Growing up, my family didn’t often go out of our way to buy bakkwa (or rou gan). But come every Chinese New Year, we’d often get gifted a couple of packs from friends and relatives.
I always looked forward to receiving it. The dried meat product tasted delicious between bread, in late night bowls of Maggi, or simply on its own.
While Singapore’s Bee Cheng Hiang has often found its way onto my kitchen table during lunar new year celebrations, I’ve recently been spotting a brand called Oloiya more often.
With a golden chicken wearing bright red boxer gloves as its logo, Oloiya is a brand that’s hard to miss, after all.
Looking up the brand, I was surprised to learn about its storied past. While Oloiya might already be a familiar name to some, here’s how the bakkwa business actually came to be.
“Here I Come”
Over four decades ago in 1978, the first Oloiya store was opened by one by Mr Khue Chow Kong.
Before that, though, Mr Khue had already been an entrepreneur, having sold kaya and lo hon ko drinks (or luo han guo, AKA monk fruit drink) in the 1960s, according to Oloiya’s website.
Early on in the 70s, Mr Khue ventured into making orange juice under the name of Mo Dik Sin, which means Super Fresh.
“It was such a hit that a Taiwanese gentleman used to visit Mr Khue to buy the orange juice whenever he was in Kuala Lumpur,” Oloiya claims on its website.
“As the story goes, the Taiwanese gentleman used to come to Mr Khue’s shop, shouting, ‘O Loi Ya, O Loi Ya’.” “O Loi Ya” is a transliteration of the Cantonese phrase meaning “here I come” in Cantonese.
Mr Khue and the Taiwanese men grew to be friends over the years. While Mr Khue let his friend in on his orange juice secrets, the Taiwanese man taught Mr Khue his own family’s recipe for dried meat.
Entrepreneurial as ever, Mr Khue took that recipe and tweaked it with his wife, Madam Chin Keon Yock, until they came up with something satisfactory. As an homage to their Taiwanese friend, they named the dried mean Oloiya, and the rest is history.
Spreading bakkwa culture
While there are other names in the local bakkwa scene from the 70s such as Wing Heong, Thing Heong, and Ban Lee Heong (just to name a few), Oloiya claims to have been a pioneer in the dried meat industry.
“In a time when everyone was selling dried meat with sliced pork, he was the first to make dried chicken meat with minced chicken,” said Raymond Khue, executive director of Oloiya, in a video by the brand.
Raymond is a third-generation Khue, having taken over the business with his brother in 2012. he also explained that Oloiya’s tagline of “The pioneer in Southeast Asia, O-O-O-O-Oloiya”. This probably also explains the chicken logo.
Of course, Oloiya also offers the classic ingredient people expect in bakkwa—pork.
After the passing of Mr Khue in the 90s, his sons, Khue Jau Horng (Raymond’s father) and Khue Jau Sam, took over the business. Following in their father’s footsteps, the pair of entrepreneurs grew Oloiya to a network of 600 distribution points.
Later on in 2005, Oloiya semi-automated, moving on from barbequing the meat with charcoal to using cooking ovens that can control the consistency of the meats.
A family business
In 2012, the third generation of Khues joined the business. Their father, Khue Jau Horng, was in his 70s by then. According to an article by The Star from 2015, he had been diagnosed with diabetes.
“We were devastated on the day that our father left us,” the brothers wrote on an Instagram post on Oloiya’s account this Fathers’ Day.
“When I was a kid, our father would bring us to the OLOIYA shop to see how bakkwa are made. He built the passion in both of us from there. We always remembered our father as a supportive father. ‘Do it first! You’ll never know if you haven’t tried it out!’”
But the family wasn’t always tight-knit. In the article by The Star, Raymond had led a “wild life” in his teens, making him the “black sheep” in this family.
In the midst of a crisis, though, Raymond found his way back to Oloiya. It was during a fateful Chinese New Year’s eve when Raymond received a call from his uncle, Jau Sam, who reported that his left-hand man had upped and left with RM100,000 worth of stolen products.
According to the article, Raymond and his uncle had never seen eye-to-eye, but this incident changed that. He stepped up to the occasion. He followed through afterwards too, claiming to have shown up to work early and only leaving past midnight.
“From that time, his attitude towards me changed completely. In 2010, when I proposed to my family to open an outlet in the Pavilion mall in Kuala Lumpur, he was the only one who supported my idea,” Khue said to The Star.
The gift of gifting
During the dragon boat festival this year, my mom brought over a box of adorably packaged bakzhangs. I recalled seeing Oloiya’s branding on it, which made me quite surprised—I hadn’t known that the brand sold the sticky rice dumplings too.
Looking at its website, though, it makes sense. Oloiya is more than just a bakkwa stall nowadays. More than that, Oloiya is quite clearly in the business of gifting.
This is apparent in the bakkwa gift sets as well as the bakzhang boxes, which were a collaborative effort with Chai Huat Hin, a dried seafood company.
On top of that, Oloiya has also expanded to frozen foods. The brand now sells frozen chicken in various cuts and flavours.
“Innovation is our commitment and character, to stay relevant in the market throughout the years,” Raymond had said in the Oloiya video. With 42 years of business under their belt, one could say that these aren’t just empty words.
With all that said, at the end of the day, bakkwa is still inextricably at the heart of Oloiya’s business. The Khues—all three generations of them—have undoubtedly played a hand in shaping the local culture of bakkwa.
“Here I come,” the Taiwanese man had said decades ago to the Mr Khue Chow Kong.
42 years down the road, Oloiya seems to be proudly replying, “Here I stay.”
Featured Image Credit: Oloiya