Madam Soon Puay Keow ushered me into the private room of Spring Court restaurant on Upper Cross Street, via an entrance so grand it is impossible to miss no matter the Chinatown crowds. Eye-catching signboards are mounted on the building that houses what maybe Singapore’s oldest family-run Chinese restaurant. Spring Court, also known as “Wing Choon Yuen”, is where reunions, birthdays, weddings and business deals alike have been celebrated for generations.
The restaurant did not always have such touches of stateliness as valet-parking facilities and well-heeled clientele. Time and again over its storied history, its very survival has been in doubt.
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The early days
In the late 1920s, founder Ho Loke Yee arrived in Singapore from Dong Guan in the Guangdong province of southern China with nothing more than a quest to build a life for himself and his family.
A hearty appetite coupled with his in-born culinary talent eventually led Ho to leave his driving job in 1929 to open a restaurant in the Great World Amusement Park between Zion Road, Kim Seng Road and River Valley Road where Great World City shopping centre now stands. Great World was the entertainment paradise of its day, encompassing a large amusement park, restaurants and hawker stalls, multiple theatres and a night club.
Ho was ambitious. Spring Court had started out as a Cantonese-style eatery of the steamed, boiled and homey easy-on-the-palate variety, but Ho was impatient to push culinary norms. He had by then fully assimilated into Singapore, and in a shed that was the heart of his restaurant – the kitchen — he pottered about, tirelessly experimenting with local ingredients and spices such as chillies, curry powder and five-spice powder.
Defining Singaporean Chinese cuisine
The early reactions to such inventions were mixed, with many customers initially sceptical about how traditional Cantonese cuisine could marry local ingredients. However, what emerged were recipe creations that may be considered instrumental to the development of Singaporean Chinese cuisine, many of which are still dished up by Spring Court’s busy kitchen: claypot chilli crab, roasted chicken with minced prawn, crab meat roll with chicken liver and salted egg, double boiled chicken stuffed with bird’s nest in superior soup.
Hard work and long hours did not deter Ho, who slept on a makeshift bed his workers assembled each night after the restaurant was cleaned. A taskmaster, Ho expected the same dedication from the staff in maintaining high standards for the restaurant. He did not tolerate the lazy or incompetent.
Ho’s efforts paid off as business flourished in the 1950s and 60s. This was partly due to the revamp of Great World after World War II, when it was sold to Shaw Organisation; Singapore was also enjoying general prosperity.
A place to see and be seen
Dining in Spring Court during the post-war era was not just for special occasions such as Chinese New Year reunions, celebrating business deals or entertaining foreign friends but was also a mark of social standing.
With the capacity to accommodate up to a hundred tables, Spring Court was the choice of the affluent for hosting banquets. There were three weddings going on at the same time on certain nights. “It was quite a sight, and quite funny, when the three brides would check out each other and their respective guests,” said Soon.
She added: “Business was good, so we were also very motivated.” The Spring Court of its heyday has been commemorated in newspaper write-ups and television documentaries and was the star of the 2011 Singapore hit movie It’s a Great Great World.
By the 1970s, the hauteur was fading. The restaurant’s interior looked tired and the original wooden floorboards showed their age. Renovation plans were held back as notice was given that Great World would be demolished for modern complexes.
Moving into a new home
In 1978, Spring Court moved to the former Oriental Theatre site on New Bridge Road. It was during these uncertain times that the second generation became involved in the business, and, out of the large family, Ho’s son, Ho Hun Cheong, an interpreter, and his daughter-in-law Soon, a bank clerk, took on a big part of this next phase of Spring Court’s development.
Ho Hun Cheong had worked part-time in the restaurant with his siblings, so he knew a thing or two, while Soon knew next to nothing about running a restaurant and took it upon herself to learn things from scratch, much to the delight of the senior Ho. The patriarch was in his late seventies; he was pleased that his legacy would be continued despite his never having asked any of his descendants to succeed him.
