tuck lee ice yeo's bee cheng hiang killiney kopitiam
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Building a business from scratch is no easy feat, but sustaining it is even harder.

As the economy evolves, businesses need to be constantly on the ball to keep up with uncertainty and disruptions to ensure their longevity, or risk closure. In fact, 2022 itself saw 50,423 business closures in Singapore due to the aftermath of COVID-19, the highest since 2016.

Despite tumultuous economic conditions, some Singaporean business have actually managed to survive decades, and even centuries. These heritage businesses have braved the Great Depression, World War II and the SARS pandemic, as well as COVID-19.

Starting out from humble beginnings, these companies have even managed to expand their businesses abroad, becoming globally-recognised brands.

Here is a brief look at seven of Singapore’s heritage brands that have survived decades:

1. Yeo Hiap Seng Limited (Yeo’s)

Yeo Hiap Seng history
Image Credit: Yeo’s

Singaporean F&B manufacturer and distributor Yeo Hiap Seng Limited (otherwise known as Yeo’s) has grown from being a family-owned business to distributing its products in over 55 countries today. Widely known for its packet drinks, Yeo’s is a staple brand in Singaporean households.

The company was established by Yeo Keng Lian in Zhangzhou, Fujian province, China, and was primarily producing soya sauce. It was then taken over by his eldest son Yeo Thian In, who later moved to Singapore in 1938 to flee from the Sino-Japanese war.

Subsequently, Thian In set up a factory at the junction of Outram Road and Havelock Road, and expanded into Malaysia four years later as the business flourished.

Surviving damage from bombings during World War II, Yeo Hiap Seng begun expanding its production from soya sauce to include canned food and bottled drinks such as canned pork and sugarcane juice in 1947.

A decade later, the company was producing up to 12,000 bottles of sauces and 20,000 cans of food daily — serving not only Singaporeans and Malaysians, but also residents of Borneo, Sarawak, New Guinea, Australia, the United States and United Kingdom, as well as American soldiers during the Vietnam war.

Unbeknownst to most people, Yeo Hiap Seng also ventured into the real estate space in the 90s. This was because the company was acquired by Singaporean real estate tycoon Ng Teng Fong in 1995, who spearheaded the company’s private housing projects such as GardenVista and The Sterling.

However, the business was recently in the red due to COVID-19, reporting a loss of S$1.2 million in the first half of 2021. Despite making a huge loss, the F&B group reversed its losses by making a profit of S$1.2 million for the same period a year later, as the economy bounced back from the impacts of the lockdowns.

2. The Shaw Organisation

Runme Shaw and Run Run Shaw office
A collage of Runme Shaw seated beside his bother Run Run Shaw, and the Shaw Brothers’ office in the 70s / Image Credit: Shaw Theatres

Shaw Organisation has been a major player in the Asian film industry since the 1920s and is involved in film production, distribution and exhibition. With studios in Shanghai, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, Shaw was a pioneer in these countries’ film industries.

The company was started up in Singapore by Runme Shaw in 1924, who initially ran a film company which produced silent films with his brothers in Shanghai.

Unsatisfied with the domestic market and the acute competition among Shanghai film producers, Runme set out to Singapore to seek better business opportunities. He was joined by his brother, Run Run Shaw, two years later.

At first, the brothers struggled to establish a presence in Singapore as they were locked out of the highly protected film market by dominant dialect factions — Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew.

Undaunted, the brothers eventually gained control of the distribution of films in not just Singapore, but also Southeast Asia after the “business took off with the introduction of “talking films” (films with sound)”, Run Run told the Business Times in 1984.

By the 80s, the Shaw Organisation had established over 160 theatres across Southeast Asia. It had also invested into commercial properties, such as the Shaw House — the company’s largest project to date — as well as residential properties Twin Heights and Hullets Rise.

Today, Shaw Organisation runs 70 screens in seven locations across Singapore.

