Entrepreneur

How A Dispute Over Company Shares Split The 3 Generations Of S'pore's 'Rochor Beancurd' Family

There’s a Chinese saying that goes, “A family in harmony, prospers in everything.”

In Asian cultures, food brings families together.

But for one Singapore family, food sowed a discord so deep, they ended up splitting four-ways.

The famous tau huay stall at Short Street, Rochor Original Beancurd, became the centre of attention after a competitor opened one right next to them – and the owner happened to be the younger brother.

It’s been more than a decade since the saga happened and each of the four siblings have gone on to run their own tau huay businesses, carrying on their parents’ legacy in their own ways.

Parents Peddled Tau Huay In A Pushcart

tau huay singapore
A photo of a tau huay seller in 1970s Singapore / Image Credit: Ronni Pinsler, National Archives of Singapore

“In 1955, when Singapore struggled with self-governance and social unrest, a couple stood by the intersection between Beach Road and Rochor Road with a little makeshift stall,” this Facebook post by Rochor Original Beancurd read.

“Trying to make a living, Mr Xu Jun Jie and his wife Madam Tan Jin Jiao would spend many labour-intensive long hours in the day producing their exquisite creation – a delicate bowl of silky beancurd.”

Eldest son Koh Koon Meng, who would be in his 70s now, had helped his parents sell tau huay since he was 12, according to this story by The Straits Times in 2006.

Together with his parents, they refined and improved the recipe over the years. After his father’s passing in 1986, mother and son sold tau huay in shop units in Selegie Road and Middle Road in the early 1990s.

The second son, William Koh, joined the business in 1991 after working as an electrician, mainly serving the dessert to customers.

Between the mid to late ’90s, they opened their first store at Short Street.

Youngest son, David Koh, joined the family business after completing National Service and learned how to make tau huay from his eldest brother.

At that time, a bowl of their silky soft tau huay cost 60 cents, and they sold up to 1,500kg of the dessert a day.

Alleged Favouritism Leading Up To The Fallout

According to David in 2006, he said that both Koon Meng and him received $3,000 a month as salary but were not given shares in the family business, despite doing the hard work of churning tau huay.

He told The Straits Times that the elder Mdm Koh had split the company’s shares with William because she “favoured” him and lived together with him and his family.

William’s wife, Eng Ah Moi, was given Mdm Koh’s share of the company when the latter had a partial stroke in 2003.

David recalled William telling him that he could have “some shares…only after [William retires]” and challenged him to open a store next to him.

With that, the eldest and youngest brothers left the main family’s business to set up their own, leaving the second brother to “take over the making of the tau huay”.

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David Koh at his Beancurd City store / Image Credit: City News

He went on to establish Beancurd City in 2002, and Koon Meng went on to open Rochor Beancurd House.

Their only sister, Caroline Koh, was helping David out at his business until she went on to start Old Rochor Beancurd and Min Traditional Beancurd.

David gave credit to his eldest brother for imparting tau huay-making skills to him, saying that they’re on “good terms”.

But he is cited to be upset with Ah Moi, blaming her for the souring of the brothers’ bond. He thinks that his second brother “listens to her too much” and acceded that his mother likes her.

In 2006, David revealed he “hasn’t spoken to William for years” despite setting up shop next to his second brother’s. While Koon Meng maintained that he remains cordial with both his younger brothers, choosing not to take sides.

Opening a Beancurd City outlet next to Rochor Original Beancurd was not out of spite, but rather because he wanted to be where people always go to for tau huay, David said.

The 3rd Generation’s The Charm

All the siblings’ businesses have now been passed down to their children.

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Jason Koh, Koon Meng’s son, at Rochor Beancurd House / Image Credit: Working With Grace

Koon Meng’s son, Jason has taken over the reins of running Rochor Beancurd House, using his knowledge in IT to reach out to wider audiences and building the reputation of the brand.

In an interview last year, Jason told his father’s side of story, saying that as the eldest child, he was not given the chance to study like his younger siblings “and simply sold tau huay“.

“Later on, my second uncle brought my grandma to register the company in his and my grandma’s name. My dad thus became the ’employee’. [My] dad knew that if he left, the company [wouldn’t] survive as he’s the only chef. So he stayed on for 30 years.”

Jason continued, “I think my father deserves to be a boss… There was a tussle over the Rochor Beancurd name but my grandma supported us.”

“We later registered the trademarks for our company, not to find trouble with our relatives but to protect ourselves from any potential legal suits,” he said.

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Image Credit: Rochor Original Beancurd Facebook

But ultimately, he’s still protective of the ‘Rochor Beancurd’ brand, stating that it also concerns him should anyone have a unpleasant experience at his relatives’ stores.

He added that even though his family and relatives don’t meet often, they’ll “still sit down and have a chit-chat” when they do, and he believes that as a family, they “should always look forward, not backward”.

An interview with the marketing manager of Old Rochor Beancurd in 2014 did not reveal much about the family’s status, except that they left out details of the falling out.

No Difference In Quality, Just Differences In Values

If you didn’t know of the brothers’ troubles, you would have thought that all of their tau huay were produced in the same place, with only negligible differences.

The Straits Times in 2006 wrote that David’s tau huay tasted better than his brother’s, while food blogger Dr Leslie Tay found almost no difference in taste; and a food review in 2014 found that Rochor Original Beancurd and Min Traditional Beancurd were tied in taste.

A Michelin guide shared that all three brothers’ respective tau huay were “good” but noted that eldest brother’s shop serves breakfast.

There aren’t any drastic difference in quality at all, which led me to think about what the brothers could have all collectively achieved if they hadn’t disagreed with each other.

They could have created a tau huay empire that even Mr Bean cannot compete with.

Perhaps, this will change in the current generation for the Rochor Beancurd family, if not in the next. But for the rest of us, I think I can safely say that we can all unite over a bowl of delicious tau huay.

Featured Image Credit: cavinteo.blogspot.com

 

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