Being located in an Oriental Theatre annex was initially a challenge. The signboard was not clearly visible to passers-by and the usable space had shrunk significantly to a mere 20 tables, causing much of the restaurant’s Great World appeal and grandeur to be lost.
The one constant, however, was the hard-working and determined attitude of not only the family but also their loyal employees. Ho Hun Cheong would personally watch over the kitchen, progressing to preparing some of the dishes; Soon assisted with the other operational aspects including managing customers and suppliers.
Soon admitted: “We were clueless at first and it was very difficult… I kept asking myself how we could keep this all together without disappointing my father-in-law.” She did not need to fret, much less regret leaving her steady finance job. Day after day for the next 13 years, Spring Court was packed to the brim.
Holding court in the East
In 1991, Spring Court was forced to relocate again as Oriental Theatre was making way for new buildings and roads. The restaurant moved to Upper East Coast Road, to premises that could hold about 50 tables. There it remained for another 13 years. It is a belief among traditional Chinese families that any change in business or residential address can bespell a change of luck, for better or worse. The 1990s were indeed trying times for the Hos, when the restaurant was almost forced to close. A major disagreement in 1996 between Soon and her husband resulted in their divorce and Soon decided to carry on the restaurant on her own, much to the disapproval of the family, and at a time, too, when business had become lacklustre at best.
“What else could I have done?” Soon said. “I couldn’t go back to work in the bank as I had left it so many years ago and the children were still so young.” She was also aware that her employees were dependent on her for their livelihoods. Courageously, she accepted the responsibility of carrying on.
1997 was the year Soon formally assumed control of the entire business to re-organise it. Clocking 14-hour days without seeing much improvement in the business was at first heartbreaking. On some nights, driving home alone, Soon would cry.
She gathered strength from the employees, many of whom had stood by her since their days at Great World. Her son and two daughters, then in their late teens, were also her pillars of strength. Every day after school, they toiled together in the kitchen and front-of-house, handling suppliers and the restaurant’s expenses.
Birth of the Spring Court popiah
Then, Soon hit on what would be her salvation: the Spring Court popiah. A Hokkien-style fresh spring roll that originated as a delicacy for special occasions like the Lunar New Year, popiah had cheapened into a snack, casually and thoughtlessly shovelled down before one moved on to a main meal of char kway teow or laksa. Soon’s coup was to restore dignity to popiah and to Spring Court itself by concocting a deluxe version with inspiration from her Hokkien heritage and her mother’s recipe.
Popiah is a multiplicity of ingredients – turnips, carrots, bamboo shoots, Chinese parsley, bean paste, dried shrimps, Chinese waxed sausages, shredded omelette, garlic, sweet sauce, prawns, fresh chilli paste etc. — all wrapped together in a rice flour skin. Any ingredient can be added, with each contributing to the final explosion of flavours. It is a near perfect metaphor for the Spring Court esprit de corps. “We would just sit around the kitchen,” Soon said, describing how she and her staff would prepare the popiah. “We would use the time to chit chat and talk about anything under the sun. It made things a lot easier and I didn’t feel so alone.”
Soon’s modest innovation quickly became Spring Court’s signature dish and a representation of Singapore Chinese cuisine. The popiah is, today, the first dish in almost every one of Spring Court’s set menus; it can be ordered for dining in, or for take-out at a designated area next to the restaurant entrance.
But the economic downturn hit in 1998 and sales plummeted just when Soon had thought the worst was over.
She maintained a brave front. “In front of my staff I will never show that I am troubled or they may worry, and in front of the customers, especially, you must always smile!”
Hawking roast chicken for $1
Soon decided that in order to turn things around, the restaurant would sell its famous roast chicken for $1, a marketing tactic which worked wonders. Before long, the crowds and queues were back and this continued for the next seven years on those premises. “Of course when they order the chicken, they will also order many other dishes to share,” she said. “Singaporeans like a good deal and good food!”
