It’s not just about kueh, but also about people and history.
I didn’t think I would continue my family’s kueh shop. My parents were considering selling the business when I was in my early 30s and working for somebody else. Then, I thought about it some more and decided to carry on the family business and here I am.
My family’s kueh business started in 1968 when my grandfather’s first business failed. He met a Nyonya lady who taught him how to make kueh, so along with my mother, he started a shop selling kueh.
The shop has been in its current location in Bedok North since 1979. It was a new estate then, and there was nothing but forest beyond our shop. But there were customers because kueh was the default snack for that generation and everyone had big families. When I was still a boy, I would come into the shop to help, but I was really just being a nuisance and disturbing the work. I remember back then, nobody used rolling pins to flatten the dough because they were expensive. So we used glass bottles.
When I first took over, I did think of giving up because I couldn’t get used to such long hours and the weight of my decisions. Some decisions were really difficult, because they would affect the people who work for me. That difficulty is still here today, I have to make sure my decisions can continue to give my employees a way to bring money home to their families.
And as the times change, I have to deal with new challenges. Younger generations don’t eat kueh so much so I have to find new customers and to modernise our kueh. At the same time, I have to remember my old customers’ preferences. Even though some of them have moved away from Bedok to places as far as Sengkang, they still come back to my shop because we all grew up together. Even the new customers who heard about us through their friends, they buy our kueh because they like how it tastes now. If I change it too much, I will disappoint them.
I don’t believe in changing the taste of our kueh for the sake of doing it. I still think it’s important that the basics are done right. For example, we don’t change the filling in our ang ku kueh, but we are always looking for ways to make the skin softer and chewier because that’s the main reason why people like ang ku kueh. It’s the skin, not the filling.
I think that’s the reason why our ang ku kueh has been our signature item for decades. In fact, we are one of the only two kueh shops left still making them by hand every day. Most ang ku kueh you see now are made in factories and often the day before. This means those ang ku kueh have harder skin. To us, the softness of the skin is too important so we still choose to make them by hand every day.
Another popular item is the kueh lapis (9-layered cake or 九层糕). Children always liked eating it because it’s so fun to eat, can peel each colourful layer off one by one. It’s tedious to make because we have to steam it layer by layer, and cool it layer by layer. The layers then have to stick together but not too sticky so that they can be peeled off. But the hard work is worth it when I see people smiling after eating our kueh. I’m quite simple—I’m happy when I see people enjoy our kueh.
Maybe if the younger generation try fresh and soft ang ku kueh or kueh lapis, their minds will change. Right now, there are just too many types of snacks available. The young people will think of bubble tea or potato chips before they think of ang ku kueh.
Only after I took over the kueh shop, I realised how important it is to continue our traditions and culture. I understand why snacks like bubble tea are so popular, but traditional food like kueh is the link between the younger generations and their parents and grandparents. I hope more young people will try traditional food like kueh and appreciate that this is what their parents used to eat.
To keep up with the times, we introduced new things like healthier versions of the kueh. This is especially for the younger generation who are more health conscious and also the older folks who still enjoy kueh as comfort food but have to watch their diet. We also find new ways to present our kueh without losing their tradition and history. People still enjoy kueh partly because it’s comfort food that reminds them of history, so we have to find a balance between innovation and tradition.
Now I have my own children. Sometimes they come into the shop and “help” like I did when I was a kid. They don’t play with Play-Doh but real dough. I don’t expect them to take over the business but of course, I will be open if they want to.
If there are any younger people reading this and you want to start your own heritage business, I would like to say: Be patient because it will take time. But I’m happy for young people to try and continue our local heritage. I see many local confectionaries or kueh shops that have closed down and nobody continued them. It’s painful to see because they’re a part of our heritage and culture. When one of those shops close, it’s like one bit of our identity is lost and open for other people to fill in that blank. So it’s good to see young people take responsibility for our identity, just remember to be patient.
Lek Lim Confectionary