和记 (Woh Kee) literally translated as Woh Kee Restaurant, up to date has served the food industry for a good 51 years with the same set of menu. To the locals, some calls the chef as 大炮和 or “Big Power” (大 means big and 炮和, in Cantonese Chinese it is pronounced as pao wo – power).
CLARIFICATION : This article was meant to briefly introduce and clarify his culinary journey in the restaurant industry with the important events that had occurred through his service in the industry. This article was written based on the Chef’s true-life event, with permission given to Ethan Wong to edit, codified, compose, compile, publish and use all the photo(s) and material(s) related to this article.
I come to know about Woh Kee when I was in Taipei, Taiwan for 2 weeks as a guest chef. I was working closely with Chef Fong during my stay there, and he had always mentioned about his uncle char hor fun (Fried noodle with thick Cantonese gravy) in Lebuh Cintra, Penang. Getting curious to know more about his uncle, I took a flight from Kuala Lumpur to meet his uncle in person
Upon arrival at their shop, I greeted the chef and mentioned that I am a friend of Chef Fong and we work together in Taipei for 2 weeks. Quickly he invited me to have a seat and he went forth to his stove and started cooking a plate of his signature char hor fun for me to indulge.
All these setting you have here, seems nostalgic, how long have you been in this industry? I asked. Many years ago, I can’t really remember of which year, he answered. He then added, you see, back then I am still an apprentice just behind this shop at that empty land, under the guidance of Mr. Leung Kam Siew who came from Guangzhou to Penang during the early 1900s, today he is in his mid-90s.
In 1966, he was only 16 years old when he first stepped into the food industry. He mentioned that those days, his salary was only RM1 a day. Life was incredibly tough then, every day he begins working in the morning at 9.00 am until the wee hours at 3.00 am. I told him, that is 18 hours of work a day and he answered me, “I was young, I just work whenever I could, I did not bother much about time”.
He got married after 3 years of apprenticeship. His master, Mr. Leung Kam Siew, realize that Big Power is at the milestone of starting a family, being a compassionate person, his master gave him the stall, appointing him as his successor. I asked his wife, how should I address you? “Everyone calls me auntie, so just simply call me auntie”, she answered with a blushing smile.
During those days, the kitchen and the seating area are separated by a street. Crossing the street is a mandatory procedure for delivering the dishes to their customer as well as sending orders to the kitchen. Since it was by the roadside, they have to set up the tables and chairs every morning and keeping them when they are closed.
According to Big Power, the kitchen was powered by kerosene and charcoal. Two stoves of the left were heated with kerosene, the utmost left stove was meant to simmer stock and the middle stove was meant for frying noodles. The stove on the right was custom made with cement for charcoal. Every now and then he has to pump the kerosene tank to power up his stove. Those were the early period of Woh Kee Restaurant.
After 20 years of perseverance, the owner wanted to reclaim the land for his own usage. So they relocated to a nearby corner shop lot under the famous Sky Hotel at Lebuh Chulia.
Back then he does have an apprentice who is interested to learn his cooking techniques and skills. However, the apprentice loses interests after learning the difficulty and hardship it takes to serve a delicate plate of char hor fun.
In the year of 1999, they relocated again to their current location at Lebuh Cintra. The business was doing so well that they rented two shop lots providing a total of 25 tables to serve his customer.
Things took an unexpected turn after a year and a decade here, Big Power was diagnosed with a stroke. With no one was able to replace his position at his stove, Woh Kee Restaurant was forced to halt. Going doctor’s appointments become a routine to Big Power for the next 8 months. Big Power returns to his stove as soon as he recovered, and as the news spread, his regulars flock his restaurant in no time.
However, in 2014, a bone spur grew on his lower back causing tremendous pain to Big Power. He had trouble standing and often require assistant from others to walk. The doctor suggested him to take a break before thing turns to the worse. Once again Woh Kee Restaurant has to take a break from business. Taking 12 tablets of medicines on a daily basis and attending physiotherapy became his daily schedule.
After 6 months of struggle, the doctor finally allows Big Power to resume his service for the industry. Big Power reopened his restaurant, but with his injured back, he had to reduce his restaurant size from 2 shops to just 1 shop.
As I was having a good time talking to them and getting to know their past life events, I was wondering if they ever changed their menu even once. I was fascinated when auntie told me, the same menu since the first day of operations – char hor fun and fish slices noodle. 51 years of originality passed down from Guangzhou. I am truly out of words learning the spirit they managed to persevere.
Big Power says with his current back condition at this age and his loving wife is willing to help out, his stall are merely their pastime. As I sit there at his humble restaurant, I observe many customers of his are regulars. Big Power says that some of them begin patronizing his restaurant since he was still cooking by the roadside and ever since becoming friends. Today some of his regular customers are now great grandparents with their forth generation also favor Big Power’s cooking. As more and more traditional food is fading away from the food culture of Malaysia, Big Power says if anyone is willing to learn, he is willing to teach.
This concludes the brief life event of Woh Kee Restaurant (和记), famously known to the local as 大炮和or Big Power.
Woh Kee Restaurant (和记)
38, Lebuh Cintra,