Goodbye, Mr Wee

Ravi Velloor

Associate Editor, The Straits Times


I recently said goodbye to an extraordinary individual who played no small role in my Singapore journey.

Mr Wee Toon Ouut, the proprietor of popular chicken rice restaurant Wee Nam Kee, passed away peacefully at Mount Elizabeth Hospital. He was 81 - his Chinese age 82 - and had suffered from liver cirrhosis for some years, a disease he fought bravely even as it threw him off his stride a bit.

To the end though, he kept his trademark smile that brought him friends - and customers - from around the world, including former Philippine president Joseph Estrada.

Even in his final hours, as his organs progressively failed and his limbs became too weak to move, his way of responding was to crinkle his eyes to signal that he recognised the calls of the people surrounding him.

The more than 100 wreaths that arrived at his Sengkang public housing home - each of them an expensive one - bore testimony to the affection and regard his friends and business associates held for the self-made millionaire, whose first eatery in Thomson Road gave him fame and a public profile much bigger than his original calling as a master printer with Harper Press.

From that beginning in the late 1980s, Wee Nam Kee has expanded into more outlets around the island and franchises in Manila and Tokyo. The old shop opposite Novena Church itself was forced to move, thanks to Singapore's unrelenting collective sale phenomenon, to its current location in United Square.

Food is an extraordinary business. You can produce the finest roasts, hot plates or curries, but if the service fails or the waiters are brusque, they sour on the tongue. On the other hand, a welcoming proprietor and friendly staff can make even mediocre fare seem forgivable.

Mr Wee's food was rarely mediocre, but whenever he was in the shop opposite Novena Church - the first outlet he opened - it somehow tasted a whole lot better.

Often, he seemed apologetic about seeing you take the bill, even after the second beer had been on the house or the whisky taken from a bottle that he kept under the counter with your name on it, and wasn't charged.

Looking back on a friendship of close to three decades, I cannot but think how significant a role he played in inducting me into the Singaporean way of life.

Introduced to the place by my late colleague Philip Coorey, Wee Nam Kee had become one of my regular haunts by the mid-1990s. It helped too that the bus stop just outside his door served as a fabulous interchange if you were coming in from town, so you hopped off one bus, grabbed some food and grabbed another bus or flagged down a taxi.

If Mr Wee was not in, one's eyes looked for him, and to watch him park his limousine and walk over in his trademark braces and gold Rolex brought a special cheer to the soul.

If he was already there, he would most likely be drinking beer or swilling brandy with a bunch of badminton kakis and you'd be sure that he would turn up at your table before too long to make you, too, feel welcome, and to banter.

Then, the tales would flow, sometimes laced with personal anecdotes - he once had an Indian girlfriend, he said - and the night would sometimes end with him belting out Elvis Presley songs. All the time, he kept an eye out for other guests. If a group was short of a chair, he would haul himself up and walk over and pull one of the red plastic chairs from another table.

The conversations with Mr Wee gave me extraordinary insights into people and events in Singapore's past that I, as an immigrant, had missed out on. They included portraits of some of my own senior colleagues, many of whom knew Mr Wee well because of his years in advertising and printing.

Indeed, I hadn't realised that my chicken-rice eating habit - heartily embraced by my expanding family - had been a significant rite of passage until one night, walking into Wee's, I spotted then Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) chief operating officer Denis Tay sitting at an outside table and stopped to greet him. Mr Tay's eyes widened in surprise.

"You come here, ah?" he asked.

I shrugged. A few weeks later when I was in SPH's Genting Lane offices for a meeting attended by chairman Lim Kim San, Mr Tay took me by the hand and introduced me to him. "You know, chairman, he eats chicken rice," Mr Tay said, as though I had successfully made my bones in some secret society.

Mr Lim stared at me and responded gruffly: "I prefer nasi lemak myself."

Over the years, our family friendship with Mr Wee only grew stronger. Hot plate venison was added to the menu at my wife's urging. Her father, a retired Indian civil servant, also became friends with him on his visits to see us, even though, as a strict vegetarian, he had no use for the delicious chicken breast meat or drumsticks put out by Wee's. Raconteurs both, they bonded over beer.

When my father-in-law was admitted to Mount Alvernia Hospital with a heart condition, Mr Wee turned up to see him with a basket of the choicest fruit. When I left SPH in 2000 to join Bloomberg News, Mr Wee turned up at the financial information company's Capital Square office for a tour of the office, dazzled by its opulence and the arrays of computers. After I introduced him to my new colleagues, we repaired to a Turkish restaurant nearby for lunch. Likewise, when my Swiss-trained sister-in-law opened a restaurant in Race Course Road, he was most enthusiastic about the enterprise, willing her on to succeed in her entrepreneurial journey.

It is a testament to how close he was to my family that my first tip-off to his death came not from people in Singapore but from my son in London, for whom "Uncle Wee's" food was so much a part of his childhood.

Indeed, as a law student four years ago, he had spotted a Wee Nam Kee stall at a Singapore Day function in Victoria Park, London, and had barrelled into the place and ordered everything in sight, an incident duly reported back to my wife by Mr Wee's son Liang Lian.

Like his father, the UK-educated Liang Lian could have excelled in the printing business. Given his credentials, he could have lived abroad too, as his brother Liang Chee does.

But, about 16 years ago, he chose to switch tracks and arrived at Wee Nam Kee to help his father's chicken rice operation.

Starting in the kitchen, Liang Lian is now familiar with all parts of the business and can pick up a chicken and accurately tell the weight of the bird to as near as 50g. More gratifyingly, after arriving at the business as a rather stiff personality, he has become something of his father's son in the way he is now able to engage comfortably with people.

Eager to preserve the hawker culture, Liang Lian is now mulling over a plan to take inexpensive but quality chicken rice back into the Singapore heartland. If he succeeds, it would be a wonderful tribute to Mr Wee - and Singapore. All too often the future lives in our past.

Mr Wee was also proud that Liang Chee, his elder son, has a PhD and is president of Northeast Iowa Community College. Despite his urbane ways, he himself had barely passed his O levels and his wife, who died a few years ago, also had little education: Growing up during the Japanese Occupation as the eldest child in her family, she was forced to stay home to help with the household. Not an unfamiliar Singapore story for those who survived those turbulent times.

Looking back over the years, I have often marvelled at the Singapore Project that made me, an Indian immigrant in an alien city, feel so welcomed by an old-style Chinese towkay two decades my senior, himself the son of an immigrant from Hainan.

In the early 1990s, the person who edited my CV and hand-carried it to SPH editors - dislodging me from my New Delhi sinecure - was my friend Lai Kwok Kin, with whom I went to Mr Wee's wake. For the past two decades, I have rented a home from the family of Mr Peter Foo, the retired Caltex veteran and contemporary of Mr Wee. My first set of golf clubs were hand-me-downs from the big-hearted Mr Foo, who is now in his 80s.

Pioneer or Merdeka generation, all of them belong to an era when Singapore saw itself as a melting pot rather than a mosaic. In their time and today, they constituted a critical glue for this nation and the values they carry are at the core of our national resilience.

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