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made with passion
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

How two families overcame tragedy to build their own legacy

The stories and evolution of two family-owned businesses in Singapore

Time Out Singapore in partnership with Made With Passion
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What do a carpentry business and a sauce manufacturer have in common? More than you think. Meet Morgan Yeo, director of Roger&Sons and Wilfred Chng of executive director of Sin Hwa Dee – the umbrella company of sauce brand Chng Kee’s – who we brought together to share their history, labour, hard work and also hardship. Their lines of work may be very different but their journeys and passion are similar. 

Roger&Sons and Chng Kee’s are examples of two brand names deservedly recognised under the Made With Passion campaign. Not many may be aware of their humble beginnings as small businesses started out of necessity – we sat down with Morgan and Wilfred to talk about the trades they’re in and its evolution over the years.

How tragedy started it all
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

How tragedy started it all

Roger&Sons, originally called JR&P Industries under Morgan’s father, manufactured office furniture – think standard work cubicles and desks. When his father passed away from pancreatic cancer, the company was under a lot of debt and it was Morgan – fresh from completing his studies in uni – who made the ultimate decision to continue running the business.

Morgan and his brothers pivoted to local carpentry, transforming the business into a bespoke woodworking studio in Jalan Besar. He explains: “My dad’s workers were a small team, but they’re very skilled workers. So I felt it was a little bit of a waste to get them to do something that anybody can do and instead focus on doing something better and has more value to customers. That's why we did it and we did it because we also wanted to learn.”

Wilfred speaks candidly about the family portraits on the wall and explains how it all began in the 1970s with his parents losing their jobs. When the factory they worked at shut down, his parents teamed up to make basic sauces that they would peddle to roadside food hawkers. Fast forward to today, Chng Kee’s is one of Singapore’s most popular sauce brands in the food production industry. 

Tragedy struck when his father passed away from colon cancer when he was 14 and his elder sister took the reins, despite still being a student in university. His father’s death was not the only loss and hardship the family faced. The same elder sister who took over the company, went through the pain of losing her husband – who was also an integral part of the company – and her maternal grandmother who had cared for her when she was young. Despite losing their loved ones, Wilfred and his siblings became even closer and this time, the business they were running had truly become personal.

“We need to look after our own people”

When Morgan took over the business, he kept most of the employees under this dad on board the team. “A lot of these guys have been working for my dad for a long period of time. So it’s somewhat a moral obligation to be able to honour my dad and also be able to repay the loyalty that the guys have given me. If we closed, they might have to move or find somewhere else or retire. You know, some of them are not local, some of them are a bit older. So it's just not so easy to transition and I think it is hard for older people to transition, so we wanted to be able to support them.”

Wilfred says, “When we lost my father, we felt the need to continue to provide for our customers. In our family, loyalty is something we take seriously. By then, Chng Kee’s has already been servicing our pool of customers effectively and we felt responsible and motivated to serve them better. My siblings and I were so young then – and we had to learn and relearn everything about the business – but we supported each other to honour my parents’ legacy. Today, I feel happy to see how we are able to continue to do our customers proud – and employees too. Seeing them be able to provide for their own families is a humbling feeling. After all, we need to look after our own people.”

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Taking over the family business

Morgan believes that passion has been a very important motivator that helped in making his decision to take over and transform Roger&Sons into the business it is now. He mentions that his father started the business the year he was born and in a way, he also grew up with the company so entering the trade was not something foreign to him. 

It’s clear that he brings fresh new ideas to the table. Three years ago, Morgan and his team started using local wood in a collaboration with Mandai to repurpose trees that have been cut down. The wood was used to make 50 pieces of furniture that found its home in Mandai’s parks. But you don’t have to go far to see an example, in the middle of Roger&Sons’ HQ in Jalan Besar, stands a table and bench made from a Khaya tree that was cut down in Clementi.

Morgan shares: “The challenge has always been to push our boundaries. Even now, we are still learning how to do different things using different materials. So it never ends. But I think that's the way that it should be. I can safely say that passion has got us where we are today. When I wanted to first start over the business, everybody just told me that carpentry’s a dead industry,” he says.

