Besides what’s in the news, little is known of the people behind Phoon Huat. This is a peek into what it was like for me growing up with the business and the stories that I’ve heard.
My grandfather, Wong Chen Keng, came to Singapore in 1940 when he was 4 years old from Hainan Island to join his father, Wong Tai Fuang. He travelled with his mother and older brother by Chinese junk boat.
In those days, the conditions on the boat were far from sanitary and disease spread quickly. My grandfather fell seriously ill and nearly died.
But as good fortune would have it, my grandfather survived.
Phoon Huat would have been a very different company if he didn’t for he was the one who developed Redman flavoured concentrates that gained popularity in the 60s and 70s.
When I was in kindergarten, we had a Redman factory in Aljunied. My grandmother used to pick my sisters and I up from school and bring us there for the afternoon. As we ate lunch my grandmother packed, we would watch the factory churn out glass bottles containing concentrate in psychedelic colours. Pink, orange, red, green, yellow vials of concentrate would twirl around with timed precision as they were filled, labelled and capped by machine. The aroma of syrupy sweetness always hung in the air. I remember sitting at the supervisor’s desk, watching the finished bottles of concentrate arriving in a circular space at the end of the production line. 2 factory workers would then pack the bottles into boxes of 10, smear industrial glue on the flaps and close the boxes. Sometimes when the circular space got too full too fast, or if the factory worker who was packing was careless, glass bottles breaking were not uncommon. We did try to pack these boxes because we wanted to help but the glass bottles were quite heavy, and we were quite short and couldn’t quite reach the boxes comfortably.
If we were sleepy, we would nap on the boxes that were already packed and waiting to be shipped out. Of course, as kids, we sometimes got up to mischief when we had nothing to do or we were tired of our Carebears sticker book. More than once, one of us would push the emergency button and all machinery would come to an abrupt halt. I don’t remember being scolded for it but the factory workers were none too pleased.
Besides Redman concentrates, grandfather also successfully reverse engineered the recipe for the ever-so-popular Konnyaku jelly that Phoon Huat has sold in little blue packets since the 90s. As kids, we were always happy to be guinea pigs for him to test out the different versions of the Konnyaku jelly on. “Too chewy like chewing gum!” “Not chewy enough, it’s like agar agar*!” “Not sweet enough!” “Why no flavour?” He took our feedback seriously and would tweak the recipe accordingly. Every week, when we visited the grandparents for our weekly family lunches, we would have a different batch of Konnyaku jelly to try until he got the recipe right.
Other than these experiences, I remember Redman lorries delivering boxes and boxes of stock to our house for repacking. My grandmother would work tirelessly and we’d help too.
Growing up in a business family, I was given the privilege to watch first hand what it took to build successful businesses. I inevitably learned many business lessons by just sitting through family dinners. I had the front row seat to watching our family go through the highs of achieving great success and the lows of terrible heartbreak. Such is the nature of business. Such is the nature of life.
The heartbreaks were one of the reasons why I chose to become a lawyer. I thought I could insulate myself from disappointment and tragedy, take home a stable income and live a relatively comfortable life.
But it also meant not becoming who I was meant to be.
For someone who effortlessly sold 2 lipsticks to her principal while in kindergarten and who wanted to make cassette tapes of her father’s music (yeah, he wrote songs too) to sell when she found out he wrote songs, I would be denying a very natural and important part of me.
This family business has shaped me more than I know.
*Agar agar is a local term that refers to a gelatinous dessert with a more crunchy (as opposed to a more chewy) texture.