The founder of Wee Nam Kee couldn’t cook chicken rice – but turned a S$42,000 loss into S$1 million profit in 7 years

Wee Nam Kee founder Wee Toon Ouut died aged 81 on Sunday (Oct 13).
The Straits Times
  • The 81-year-old founder of international chicken rice chain Wee Nam Kee died on Sunday (Oct 13).

  • Wee Toon Ouut, a printing press owner, bought over his friend’s chicken rice stall opposite Novena Church in 1989 for S$100,000.

  • In his first year as boss, the stall lost S$42,000, but Wee eventually transformed it into a Hainanese restaurant making S$1 million in 1996.

  • Wee told food blog Daniel Food Diary in a 2012 interview that he couldn’t cook, but could  “direct the cooks to prepare what I want”.

Staff and longtime customers of Singapore chicken rice chain Wee Nam Kee are mourning the death of its elderly founder, who passed away on Sunday (Oct 13).

Wee Toon Ouut died at age 81 after succumbing to an illness that resulted in multiple hospital visits in the months leading to his death, The Straits Times (ST) reported.

In a 2013 report, ST said Wee suffered from liver cirrhosis as a result of drinking too much brandy while entertaining clients in his earlier days as an advertising executive and printing press owner.

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The businessman would later go on to run an empire of chicken rice stores across Singapore, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines.

The business counts celebrities and foreign dignitaries, including former Filipino President Joseph Estrada, among its fans.

“Today marks an emotional and sad day for all of us,” the company wrote in a Facebook obituary on Oct 13. “(Our founder’s) warm smile and sincere personality will be missed by all.”

Promising to preserve Wee’s legacy, the post added: “Rest in peace, towkay (boss)!”

In the comments section, patrons reminisced about their fond memories of Wee.

Today marks an emotional and sad day for all of us at WNK. We are deeply sadden with the passing on of our Founder, Mr…

Posted by Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant on Sunday, 13 October 2019

From kampung boy to printing business owner

Wee was born in 1937. His father was a chef on a steamship, while his mother was a housewife who often cooked chicken rice, ST reported in its 2013 article.

The family lived in a kampung home in Paya Lebar, and Wee attended Playfair Primary and Siglap Secondary School (now Meridian Secondary School).

The elder Wee would let his son try dishes like steak and cakes whenever he was in Singapore, ST said.

Read also: Another UK chef criticised for ‘butchering’ recipe of Singapore’s Hainanese chicken rice

In the late 1950s, Wee attended night school and obtained a diploma in advertising. His studies were funded by a western advertising agency, where he worked as a trainee account executive and later a production manager, ST reported.

According to ST’s report, at 24, Wee married childhood friend and badminton buddy Sim Suy Gek, 22, in 1962. The couple had two sons, Liang Chee and Liang Lian.

By 1973, he was running his own printing business, Harper Press. A decade later, he also became vice president of the Singapore Badminton Association, alongside former Singapore president Ong Teng Cheong.

Read also: Chicken rice war reignited as Lim Guan Eng urged Malaysia to give Singapore a run for its money

How Wee Nam Kee got its name

In 1989, Wee bought over a friend’s chicken rice stall, located opposite Novena Church, for S$100,000, with plans to sell it after a few years, ST reported in 2013.

He changed the shop’s first word to his own surname to avoid debtors coming after its previous owner, ST added.

In the first year, Wee Nam Kee (the stall) was left to run on its own – and made losses of S$42,000, The New Paper (TNP) reported.

Photos of the old Wee Nam Kee in Novena

Posted by Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant on Saturday, 1 October 2016

Shortly after, Wee sold his printing business, and found his interest piqued by the stall instead. He turned it into a Hainanese restaurant, and hired chefs to develop new dishes.

Wee, who admitted in a 2012 interview with local food blog Daniel Food Diary that he could not cook, said he was “extremely good at discerning and tasting”, and worked with Malaysian chef Loh Sang Ling to create the chain’s chicken rice recipe, down to its sauces.

“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,” the food blog quoted him as saying.

According to the 2015 book Street Food Success, the chain uses only chickens weighing between 2 and 2.2 kilograms, and cooks them in the healthier option of onion oil, instead of regular chicken fat.

ST quoted Makansutra founder KF Seetoh as saying that the chain made its rice from scratch, using Thai rice, chicken stock, and oil infused with browned pandan leaves and herbs.

Posted by Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant on Monday, 23 January 2017

Sedap!

Posted by Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant on Monday, 21 May 2018

Wee would visit other chicken rice stalls to compare his dishes with competitors, and updated his recipe continuously based on customer feedback, TNP said in its report.

By 1996, the business was making S$1 million in profit, the report added.

ST said that in 2013, Wee had moved to a HDB flat in Sengkang and drove a Mercedes-Benz.

Posted by Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant on Monday, 7 August 2017

But Wee told Daniel Food Diary that profits were not his top priority. Instead, he wanted the food to taste like home-cooked fare made by mothers.

In its Facebook obituary, the company quoted its founder as saying that “mums cook with passion out of concern for their children.”

“I always tell my chefs to do the same for our customers,” he added.

When can I start eating???

Posted by Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant on Monday, 11 April 2016

Wee is succeeded by younger son Liang Lian, 56, who has a diploma in printing and packaging from Watford College in the UK.

He has run the chain’s four restaurants and two stalls here as operations manager since 2001.

I called Singapore home for 2 years while I was doing my culinary education there. With my constant hankering for Asian…

Posted by Edward Eats on Sunday, 22 September 2013

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