which gradually spread to the rest of the world. They did not need to go to poly or ITE to become hawkers. They simply wanted to make a living to survive.

Indeed, in a letter to ST Forum today (14 Jan), public member Ng Chee Kheon questioned the rationale of training poly and ITE graduates to become hawkers. He said that it would effectively make the time, effort and resources spent in training these graduates at those institutions redundant.

“I would think that the technical knowledge and skills of these graduates, acquired in the polytechnics and ITE, could be put to much better use in our industries,” he added.


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