Possibly one of Singapore’s most popular street foods, popiah has been around for generations.
This time-honoured Hokkien treat originated from the time of the Qing Dynasty and local favourite Bee Heng Popiah has certainly withstood the test of time since its birth almost 90 years ago, growing into a popular household name across the island.
Bee Heng Popiah was originally founded in 1930 by Tan Choo, grandfather of the current third-generation owner of this quaint family-run business, Gary Tan. The first stall started in Albert Street and then moved to Koek Road as the business flourished, and then to Glutton’s Square. Finally, Tan Choo moved Bee Heng Popiah to its current location in Newton Food Centre in 1977, where it has been for the past 42 years.
The origin of popiah
Cindy Tan, owner Gary’s wife, helps her husband in handling all aspects of the family business, including the cooking and marketing. She says, “The (sad) history of popiah is what got Tan Choo hooked from the tender age of 10.” Known as runbing or lumpia, the non-fried, soft spring roll has its roots in a long-treasured Chinese tradition that dates back almost a thousand years. According to history, during the Chinese Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC), the ancient scholar Jie Zitui was a devout follower and devotee of Duke Wen of Jin.
Before becoming a duke, Wen went through a hard 19-year exile, during which time Jie selflessly made several sacrifices to help him during this period. Wen promised to reward Jie one day for his dedication and devotion. When he finally became a duke, however, Wen rewarded everyone else that helped him during his exile, but forgot about Jie, who had by then moved into the mountains with his mother.
Unable to locate Jie, Wen ordered the mountain to be set on fire to force him out. But Jie refused to give in and perished in the fire along with his mother. With guilt and remorse, Wen ordered everyone to go three days without lighting a fire to honour Jie for his loyalty and devotion, and as piety to his mother.
Since no fires could be lit to make food, people ate only the uncooked spring rolls with fillings of fresh vegetables (since it was the onset of spring). This is also the reason that popiah is also commonly eaten during the Cold Food Festival.
Staying above the competition
“Our popiah stands out from the competition because of our deep-rooted heritage,” shares Cindy. “We are still following Tan Choo’s traditional 80-year-old recipe for the popiah filling, which has been passed down over the generations and is not something one can master overnight. Unique to our popiah is the secret recipe for our handmade crispy bits—most people use peanuts, but ours are fish-based. We also pay a lot of attention to our shredded turnip mixture, which is simmered in a special seafood stock for hours.”
Cindy adds that customers also comment on the vibrancy of the vegetables in the filling, and how rare it is to find that that quality in other popiah stalls across the island. “Our commitment to using only quality ingredients speaks for itself,” says Cindy. We charge $2.20 per roll, with a minimum of two rolls per order, which makes it a spend of $4.40. Other popiah stalls charge as little as $1.60 per plate, but we charge more because of our ingredients as we won’t scrimp on our filling.”
The family has also dabbled in sushi-style popiah and lobster popiah, but had to abandon both varieties despite positive feedback because of the high cost of ingredients. The family has the minimum two per order policy as selling one roll only doesn’t cover their costs. “The glass ceiling effect of selling a cheap plate of food that is easily shared by many can’t compare to selling a plate of more expensively priced seafood for example. Hence, we need a minimum double order so that we can at least break even with each order.”
“Despite the large volume we sell daily, the only thing automated in our kitchen is the vegetable slicer, which we used for shredding the turnip. Otherwise, everything else is handled manually by our team of five family members.” With the business running like a well-oiled machine for so many decades, there are no challenges when it comes to the actual making of the popiah.
However, the battle lies in the perennial F&B issue of finding and retaining quality manpower. 56-yearold Gary has been handling the business for 10 years now, when he took over the business from his father and grandfather. “Our son Marcus dabbled in the operations for a little while too, but eventually left for the greener pastures of the corporate world,” shares Cindy.
Needless to say, manpower has always been an issue in the food business in Singapore, and increasingly with the hawker food culture.
“It’s very hard to find someone from the younger generation who is willing to put up with the long hours for nominal pay, and hot and oily working conditions.”
Cindy remarks that it would help if the government eased the current restrictions on hiring foreign manpower, as foreigners are more willing to help out in hawker stalls than the younger, local generation.
The family has also had to put their popular catering arm of the business on hold due to the lack of manpower. “At the rate at which things are progressing, the hawker culture is dying a very fast and imminent death,” she laments. A common predicament most family-run hawker businesses find themselves in—will someone take over the family business and continue it into another generation, or will the family have to shutter down when the current gate keepers step down?”
The road ahead
Blessed with a very loyal and large customer base, some of the patrons have been coming to the popular haunt since their school days, so they are as old as the business itself. The family has also had the opportunity to cook for the President in 2006, and had the famous F1 driver Sebastian Vettel try his hand at rolling popiah in their kitchen in 2008 at the start of Singapore’s very first F1 night race.
“Loyal customers and word-of-mouth are our biggest strengths, with friends bringing other friends to try our popiah. Right now we have a lot of French people coming to our stall.” Cindy also shares that one of their oldest customers is a 100-year-old aunty who only eats their popiah every day, and some other customers come up to three times a week. “It’s small things like this that really make the hard work and commitment worth it.”
However, having such a wide customer base has meant that the business has not needed to evolve much and so hasn’t kept up as fast as it should with social media as its competitors. “We would love to expand and open another outlet. But, we are ageing and don’t have as much energy as before, nor do we have the capital required for the investment going forward.”
“The ideal future situation would be finding an investor who will partner with us and continue the Bee Heng Popiah name,” says Cindy earnestly. “With the right investor, we could open a cafe to sell popiah along with kopi; re-supply DIY popiah party sets to homes for special occasions (originally sold at $68 for 30 rolls, with all ingredients provided); and even look at franchises.”