Yeo Hiap Seng & The Tiong Bahru Connection

I chanced upon a book about the Yeo Hiap Seng family when I was at the POPULAR bookstore this afternoon.

Two reasons why the book attracted my attention was (1) I think I sold a unit in Tiong Bahru which the Yeo family lived in before and (2) I worked at Yeo Hiap Seng for a good 3 years before I became a realtor.

The book contains some pictures of their first factory at the junction of Havelock Road and Outram Road. 

I suspect the location could be the open landscape garden in front of where Isetan used to be or where Tiananmen nightclub is standing now.

Anyway, when I got back home, I noticed Asiaone had posted a story about the Yeo Hiap Seng family and I decided to repost it here as this family were once Tiong Bahru residents too.

Here's the story :

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Fri, Mar 19, 2010
The New Paper
By Zaihan Mohamed Yusof

'Security guards didn't recognise he was Big Boss'


(Above: Even the towkay of Yeo Hiap Seng, Mr Yeo Thian In, needed security passes to enter the soy sauce factory. The pass on the left was issued in 1974, while the one on the right, in 1983.)

HE may have been the boss of what is known today as the multi-million dollar company recognised internationally for its beverages, canned foods and instant noodles.

But Mr Yeo Thian In, the man behind Yeo Hiap Seng (YHS), or Yeo's as it's commonly known, used to insist that he, like any other employee, should have a pass identifying him as a staff at YHS.

The humble 'towkay' (boss) sometimes preferred to cycle or walk home rather than being driven by the chauffeur.

And to this day people still refer to him Mr Yeo Hiap Seng, even though it's not his real name.

The familiar, home-grown brand started humbly as a Singapore factory making soya sauce in 1938.

While the brand is famous, the man behind it is much less so, said his youngest son Alfred Yeo.

But a book published this year, The Soy Sauce Towkay, may change that.

It pays tribute to the YHS founder, as a Christian businessman, a father and brother to many who respected him.

Said Mr Alfred Yeo, 76: 'One funny misconception is that most people thought the company was named after him. That's not true.'

Hiap Seng soya sauce factory was actually opened in China in 1901, when Alfred's grandfather, Keng Lian, ventured with a partner.

When his partner left the business, the senior Yeo renamed his business Yeo Hiap Seng.

In 1920, Mr Alfred Yeo's father, Thian In, then 22, took over the business.

A few years later, the elder Yeo died, leaving his son Thian In at the helm.

'That was the start of his long and arduous journey towards being a successful businessman,' said Mr Alfred Yeo, a retired pastor.

'He had to support his family (of four brothers and three sisters). He had to make sure they got an education, too.'

The family left China for Singapore in 1938 due to the Japanese threat in China.

He took his four sons with him, while another son and daughter remained in China.

Even to the end, Mr Alfred and his wife Rosie, recalled that his father, who had died in 1985 at age 88, was a physically and mentally strong man.

Hard work, humility and honesty became some of the business beliefs Mr Yeo Thian In impressed upon his brothers and sons, said Mr Alfred Yeo.

In his office, Mr Yeo's desk was similar to his subordinates.

People who came to the office often mistook him for a clerk because he 'had no airs'.

'Working at the soya sauce factory was his whole life,' said his son.

'He didn't distinguish between work and family. He would work for 24 hours a day if he could.'

Yet, Mr Yeo and his brothers had to work doubly hard after their first factory in Outram Road was bombed by Japan in January 1942.

Mr Alfred Yeo added: 'My mother told me my father had said 'wan liao' (all finished in Hokkien)(I think it should be Bo Liao in Hokkien) when he saw the damage to the factory grounds.

'My mother said it was a miracle that no family members and workers were killed.'

At that time, the Yeos were living above their factory.



Above: Mr Yeo Thian In doted on his grandchildren who were called "taoyu soon" or soy sauce grandchildren in Hokkien. He is carrying Stanley and standing in front of him are (from the left) Samuel, Serene and Sylvia, who are the children of Mr Alfred Yeo.

Blessing in bombing

And as it turned out, the bombing was a blessing in disguise.

The Japanese decided not to use the YHS factory as an ammunition depot.

Instead, other soya sauce factories were forced to shut down as they were used as ammunition storage facilities.

That left YHS as one of the few companies still able to operate during the Japanese occupation.

Business soon picked up, said Mr Alfred Yeo, who was then in kindergarten.

Unfortunately, another bombing in 1945 deeply affected his father.

In that incident in February, Mr Alfred Yeo's sibling, Chee Kian, 13, was killed when British airplanes dropped incendiary bombs on the balcony of the Yeo residences in Tiong Bahru.

Mr Alfred Yeo narrowly escaped death as moments before, he and his two brothers had been standing on the balcony.

'After the incident, I could hear my father sobbing in bed. I knew losing Chee Kian broke his heart.'

Away from work, the traditional Thian In was a simple and quiet man. He and his wife, Tin Khim, lived with their son in a house, bought in Mr Alfred Yeo's name in 1960.

Since the late 1990s, the family home had been rebuilt.

The elder Mr Yeo normally dressed casually and ate modestly.

Said Mr Alfred Yeo's wife, Rosie: 'We would be very happy when guests came to our home because we knew we will get to eat a big fish.'

Above: Mr Alfred Yeo, 76, who is the youngest son to Mr Yeo Thian In (the founder of Yeo Hiap Seng in Singapore) sits in the foreground while in the background are portraits of his father, Thian In, and his mother Tin Khim. This photo was taken at Mr Alfred Yeo's Bukit Timah Road home.

Best soya sauce

Of course, at the dinner table, there would be no shortage of the 'best quality' soya sauce which Mr Yeo Thian In provided.

During reunion dinners, Mr Yeo would always tell his children and grandchildren how happy he was to see all of them at the table.

Said Mr Alfred Yeo: 'He would often tell a joke to make every one at ease at the dinner table.'

His father started his day early and returned home late with 'bundles of papers'.

In his room, he could be seen using the abacus and checking the company accounts.

Before he slept, he would read the bible.

After church on Sundays, Mr Yeo made it a point to check on his grandchildren's homework and Chinese reading skills. He would patiently listen when they read to him.

Said Mr Alfred Yeo: 'My father always believed that education was key to success. Western missionaries had told my grandfather that it was better to leave children with an education rather than a lot of money.

'So I often got scoldings as a child when I didn't study or got poor marks.

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