For Wilfred, tradition and purpose is what drives him the most. “The Chng Kee’s brand was started to honour my parents. I wouldn’t say we were forced to take over the business. I was eight when my father contracted colon cancer and at that time he had started teaching us his recipes. After school, I was cooking 300kg of oyster sauce!” Wilfred remembers. “I think he already could see this as something long-term he could pass to us. The family bonded a lot helping out in the business and when my father finally passed, taking over the business seemed like the natural progression.” he shares. To this day, Chng Kee’s is still very much family-run and most of Wilfred’s siblings are involved in the company in some way or another.

As with Morgan, the business of sauces wasn’t something foreign anymore to Wilfred by the time he took over the business. The familial bond he talks about still exists today between him and his siblings – and their families. “We all love to cook and each family has their own specialty. When we get together it can be a bit of a competition on who cooks the best dishes. This passion we have for cooking and food also translates into how we run the business. We genuinely want to make high quality and innovative products and will commit to the process,” he says.  

Wilfred says, “All our recipes stem from a place of love. Somewhere, someone was passionate enough to create something that they believed would last generations. It’s important to trace back why you’re doing what you do.” Besides knowledge and learning for bettering ourselves and the company, Wilfred recognises that the Singapore experience is pretty unique – we’re constantly straddling between heritage and progress. “We have to change and adapt, but we cannot forget our roots.”

Perhaps the passion and dedication to bring their respective family businesses to new heights is how both Morgan and Wilfred ended up becoming ambassadors for Made With Passion, an initiative that aims to support enterprising lifestyle brands in Singapore. Roger&Sons and Chng Kee’s join 111 brands representing the city's diverse lifestyle sector while exemplifying the hard work and passion put in to bring their ideas to life.

Education is key to keep the business going
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Education is key to keep the business going

For Morgan, education is key to preserving the carpentry trade in Singapore. After all, it’s not something anyone can go to school for – everything has to be learnt on the job. “In the woodworking industry, education is important. It has to be outreach: reaching out to the right people, speaking to the right team and just protecting them,” he’s hopeful. “One of the things we want to do is to help the Yellow Ribbon Project and get people with disabilities to help us in this trade.” 

“Transferring of skills from the older generation to the younger generation is also important. In the 70s and 80s, all furniture was solid wood. However, most have since started doing plywood and chipboard which takes less effort. Now, there are less than five percent of carpenters that do solid wood,” he tells us. “The younger generation can learn processes and efficiency from the older carpenters. The younger guys always have new ideas – but some are not commercial-ready, that’s where we need the experienced carpenters to help.”

But there is a lot to learn from the younger generation too. Wilfred says that in a way, keeping up with the younger generation keeps him motivated too. “We’re always moving forward so it’s only right to keep up with the era. I think values like perseverance and hard work are important to teach to the younger generation but it is also crucial that we know what empowers and motivates them – to help them move forward and succeed,” he says. 

Chng Kee’s is also very invested in meaningful partnerships with tertiary and educational institutions – whether it is an internship programme or even helping with creating a curriculum for those interested in joining the industry. “There have been many cases where the interns return for full-time positions and have done great things in Chng Kee’s,” Wilfred adds

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Welcome to my shop
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Welcome to my shop

After years of being in the business, there is bound to be something these brands can flex about. Now, Singaporeans can have a piece of local tree in their home, no matter their budget. Roger&Sons have recently launched roots&stumps, a retail line featuring collections of Roger&Sons' designs, in the form of furniture and objects. It features household objects that explore simple geometric profiles like its hexagonal tray ($120) and serving board ($380).

“I’m a cook at home myself and my sons love my curry chicken!” Wilfred exclaims. He is proud to endorse his own products and waxes lyrical about the Hainanese chicken rice paste, chilli crab paste, sambal belacan which also happens to be Chng Kee’s star products. Today, you can find the range at most local supermarkets in Singapore and these sauces are very affordable and widely used in most households. 

Love the brands and their stories? Roger&Sons and Chng Kee’s join 111 brands under the Made With Passion campaign. They represent the city's diverse lifestyle sector while exemplifying the hard work and passion put in to bring their ideas to life. MWP is a national marketing initiative to highlight outstanding local brands, jointly developed by the Singapore Brand Office, the Singapore Tourism Board and supported by Enterprise Singapore

Shop Roger&Sons and Chng Kee, and also the other Made With Passion brands on KrisShop, the Visit Singapore website and Shopee.

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