Food – Life, Passion, Art & Fun!
I thought that my love for food was a result from starting my working career at a young age by helping out with the family restaurant. Little did I know that in fact I was born into a foodie family! One afternoon Dad and I were having a chat over lunch and I remembered that Granny and Granddad had a noodle business that they operated from home, which has been since passed over to my 2nd Uncle on my father’s side. Curious, I asked Dad how long the family noodle business been in existence and was really surprised to find that it is has been around over 60 years! Really interested and intrigued by this new found knowledge of Dad’s side of the family I continued to bombard Dad with more questions about his childhood days and how did he become the amazing chef that he is today 🙂 (Ah yes I remember the whole conversation came up because Dad cooked char kway teow for lunch!). Dad is not much of a talker and likes to keep to himself. He must have been in a good mood that day as I pried a lot of memories from his younger years out of him. With the help from Dad’s sisters; Aunties Sharon and Marilyn, through the power of Skype, I began to piece together Dad’s life beginning with his childhood right up to present date.
My great grandfather MR TAN HAN CHIANG (Dad’s granddad) started things off with a Kuay Teow (noodle) business which was later passed on to his eldest son (Granddad’s brother). Besides making kuay teow my great grandfather also owned a Sundry Shop and this was passed down to his son, my grandfather. In the early 50’s my grandfather MR TAN HUI KIA started a noodle business called HAN LEE working out of his home. Later on he expanded into catering for dinner functions, supplying tables, chairs, cutlery and crockery. The majority of the catering functions booked were of weddings. Every time a wedding was booked, my Grandfather would outsource speciality banquet chefs from Singapore. They were hired to prepare the traditional Chinese wedding banquet dinners which consists of 10 courses. All the food was prepared from the family home. This is where Dad comes into the story. During Dad’s teenage years, he would help out with the food preparation. He learned a lot of the skills, techniques and recipes from the Singaporean chefs and it was his first form of basic training.
When Dad was in his early twenties, his eldest brother rented space in a Kopi Tiam (Direct translation to English is coffee shop but it is not a café that Westerners are familiar with. Basically in Malaysia there are open air restaurants where you can order food and drinks. Usually the owner of the Kopi Tiam sells drinks and rents out space for people to sell food. Malaysian is a hot tropical climate country so the owner of the Kopi Tiam would make more money selling drinks). Sorry were getting a little side tracked, right back to the story! So Dad became the assistant manager of PEKING RESTAURANT and the business was based in their hometown of Pontian. A few years later the brothers decided to move the business to Skudai a town 10miles away from Johor Bahru (my birthplace and capital of Johor state). One day a bridge in the town, where the restaurant was situated nearby, was washed away during a very bad flood. This caused traffic problems and people were forced to detour around the restaurant, which severely affected the business. So the brothers decided to close Peking Restaurant in Skudai and moved back home to Pontian. This time dad decided to go solo and moved to a town called Kulai to set up his own business, operating under the name PEKING RESTAURANT. (My eldest uncle returned to Pontian, also using the same name ‘Peking Restaurant’ up until 1996 when he decided to move the business to Johor Bahru but under a different name; ‘Bidor Restaurant’ which is still operating today). The majority of Dad’s customers were truck drivers passing by as Kulai was an important stopover on the Johor Bahru – Kuala Lumpur trunk road in the 1970’s and 1980’s, so business was very good.
It is here that my Aunty MS PATRICA DING matched up her sister (mom) with Dad. Aunty Pat was a hairdresser in Kulai town and overheard from one of her customers that Dad, in his early thirties, was single and looking to find a wife. Mom, was a salesperson for Macintosh computer, was in her late twenties, single and continuously pushed by her mom (Granny) to find a husband. Fortunately for me, when both were introduced to each other they fell in love! They got married in 1987. Dad continued to expand his business when he opened another restaurant with a business partner in Singapore. I asked Dad was business in Singapore good and he told me not really. He did tell me that Japanese construction workers from the docks would place food orders hours in advance for hundreds of noodles to takeout most nights. Dad sold his share of the business as issues and difficulties began to form with his business partner. (I don’t quite know what happened but it seems to be a touchy subject any time I ask Dad. “Never open a business with partners, they’ll give you trouble!” Let’s just leave it to our imagination).
While all this was going on, my uncle MR DING SOO HEE (Mom’s brother) was in Ireland studying at Trinity College. Trying to live a balanced work and education life became difficult resulting in a drop out from university. He continued working in the Chinese restaurant industry, climbing his way up to a managerial position in Kites Cantonese Restaurant. After gaining sufficient experience he decided it was time to set up his own restaurant. In search for a head chef he called back home to Malaysia. News that his sister (Mom) had just recently gotten married to Dad, a Chef. Dad was the first to move over to Ireland and worked in a Chinese restaurant somewhere in Dublin to learn how to make the crappy unauthentic Chinese food which is sold in all Chinese restaurants in Ireland. Meanwhile Mom was keeping busy back in Kulai both looking after me and managing the busy restaurant. Aunty Pat once told me that Mom would bring me to work and leave me sitting on the counter. I would then have my arms out looking to be held and I used to be cradled by dirty sweaty truckers, nice one mom cheers! When I was at the age of one, Mom sold the restaurant in Kulai and we moved over to Ireland.
Mom and Dad worked for Uncle Ding in the WILLOWS CHINESE RESTAURANT, Navan for a number of years, Dad in the kitchen and Mom front of house, until they both decided to set up a restaurant of their own (the Willows Chinese restaurant & Old Bridge Inn Pub is still operating to this date). Sorry nearly forgot, have to squeeze in there that my little brother Jason was born the 25th October 1993! In 1997, MANDARIN CHINESE RESTAURANT was established and Mom and Dad ran the restaurant for many successful years until Mom’s passing away on the 13th July 2000, after a long hard battle with cancer. Dad continued to run the business for years after but eventually decided to sell up mid 2008. He was tired of the unnecessary pressure and had enough partially due to a series of unfortunate events that occurred both in his personal life and related to the business. He was very fortunate to sell the business at that time as it was right before Ireland’s ‘property bubble economy’ burst. Dad is now enjoying life by taking it easy at home and works once a week for Uncle Ding in the Willows. To keep his mind occupied he enjoys watching Chinese TV shows, the Food Network and solving difficult Jigsaw puzzles.
Granddad and Granny’s noodle business: A typical morning consists of waking up at 5am to begin preparing the noodles, which was done by Granddad. After the noodles were made granny would then cooked the noodles by frying them and usually by 9am-10am the whole process was done. The noodles were then brought down to the local market and sold. People could also buy the noodles direct from the family home. There are 2 different types of noodles made: a Yellow colour type (which is a bit on the oily side and loved by Hokkien people) and the second type are Egg noodles (these were only made when requested for example people’s birthdays and other special occasions). The problem is that these days big companies are mass producing noodles in huge factories causing the price of noodles to drop and become very cheap to buy. In effect demand and profits for the traditional homemade noodles have greatly decreased over the years. However there are still customers who purposely seek out the family noodles due to the traditional way of its preparation. The ingredients used in traditional homemade noodles are much healthier compared to the mass produce noodles, containing chemicals in their production. Also the texture & taste from the traditional noodles are much better. The sad issue is that there does not seem to be anyone in the family who is willing to stand up and take over reigns of the business in the future from my uncle. It’s a real shame that the family noodle business with so much history may soon come to an end.