Eating out in the “good ol’ days” is a treat reserved for special occasions (or when dad gets a bonus in his paycheck). The majority of Singaporean Chinese families will head to the “tze char” stalls to order all sorts of stir-fry dishes to go with a couple of beers. And instead of plain white rice (the staple carbs for Asians), noodles will be an upgrade. One of the all-time favourites? Horfun or broad rice noodles that originated from Guangzhou, China, where most of the ethnic Chinese in Singapore came from. Only the upper class gets to visit proper restaurants (with the exception of weddings).
Business for these “Tze char” stalls were brisk in the 80s when Singaporeans began to have higher disposable income. Typically, they are the “anchor tenants” of the coffee shops, each having a kitchen team of 4-5 and 3-4 order takers/servers. But good business will always attract new players into the market. And things begin to really heat up entering the 90s.
This is the scenario faced by Teck Hin Tze Char in Ghim Moh. It was pretty popular, but with four “tze char” stalls within 2 HDB blocks of flats (one at each corner coffee shop) and rising costs, they decided to exit the red ocean scene. In the macroenvironment, Singapore’s GDP was growing strongly… which meant that “eating out” had transformed into eating at the shopping malls and restaurants.
One of the chefs at Teck Hin then had a brilliant idea. He realized that with higher incomes, people are not coming to “tze char” stalls for family dinners. Instead, they were taking away the noodle dishes on an individual serving size more frequently (no more plain rice every day!). Also, as these noodle dishes used to be in sizes that served up to 6-10 persons, chefs had modified processes to serve individual portions. It had became common practice for chefs to fry a big portion of horfun and to keep them in a warmer. When an individual order came in, they would just stir-fry the ingredients, create a starchy sauce and then pour them onto some horfun to complete the dish. So what is to stop him from deconstructing the process further and pre-fry the ingredients in batches as well?
A hawker BLUE OCEAN was discovered.
- No need for big kitchen space (high rentals)
- No need for big staff strength (high wage bill)
- Menu to offer only “horfun” and “wuifan” (rice noodles or rice served with a starchy sauce)
- Variations to have only beef, fish and prawns and their different combinations
- New lunch market
- New process of stir-frying everything seperately in batches and using the starchy sauce to bring everything together.
- Enhance quality by offering generous amount of beef, fish or prawns.
- Enhance attractiveness through “wok hei” (literally breath of the wok or the unique smoky aroma and taste created by stir-frying ingredients at super high temperatures rapidly).
To this very day, there are perpetual long queues at this hawker stall in Ghim Moh Food Centre. I understand there were disputes over the name of the stall which is why it is now “Hin Fried Hor Fun with Prawn, Beef, Sliced Fish” instead of “Teck Hin”. There were also more than one stall at one point in time in Ghim Moh (as at the time of writing this article, another stall of the same name is found in Old Airport Road Food Centre).
I do not know the gossipy details in this story. I am not writing about who is the rightful owner of the idea etc. So if there are any facts that are wrong, do inform me and I will have them corrected. The intent of this article is to show that it is possible even for hawkers to find blue oceans, a concept proposed by Renée Mauborgne and W.Chan Kim.
In a related story, “Wok Hey”, a stir-fry takeaway-only kiosk concept, is another blue ocean idea that is successful with 27 outlets in a span of four years. But that would be for another day. Hin Fried Hor Fun is fascinating to me because I grew up in that area and because of the bold deconstruction of the recipe (from stir-frying everything together to stir-frying ingredients in batches individually).