There is a whole lot of contention on what Singapore’s national dish is, but Hainanese Chicken Rice shows up as the top Google search result.
The iconic dish, which is of Hainanese and Cantonese origins, can be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the island.
Despite all the competition from hawker stalls and restaurants alike, the late Wee Toon Ouut managed to stand out from the crowd and make a name for himself as the founder of the popular Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant.
Building A Chicken Rice Empire
Wee Nam Kee is best known for its flavourful chicken rice and tender meat, and its main store opposite Novena Church (now at United Square) has attracted a band of loyal followers. Many even tout the store’s chicken rice as the best in Singapore.
The chain was founded by Wee more than 30 years ago in 1989. Since then, it has been a family business, run by two generations.
Wee grew the brand from a single, humble restaurant at Novena Church to more than 20 outlets across Singapore and other parts of Asia. Now, fans of Wee’s chicken rice can enjoy it in Indonesia, The Philippines and Japan as well.
After dedicating 30 years of his life to Wee Nam Kee, Wee passed away last year at age 81.
Wee’s successor is his younger son Liang Lian, who has run the chain’s Singapore stores as an operations manager since 2001.
In an interview with Daniel Food Diary in 2012, Wee shared that he was “glad” that his son was willing to take over the business, but “never expected” him to step forward as he is an overseas university graduate.
Wee Couldn’t Even Cook Chicken Rice
Despite being the founder of a popular chicken rice business, Wee himself could not cook chicken rice.
Well, even though I cannot cook at all, and I still can’t, I knew I am extremely good at discerning and tasting. I may not know how to cook, but I pay much detail in eating, and knew how to direct the cooks to prepare what I want.Wee in an interview with Daniel Food Diary in 2012
Despite being unable to cook, Wee worked with Malaysian chef Loh Sang Ling to create the chain’s chicken rice recipe, right down to the sauces.
He also adopted and imparted a philosophy of “motherhood”, and always told his chefs to cook like how a mother would, with “passion and concern for her children.”
The chain puts in extra effort to ensure that its dishes are a healthier choice, and uses only onion oil instead of regular chicken fat.
Its attention to detail was highlighted in a book, Street Food Success, which mentioned that the chain strictly uses chickens weighing between 2 and 2.2 kilograms.
Wee is also known for his presence in his stalls, and would diligently ask customers for feedback, which he would then relay to the chefs.
According to him, the recipe does not belong to the company, but to his “loyal customers”.
From A S$42K Loss To S$1M Profit
Wee wasn’t always the big boss of a chicken rice chain that Singaporeans know him as.
Prior to starting Wee Nam Kee, he was a master printer at his own printing company, Harper Press.
In 1989, the advertising diploma holder bought over a friend’s chicken rice stall for S$100,000 according to a report in 2013. Wee had the intention to eventually sell the stall, so he initially took a hands-off approach, leaving it to run on its own.
In its first year of operations, Wee Nam Kee incurred a loss of S$42,000. Wee then decided to sell away his printing business and channel his efforts into the chicken rice business instead.
He was clear in his pursuit of success, and constantly studied his competitors to glean insights on how to improve. He also hired chefs to produce new dishes, and updated his recipes regularly to suit the feedback of customers.
By 1996, just seven years later, he was raking in S$1 million in profits.
Leaving A Legacy
Besides its chicken rice empire in Singapore, Wee Nam Kee has also brought the ubiquitous dish to places across the globe.
The chain has participated in various Singapore Days over the years, bringing the classic dish to New York, Shanghai, London and Australia. It has also brought a chicken rice food truck to a park in Japan.
Wee was an “avid sports fan”, and the restaurant even sponsors an annual basketball tournament called the Wee Nam Kee Cup.
For the upcoming Singapore Food Festival this year, Wee Nam Kee has partnered with Japanese snack brand Glico to produce Pretz biscuit sticks infused with the Hainanese Chicken Rice flavour.
Besides just being a chicken rice towkay, Wee was well-loved by customers all over the world.
According to him, his secret to success was never to put profits as the top priority: “if we put our heart and passion into our cooking, the customers will feel it.”
Featured Image Credit: Wee Nam Kee via Facebook