Feedback
People 3 minutes 14 June 2019

In My Father’s Kitchen

Brothers Paul and Wayne Liew, the third-generation owners of Keng Eng Kee Seafood, share the lessons on fatherhood they gleaned from their own dad that they hope to pass on to their daughters.

Singapore zichar Father's Day

A family business is intrinsically linked with the family identity, and for third-generation owners Paul and Wayne Liew of MICHELIN-recommended homegrown zichar restaurant Keng Eng Kee Seafood, it’s shaped who they are as fathers and the values that they want to impart to their children.

Growing up as children of hawkers is not a walk in the park — few see the long back-breaking hours hawkers spend slaving over the stove, away from their families and children. “During our primary school days, we didn’t really get to see our parents. Instead, there would be a stack of money on the table, our daily allowance,” says eldest son Paul.
Left: Paul Liew as a child; Right: Wayne and Geraldine Liew (Pic: Paul Liew)
Left: Paul Liew as a child; Right: Wayne and Geraldine Liew (Pic: Paul Liew)
They might have been jealous of their peers who got to spend more time with their parents but they never resented their father and mother for the little time they had with them. “We were always fully aware of the nature of our family business and we learnt to accept it. Even when my father was sick, he kept working. If we wanted to see our parents, then we went down to help at the shop,” says Wayne. By the time the brothers were teenagers, they got to spend more time with their parents because they could help out more at the restaurant.
KEK3.jpeg

Though not as active in the kitchen these days, their father, Liew Choy, is still a constant presence at the eatery in Bukit Merah. Having mellowed over the years, he can be found with a beer in hand and a ready smile for his long-time customers. “But growing up, we saw our father as someone who was very fierce and always had the very serious demeanour of a master chef. We were always afraid to talk to him and would pass messages through our mother instead,” says Wayne, who followed his father into the kitchen and is now the head chef of the restaurant, while Paul manages the front of house.

The senior Liew, 65, was the quintessential stoic Asian father, focused wholly on working and providing for the family. “That, he did very well. We always had a roof over our heads, food to eat and we never lacked anything,” says Paul. This strong sense of duty to family — especially as the eldest son — is one of the core values that he has inherited from his father, who always exuded strength and leadership.

One of the things about their father that left the deepest impression on Wayne was how he treated his customers. “No matter how tired or busy he was at the wok, he would always greet them cheerfully. He was a role model to us on how we should treat our customers and friends with heartfelt sincerity and not just put up a show.”
The second and third generation operators of Keng Eng Kee while it was at the Alexandra Village coffeeshop. Third from left is Liew Choy, Paul and Wayne's father. (Pic: Paul Liew)
The second and third generation operators of Keng Eng Kee while it was at the Alexandra Village coffeeshop. Third from left is Liew Choy, Paul and Wayne's father. (Pic: Paul Liew)
The brothers recall how their father made them start from the bottom when they first joined the family business, which was started by their maternal grandfather. “We mopped the floors and cleaned the toilets. He felt that it was a must to lead by example if we wanted to understand our employees and earn their respect. In the same way, he never shied away from doing things like drying the dishes just because he was the boss,” says Wayne.

Today, Paul and Wayne have five daughters between them, aged from three to 16. The oldest child Stephy, who is Wayne’s daughter, has been helping out more actively in the restaurant in recent years, serving customers and manning the cashier. Paul remarks that she seems to have inherited her grandfather’s outgoing disposition with customers. “I’m really proud of this niece of mine, she has great PR skills and interacts very naturally with our customers. They recognise her more than they do Wayne,” he jokes.
Paul and Wayne raise their children to be more like sisters than cousins (Pic: Paul Liew)
Paul and Wayne raise their children to be more like sisters than cousins (Pic: Paul Liew)

After having spent their whole lives steeped in the family business, the Liew brothers realise that, while there are many invaluable family values and traditions they want to pass on to their daughters, there are also some things they would do different. “Where before my father showed us love by providing for the family, now I make sure to say ‘I love you’ to my children too,” shares Wayne. “I hope that I can be a good father figure because daughters watch you and they decide what they want in their future husbands based on what you model for them.”

Time was a luxury their father wasn’t able to afford, but now with more employees and three siblings, including youngest sister Geraldine, in the business, they make an effort to protect each other’s time. “Now, we treasure our family time more than in the past generation. We try to create time for one another to spend with our families,” says Paul. “Family is the most important thing. We raise our children to address each other like siblings — my kids call Wayne’s da jie (eldest sister) and er jie (second sister) — and it’s intentional. We want them to stay as a family and take care of each other, even when we are gone.”

“The business is in our father’s blood, just like it is in ours. It’s our responsibility to pass on these values to them in a meaningful way,” says Paul. “Whether or not they choose to take over the business in the future, they need to know where our family comes from. These are the stories they can pass down to their own children.”


RECOMMENDED READING: Keng Eng Kee Seafood Puts Well-Loved Zichar Dishes Into Burgers

People

Subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to get news and updates about the MICHELIN Guide
Subscribe
Follow the MICHELIN Guide on social media for updates and behind-the-scene information.