3. Bee Cheng Hiang

Bee Cheng Hiang Teo Swee Ee
Street hawker Teo Swee Ee / Image Credit: Bee Cheng Hiang

A staple snack in most households during Chinese New Year, bak kwa (barbequed pork slices) originates from China’s Fujian province, where the meat was considered to be a luxury and is saved for special occasions.

One of Singapore’s most recognisable bak kwa brands is Bee Cheng Hiang, which was started up in 1933 by a street hawker, Teo Swee Ee. Peddling the streets of Chinatown, Swee Ee shouldered a bamboo pole, which held two baskets, one containing a charcoal grill and the other, freshly cooked bak kwa.

Setting up his grill outside public entertainment venues to take advantage of the crowd, the bak kwa business rose to popularity especially during festive seasons.

As its revenue increased, Swee Ee saved enough money to open up a physical outlet on Rochor Road in 1945, and subsequently opened up another outlet nearby at Victoria Road.

Fast forward to the early 2000s, Bee Cheng Hiang had become a multimillion-dollar business and became a household name throughout Asia. The business is currently being managed by Daniel Wong, Swee Ee’ s great nephew, who joined the company in 1993.

In Singapore, Bee Cheng Hiang operates over 50 retail outlets today. Globally, it has a presence in over 12 countries, including Malaysia, Taiwan, and Japan, with over 300 outlets in those regions.

4. B.P. de Silva

bp de silva
Image Credit: B.P. de Silva

In 1872, Balage Porolis (BP) de Silva, a 19-year-old teenager from Ceylon, set sail to Singapore to start up a small shophouse with two showcases, three tables and three cupboards selling jewellery on the banks of the Singapore River.

At first, BP sold gem-set rings to travellers and wealthy resident Chinese. He soon moved to Singapore’s then shopping and commercial hub, High Street, where he rented a shop for S$20 a month and expanded his range of products to sell jewellery, walking sticks, carvings and lacquerware.

Attracting a large crowd of wealthy Europeans and Chinese as well as royals such as the Duke of Connaught and King Chulalongkorn of Siam as clients, BP’s business boomed, prompting him to bring in goldsmiths from Ceylon to combine his establishment in High Road with a jewellery factory.

In 1928, B.P. de Silva was appointed by Swiss watch company Omega as a distributor of its watches. The company grew to become the largest distributor in the world for Omega and sold about 40 per cent of its factory output in Switzerland.

20 years later, however, the business was hit by crisis during World War II. Its jewellery was looted, but a quick-thinking family member managed to salvage the business’ most valuable items by hiding them under a tree.

Eventually, the business grew in stature as a jewellery company and flourished again post-war. The luxury brand is currently managed by BP’s fifth generation.

Beyond jewellery, B.P. de Silva has also expanded its reach into other industries. The business owns tea brand The 1872 Clipper Tea Co., souvenir brand RISIS and has a stake in watchmaker Audemars Piguet as well.

5. Leung Kai Fook Medical Co (LKF Medical)

LKF Leung Kai Fook Medical founder Leung Yun Chee Schmeidler  Axe brand
Leung Kai Fook Medical Co’s founder, Leung Yun Chee, and Dr Schmeidler / Image Credit: Leung Kai Fook Medical Co

Leung Kai Fook Medical Co (LKF Medical) is the parent company behind the iconic topical medicated oil, Axe Brand Universal Oil.

The company was started up in 1928, when Leung Yun Chee emigrated from China to Singapore. Shortly after his move to Singapore, Yun Chee met a German physician, Dr Schmeidler, who shared his recipe for a medicated oil to cure all kinds of discomfort, suited to the island’s tropical weather.

Impressed by the formulation of the medical oil, Yun Chee came up with the brand name and logo for the cure-all oil. He named the brand after the axe, because of the chopping tool’s ubiquitous use in most households at the time — to chop wood for cooking fuel.