In 2005, the Upper East Coast Road lease expired. To buy or to rent? These were difficult decisions, given the economic climate and the many challenges such as labour issues and increasing operational costs confronting the food and beverage industry. The Chinatown area remained close to the hearts of the family as well as of the employees.
Mike Ho, the son of Ho Hun Cheong and Soon, who was in his early thirties, was an investor in traditional shophouses and boutique property development. He was entering the family business and growing in his role. When a small row of shophouses at the end of Upper Cross Street was put on the market, he saw the opportunity for Spring Court to finally own its own property, freed forever from being at the mercy of landlords.
Soon was overjoyed when their purchase offer for one of the four-storey shophouses was accepted.
The location on the main thoroughfare along Upper Cross Street ensured a good flow of traffic and pedestrians. But this was an enclave where streets were flanked by Chinese medicinal shops peddling exotic animal carcasses in glass cabinets, not the most appealing of sights for diners.
The task of quickly realising the potential of the shophouse building and transforming the four floors into a restaurant was undertaken by Mike and the family, which now included his sisters: Ho Giao Pik, a banker, and Ho Giao Yun, a dermatologist.
What would these highly-educated youngsters know of managing a restaurant? But, of course, Mike and his sisters had been apprenticing since the 1990s.
“The children were all very helpful when we had to go through the difficult times and I am grateful for them,” Soon recalled. “They would quickly finish their homework and help me whenever they could.”
As his sisters were by then busy with their own professional lives, Mike got to work right away, beginning with the installation of a lift in the building — how else would the elderly make it to the private rooms on the higher floors? — maximising the space to allow 65 tables despite the nooks and crannies, and fitting a fully-equipped kitchen on the second floor.
The superstitious may attribute the restaurant’s revival to the change of feng shui. Others may put it down to the luck of the location, occupying a prime spot in the heart of Chinatown.
Hungry for survival
Ask Mike and his mother, though, and they will say their survival has all been about being prepared: prepared that there will be disruptions along the way such as the construction of the Chinatown MRT station; prepared that even the most loyal of employees will eventually retire; prepared that crises can happen and things go wrong.
The “Singaporean Chinese Cuisine” pioneered by forefather Ho has, in the meantime, been imitated by innumerable restaurants, each offering its own unique variations. What was adventurous and novel is no longer so. Mike said the solution may be to expand into branches and adopt a “self-service Chinese fast food” model which will involve less labour. This is a direction he and his mother have not been able to agree on.
“We are seeing more and more millennials,” Mike admitted. “It’s important to make adjustments and innovate so that our dishes can cater to our younger customers.” In time, he said, it would be great if he could pass the business on to his now toddler son although he would definitely not force the responsibility upon the boy.
Many of Spring Court’s employees have been with Soon for at least a decade. The longest-serving, a grandmother, has chalked up 38 years.
The proprietress herself is well into her seventies, yet sharp as a tack. A shipment of scallops arrived through the front door as we said goodbye. “Why is this delivered at this time?” she demanded sternly. I remarked on her level of involvement, and asked why, despite her credible crew and capable children, she still oversees Spring Court’s operations and comes into the restaurant almost every day.
“You need to use your heart when it comes to a business like this,” is her reply. “This was started from nothing and built from three generations of blood and sweat. Everyone here is treated as part of the family and I have no reason to be anywhere else.”
Spring Court is located at 52 – 56 Upper Cross Street, Singapore 058348.
About Delicious Heirlooms, a new book by Straits Times Press
A version of this story was first published in Delicious Heirlooms, a book documenting the founding and growth of 10 family-run restaurants in Singapore. Authored by Singaporean lawyer Ow Kim Kit, the book features interviews with family members behind famed restaurants such as Fatty Weng, Guan Hoe Soon, Huat Kee, Ka-Soh (Swee Kee), Muthu’s Curry, and Samy’s Curry.