There is a lot of controversy over what Singapore's national dish is, but Hainanese Chicken Rice appears as the top Google search result.
The iconic dish, which is of Hainan and Cantonese origin, can be found in almost every corner of the island.
Despite all the competition from street vendors and restaurants, 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.
Establishment of a chicken rice empire
Chicken rice from Wee Nam Kee / Photo credit: Wee Nam Kee
Wee Nam Kee is known for its tasty chicken rice and tender meat. The main store across from Novena Church (now United Square) has drawn a group of loyal followers. Many even advertise the business's chicken rice as the best in Singapore.
The chain was founded by Wee in 1989 over 30 years ago. Since then it has been a family business run by two generations.
Wee has expanded the brand from a single, humble restaurant in Novena Church to more than 20 stores in Singapore and other parts of Asia. Now fans of Wee's Chicken Rice can also enjoy it in Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan.
After devoting 30 years of his life to Wee Nam Kee, Wee passed away last year at the age of 81.
Wee's successor is his younger son Liang Lian, who has been the Singapore operations manager since 2001.
In an interview with Daniel Food Diary in 2012, Wee said that he was "happy" that his son was ready to take over the business, but "never expected" that he would take a step forward as a graduate from a foreign university power.
We couldn't even cook chicken rice
A Wee Nam Kee chef in the chain's Japanese outlet / Photo credit: Wee Nam Kee on Facebook
Although Wee was the founder of a popular chicken rice business, he couldn't cook chicken rice himself.
Well, although I can't and still can't cook at all, I knew I was very good at recognizing and tasting. I may not know how to cook, but I pay a lot of attention to the food and how to instruct the cooks to prepare what I want.
Wee in an interview with Daniel Food Diary in 2012
Although Wee couldn't cook, he worked with Malaysian chef Loh Sang Ling to create the chain's chicken rice recipe down to the sauces.
He also adopted and conveyed a philosophy of "motherhood" and always asked his cooks to cook as a mother would, with "passion and care for their children".
The chain is making extra efforts to ensure that their dishes are a healthier choice, using only onion oil instead of regular chicken fat.
Attention to detail was highlighted in a book, Street Food Success, which mentioned that the chain only uses chickens weighing between 2 and 2.2 kilograms.
Wee is also known for his presence at his stands and diligently asks customers for feedback, which he then passes on to the chefs.
According to him, the recipe does not belong to the company, but to its "loyal customers".
From a loss of S $ 42,000 to a profit of S $ 1 million
Wee Toon Ouut (center) and Son Wee Liang Liang (right) / Photo credit: Wee Nam Kee on Facebook
We were not always the big boss of a chicken rice chain that the Singaporeans know him as.
Before founding Wee Nam Kee, he was a master printer at his own Harper Press.
In 1989, the holder of an advertising diploma bought a friend's chicken rice stand for S $ 100,000, according to a 2013 report. Wee intended to eventually sell the booth and initially took a hands-off approach to run it.
In its first year of operation, Wee Nam Kee suffered a loss of S $ 42,000. Wee then decided to sell his printing business and instead focus his efforts on the chicken rice business.
He was clear in his pursuit of success and was constantly studying his competitors to gain insight into how to improve. He also hired chefs to create new dishes and updated his recipes regularly to meet customer feedback.
By 1996, just seven years later, he had made a profit of S $ 1 million.
Leave a legacy
In addition to his chicken rice empire in Singapore, Wee Nam Kee has also brought the ubiquitous dish to places around the world.
The chain has participated in various Singapore Days over the years and brought the classic dish to New York, Shanghai, London and Australia. It has also brought a chicken rice food cart to a park in Japan.
The Wee Nam Kee Cup / Photo credit: Wee Nam Kee
Wee was an “enthusiastic sports fan” and the restaurant even sponsors an annual basketball tournament called Wee Nam Kee Cup.
For the upcoming Singapore Food Festival this year, Wee Nam Kee produced the Hainanese Chicken Rice flavor in cooperation with the Japanese snack brand Glico Pretz.
Photo credit: Pretz
Wee was not only a chicken rice towkay, it was also very popular with customers around the world.
His secret of success was never to see profits as a top priority: "If we put our heart and passion into our kitchen, customers will feel it."
Selected image source: Wee Nam Kee via Facebook