SINGAPORE: Amidst the rows of modern restaurants and hipster cafes that occupy the conserved shophouses along East Coast Road, Chakey’s Serangoon Salt Baked Chicken is, at first glance, an awkward sight.
It no longer has a signboard to call out to customers, nor does it have much furniture. Over the last year, the shop has done away with table service, and now only does takeaways.
But come Dec 31, the shop will join a long list of once-famous, rooted-in-history-type establishments in shuttering its doors for good.
“I am retiring because six months ago, I had a heart attack,” the owner, Richard Chak told this reporter.
“It was a hard decision and I was struggling. But then my wife told me, if you love me, you will take care of your health. So I thought maybe I should spend more time with my family.”
My interview with Mr Chak took a pause when he saw a customer waiting to be served at the entrance. The man, who looks to be in his 30s, has come from Boon Lay to buy two packets of Mr Chak’s famous chicken.
He sees the notice outside the shop informing customers of the permanent closure, and expresses surprise.
“I only heard about this place recently, and bought the chicken to have with my family,” he said.
“That’s when my aunt told me this was once a household name.”
“AT OUR PEAK, WE WERE SELLING A THOUSAND CHICKENS A DAY”
The business, then known as Heong Kee Salt Baked Chicken, got its start in the family home in Mohamed Sultan Road in 1962, but eventually Mr Chak Pak Sek rented a unit in Upper Cross Street and then in Serangoon Road.
At a time when many Singaporeans could only afford to eat chicken once a year during Chinese New Year, it was Mr Chak's father’s idea to sell smaller chickens at an affordable price that resulted in the business booming.
His grandfather also came up with ‘advertising campaigns’ to attract customers.
“He came up with things like, ‘Buy 6 chickens and get 1 free’,” Mr Chak recalled with a laugh.
“For example, there’d be serial numbers on the box, and people could collect six tags and come here and exchange for one chicken. So it was like building a loyal customer base.”
The Chaks would also set up stalls selling the salt baked chicken at trade fairs, like at the then Great World Amusement Park.
“During our peak, we were selling a thousand chickens a day, so much so that my grandfather built brick ovens the size of a small room, and this is where you could place the chicken onto a rack - a hundred chickens at a time and they would be cooked within an hour,” Mr Chak said.
RECIPE HAS STOOD THE TEST OF TIME
With a big family to feed, Mr Chak said his grandfather, Chak Pak Sek, would often dabble in different businesses to make ends meet. Ultimately, the idea to sell salt baked chicken was borne out of the elder Mr Chak’s historical ties with his hometown in China.
“My grandfather was one of the early migrants to Singapore, in around 1910 or 1915,” Mr Chak said.
“He came as a labourer, and brought with him the recipe from Guangdong, where they had salt mines.
“This was before refrigerators existed, so people would use the salt to preserve the chicken, and eventually cook it.”
It took a while for the elder Mr Chak to finesse the recipe, as he had to jog his memory, having arrived as a 15-year-old to Singapore. The family experimented with various herbs and sauces until it passed his grandfather’s taste test.
Following the elder Mr Chak’s passing in 1977, the business was split up, with Mr Chak’s father taking over the Serangoon outlet. But his mother’s death greatly affected Mr Chak’s father, and he decided he did not want to continue the business.
“I thought it would be such a waste if we couldn’t carry on the legacy of my grandfather. It’s a very fragrant and nice chicken to eat,” Mr Chak said.
In 1995, after Mr Chak took over, he changed the name to Chakey’s Serangoon Salt Baked Chicken to appeal to a younger demographic. Two years later, he opened the East Coast outlet.
Through all the changes, Mr Chak said one thing has remained constant - the recipe.
“I think we stood the test of time because we never cut down our ingredients - we used the best ingredients,” Mr Chak said.
“And the formula has remained the same since my grandfather started the business. As a kid, we learnt to mix the different herbs and ingredients. That’s how we learnt the secret recipe of the chicken.”
Cooking the chicken has been modernised, a far cry from how Mr Chak’s grandfather had to do it. Then, a wok was used to fry and dry the rock salt, before the chicken was buried under the pile of salt. The chicken also had to be turned over after half an hour.
Today, the chicken is still buried in rock salt, but baked in large industrial ovens. But long-time customers attest to the same juicy and tender consistency as before.
“IT’S LIKE LOSING A CHILD”
Outside the shop, a bright yellow standee thanks customers for their support, and informs them that Sunday (Dec 31) will be the last day of business. Mr Chak said he started informing customers about a month ago through pamphlets with their takeaway orders.
Like him, Mr Chak’s son Samuel has been helping out in the business from a young age, cleaning and cooking the chicken. He said his son also knows the secret recipe.
But with Samuel still in university, Mr Chak said there is no one else to take over the business.
Mr Chak said he will pull the shutters down for the final time with a heavy heart on Sunday. He also wants to take a picture with his last customer as a memento.
“It’s like losing one of my kids,” the 60-year-old said, overcome with emotion.
“It was really a struggle for me to give up. But I guess it’s time I have more time with my wife.”