However, the initial response to Axe Brand Universal Oil was quite underwhelming. At the time of launch, Yun Chee faced stiff competition from competing brands from China and Hong Kong as international trade was beginning to pick up in Singapore.

Only during WWII, about a decade after its launch, the brand was given a boost as overseas trade ceased and competition from abroad was curtailed. As a result, Axe Brand Universal Oil became the go-to brand for Singaporean households, establishing itself as leader in medicated oils.

In the 50s, the company set its sights on overseas expansion, beyond the Asian markets. It first forayed into Saudi Arabia, as the medicated oil was popularised by pilgrims who adopted the oil on their way to hajj.

Today, the cure-all oil is now used by people in more than 50 countries around the world, even by villagers in Kenya.

6. Killiney Kopitiam

Killiney Kopitiam
Image Credit: Killiney Kopitiam

Formerly known as Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop, Killiney Kopitiam was established in late 1919 at 67 Killiney Road by a Hainanese immigrant. Back in the day, the coffeeshop was famous for its traditional charcoal-grilled white bread toast, as well as its coffee and tea.

In 1992, the business was bought over by a regular customer, Woon Tek Seng, who frequented the shop for over 15 years, for S$800,000. Teck Seng subsequently renamed the business to Killiney Kopitiam.

Despite renaming the coffee shop, he was adamant on preserving the legacy of Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop.

As a Hainanese himself, he sought to retain the traditional working style and influence of the business, by retaining three staff who passed down their skills in making kaya, bread toast, coffee and tea — the Hainanese way.

A few years later, Teck Seng begun expanding Killiney Kopitiam into a chain of mass-market coffee shops.

Initially, he opened a second branch in Siglap, with the intent to create jobs for his friends who were unemployed. Subsequently, the Killiney franchise was opened in March 2001 at Serangoon Gardens.

That same year, Woon opened Killiney’s first overseas branch in Kuala Lumpur.

After over a century, Killiney Kopitiam now has 60 locations in five countries worldwide. To this day, the coffee shop chain prepares their coffee the same way it originally did at 67 Killiney Road, through a meticulous, distinctive, multi-step method of roasting and brewing.

7. Tuck Lee Ice

Tuck Lee Ice production history
Tuck Lee Ice’s production facilities / Image Credit: Tuck Lee Ice

Tuck Lee Ice is an ice manufacturer and provides related services such as ice sculpting.

The company was founded in 1957 by Hauw Kiat, an immigrant from China, who bought over the business from someone else in Singapore. Preserving the brand’s name, Hauw Kiat supplied ice to markets and coffeeshops.

After several generations of ownership, the business was taken over by Hauw Wee, the grandson of Hauw Kiat, in 1983.

Recognising the ineffectiveness of traditional methods of producing ice which the family owned business had initially followed before his takeover, Hauw Wee sought to improve the business’ production and delivery methods.

After researching for new ideas in Europe, the United States and Australia, Hauw Wee purchased new machines to produce hygenic, food-grade ice in various shapes, as well as invested in refrigerated trucks to replace delivery lorries.

Besides upgrading Tuck Lee Ice’s production and delivery methods, the third-generation owner also improved the company’s branding by revamping the company’s logo and introducing a new slogan for the company.

Although there was an initial resistance to Hauw Wee’s products, this eventually became the industry standard as more of its competitors moved away from traditional methods of producing ice and upgraded their production facilities.

By the 2000s, Tuck Lee Ice had diversified into ice sculpting, beverage distribution, and transport and logistics services. By 2007, the business had become one of the leading ice manufacturers in Singapore with two factories and a daily production capacity of 200 tonnes of ice.

Today, Tuck Lee Ice serves a broad clientele, including well-known players in the hospitality industry, such as 7-Eleven, Cold Storage and Fairprice, as well as Shangri-La hotels and resort, among others.

Featured Image Credit: Bee Cheng Hiang/yeo’s/Killiney Kopitiam/ Tuck Lee Ice

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© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)

Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)