The founder of Hokkien cuisine stalwart in Singapore, Beng Thin Hoon Kee restaurant, was a Fujianese emigre, Lim Yew Hoon, who’d came to Singapore to escape the ravages of WW II China, and the simmering Chinese civil war between the Kuomintang/Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai Shek versus Mao Tse-tung’s Communists.
Upon arrival in Singapore in 1940, 17-year-old Lim Yew Hoon settled on Hokkien Street in Chinatown, where he took on various odd jobs to earn a living. 9 years later, after saving up enough money, he and 3 other friends started a small eating house which they called Beng Thin, serving Hokkien/Fujianese fare from their hometown, Quanzhou, in Fujian, China.
The eatery struggled in its first few years of operation - Singapore was just emerging from WW II and the business environment was very challenging. The other partners decided to bail out, selling their shares to Lim Yew Hoon. Becoming the sole proprietor of the restaurant, he added his own last name to it, calling it Beng Thin Hoon Kee (“kee” meant brand).
His dogged perseverance began to bear fruit - by the 1950s, Singaporeans began to dine out and his restaurant was one of the more recognizable names by then. Beng Thin Hoon Kee managed to garner a loyal following which continued to grow over the next seven decades.
One of the restaurant’s regular customers was Tan Chin Tuan, the chairman of OCBC Bank (one of Singapore’s Big Four Banks in the 1970s). When the bank’s new headquarters, the 52-storey OCBC Centre, was completed in 1976, it was Singapore’s tallest building. The bank’s chairman managed to convince Lim Yew Hoon to move his restaurant from its original Chinese shophouse location into the bank building’s carpark podium block. That was in 1979, and this was where Beng Thin Hoon Kee has remained to this day! The Lim family, albeit the second-generation ones, now manage the restaurant. Lim Yew Hoon’s daughter, Lim Lay Bee, being the most familiar face to us regulars.
Last Saturday, I met up with four old friends for lunch - all were former members of the Singapore diaspora in London, and we actually got to know each other whilst we were in the UK! But now, as we’re all back home, we decided on this old place out of a sense of nostalgia.
Our lunch orders consisted of mostly the regular items:
Melon and duck-meat salad - this was an old favourite of ours: matchstick-sized honeydew melon, cucumbers, red capsicum, jellyfish and roasted duck strips, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and fresh coriander sprigs, to be drizzled with a sweet-sour plum sauce and tossed at the table.
Hae cho and chun piah - these were two of the most popular appetisers on every Hokkien restaurant’s menu: “hae cho” are minced pork-prawns wrapped in tofu skin and deep-fried, whilst “chun piah” are crisp-fried spring rolls filled with vegetables (jicama, cabbage, carrots, parsley) and bits of pork & shrimp.
Both were very well-executed here.
Fish maw soup - another favourite of ours: a thick, unctuous and very flavoursome soup. The gelatinous, lip-sticking quality of the soup resulted from long, slow-boiling of fish-bones and fish-parts to obtain the stock.
A dash of Chinese black vinegar is essential to cut through the richness of the soup.
Her chi omelette - an old classic: sharksfin omelette, although the dearth of sharksfin nowadays meant the use of cellophane noodles as a substitute.
The omelette is served with lettuce wraps. My fave item for this lunch.
- Fried Hokkien noodles - another essential must-order when one dines here: no one does fried Hokkien noodles as well as Beng Thin Hoon Kee nowadays.
Back in 1990-2000, we also liked the versions by rival Hokkien restaurants, Bee Heong Palace (then located on Cecil Street) and Beng Hiang (then on Amoy Street). But, to fight rising rentals, both restaurants joined the exodus out of the city and into the suburbs in the 2010s: Bee Heong Palace to far away Sembawang Hills and Beng Hiang to Jurong. Both restaurants transformed overnight from business restaurants catering mainly to city suits, to family restaurants for the suburban families!
Kong bak pao - another old classic which we never failed to order: slow-braised pork belly, served with steamed mantou buns. These were every bit as good as I remembered them to be.
7) Orh nee - this dessert is actually of Teochew origins, but its popularity enabled it to become a fixture in Singapore’s Hokkien eateries. Essentially pureed taro (Asian yam), sweetened with sugar syrup, and with pork lard added to obtain a smooth, glistening appearance. Candied gingko nuts and pumpkin are added. The version here has always been good.
All the food tasted exactly the same as I’d remembered them for the past four decades that I was a customer. The only “disconcerting” change was the disappearance of all the elderly waitresses who used to banter with us and remembered our dining preferences. They’d been replaced by robot servers.
Guess one can’t have everything.
Beng Thin Hoon Kee Restaurant
65 Chulia St, #05-02, OCBC Centre, Singapore 049513
Tel: +65 65337708/ +65 65332818
Opening hours: 11am – 2.30pm, 6pm – 9.30pm daily