Saturday, February 05, 2011


TODAYonline News Alert for January 29, 2011

How the Four Heavenly Kings of the culinary scene in '60s Singapore brought 'rising abundance' to the masses
by Teo Xuanwei

SEATED on wooden stools at a roadside hawker stall, the four friends watched the fish porridge seller slice off pieces of the ikan parang (swordfish) hanging on hooks at his pushcart.

On the raw fish slices, finely sprinkled with the black dust of vehicles driving by the Chinatown alley, the hawker scattered some chopped carrots and pickles. He then drizzled some lime juice on it. Customers then drenched the dish with vinegar, oil and sugar before slurping away.

As fellow apprentices under master chef Lo Seng at the Cathay Restaurant, the four friends often went out together on recipe-scouting missions.

This particular meal in 1963, however, would forever change the lives of Mr Tham Yui Kai, Mr Sin Leong, Mr Lau Yoke Pui, and Mr Hooi Kok Wai - the Four Heavenly Kings of the culinary world in '60s Singapore.

One of the two surviving master chefs, Mr Sin, 83, recalled: "There were houseflies swarming around the fish and also smoke and dust because of the cars and motorcycles: It was bad. So we thought, 'Why don't we do something about this dish and bring it to the restaurants?'"

Drawing inspiration from the rojak sold by hawkers and the salad served in Western restaurants, the Fab Four turned the traditional Cantonese dish into what is today - a must-have during Chinese New Year: Yu sheng, or raw fish salad.

Yu sheng is wildly popular because its Cantonese pronunciation sounds like "rising abundance" or prosperity. The tradition of "lo hei", or tossing the salad high into the air while shouting auspicious greetings, also symbolises good luck.


In the past, the consumption of raw fish was common among fishermen in Guangdong province, China, when they celebrated Humankind's Birthday on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year. Immigrants brought this practice with them when they came here.

The other surviving master chef, Mr Hooi, 73, says the four of them wanted to spread this Cantonese tradition to all Chinese here.

But Mr Sin revealed another more pragmatic reason: Better business for each of their restaurants.

"Back in those days, people only went to restaurants on special occasions like birthdays or weddings. When we modified the dish, we wanted to draw customers to our restaurants throughout the Chinese New Year," Mr Sin said with a hearty chuckle.

Their genius, however, extended only as far as giving yu sheng an auspicious-sounding name (Lucky Yu sheng), a consistent taste and an appealing look, both men said.

The symbolic meanings behind each of the more than 20 ingredients and the practice of "lo hei" were started by customers naturally over the years.

Said Mr Hooi: "The chanting of auspicious greetings just started naturally among diners. I guess they were in a celebratory mood and just wanted to wish each other good luck for the new year. Our focus was to make it as colourful as possible so that it would be appealing."

So they added more ingredients, such as julienned radish, cucumber and preserved red and white ginger, to give the dish a dizzying array of bright colours. To improve the texture, they included toppings like candied peel, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds and fried dough bits.

They also concocted a pre-mixed sauce to change the way raw fish was eaten.

"It used to be that customers had to experiment with the sauce which meant that the fish wasn't always tasty. You can't do that in restaurants because you need to make sure your food is nice all the time, so that customers will keep coming back," said Mr Hooi.


Yu sheng was first served in Lai Wah Restaurant in Jalan Besar (and later, another branch at Bendemeer Road) - where the late Mr Tham and Mr Lau were partners - during Chinese New Year in 1964. It is now run by Mr Wong Kah Onn, the son of one of the original shareholders.

Soon after, both Mr Sin and Mr Hooi also started serving it in their restaurants - the now-defunct Sin Leong Restaurant at Macpherson Road and the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant at Tanjong Pagar (now at Novotel Clarke Quay Hotel) respectively.

In the early days, they used to have to make "money-back guarantee" promises to cajole diners to try yu sheng, said Mr Sin. "Not many of them knew about eating raw fish so we had to tell them: 'If you don't find it nice, we won't take your money'. Luckily they all liked it!"

It is now standard fare in every Chinese restaurant in Singapore and, in recent years, it has even started appearing in many other countries, such as Japan, China, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

While the yu sheng recipe at Lai Wah Restaurant, Dragon Phoenix Restaurant and Red Star Restaurant - jointly set up by the four kings - has not changed one bit for more than 30 years, other restaurants have since come up with various versions, such as raw fish with braised pig's trotters and beef.

It is something both Mr Sin and Mr Hooi are sceptical about.

Said Mr Hooi: "I understand that many youngsters want innovation and fusion but yu sheng is taken just once a year, why take away the most important ingredient? I think it takes away the tradition and the symbolic reasons for using fish."

Added Mr Sin: "It's not the same without fish. Only fish has the same pronunciation as abundance for Chinese."

Three generations of customers and restaurants still going strong Teo XuanweiScowling middle-aged waitresses with beehive hairdos pushing steaming baskets of dim sum across the sprawling dining floor, mouldy-looking carpeted floors, and weather-beaten curtains.

These charming sights still greet you when you step into Red Star Restaurant at Chin Swee Road today.

But what really keeps three generations of customers going back to Red Star - started by the Four Heavenly Kings of the culinary world in '60s Singapore - is the familiar food.

Little wonder that, since two of the surviving kings, Mr Sin Leong, 83, and Mr Hooi Kok Wai, 73, still go back every day to keep a watchful eye in the kitchens. Occasionally, they even hit the stoves themselves when old-time customers request special dishes.

Over at Lai Wah Restaurant, the first restaurant where the Fab Four's creation, yu sheng, was served, the owners, too, have a similar insistence about keeping with "tradition".

The Bendemeer Road restaurant still retains the familiar half-mirror, half-wooden panel walls.

The maroon-fabric cushioned chairs, the 14 wooden tables and battered aluminium kettles make one feel like it's a trip down memory lane, to the Chinese restaurant scene of yore.

And, of course, the recipes, passed down by the late Mr Tham Yui Kai and Mr Lau Yoke Pui, have not changed too for more than 40 years.

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