Khong Guan Biscuits

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Assorted biscuits in a tin manufactured by Khong Guan.

Khong Guan is a multinational business specializing in biscuit manufacture. With its roots in Singapore, the company was founded 1947 by Chew Choo Keng and Chew Choo Han.[1][2] In 2015, it was reported that the Khong Guan brand ships to more than 40 countries worldwide.[3] As of September 2019, Khong Guan Biscuit Factory (Singapore) Pte Ltd holds a 20.4% retail share in the sweet biscuits, snack bars and fruit snacks Singapore market.[4]

Founders

The founders of Khong Guan biscuits. Photo from Khong Guan's website.

Khong Guan was founded by two brothers, Chew Choo Keng (d. 11 July 2001) and Chew Choo Han (d. 18 November 2008). Chew Choo Keng was the Chairman of the company, helming areas of business development. Meanwhile, Chew Choo Han was the Managing Director, taking charge of all operational matters.

Early beginnings at Khiam Aik Biscuit Factory

In 1937, Chew Choo Keng and Chew Choo Han left their village in Fujian, China for Singapore in search of jobs to better provide for their family. The two brothers found work at the Khiam Aik biscuit factory located at Beo Lane, Bukit Ho Swee (now known as Havelock Road).[5] The biscuit factory was owned by business tycoon, Tan Kah Kee.[6][7]


Chew Choo Keng’s diligence allowed him to climb the ranks and gather knowledge about biscuit making. His earnest work ethic caught the attention of Tan Kah Kee who took him under his wing. Under Tan Kah Kee’s influence, Chew Choo Keng (朱子敬) who was formerly known as Chew Zhu Keng (朱周敬), replaced the Chinese character Zhu (周) to Choo (子) which represented Confucian values.[8]


Due to labour unrest at the biscuit factory, Chew Choo Keng was caught between the interests of his boss and his fellow workers. He resigned in 1938 and headed to Ipoh, Malaya (now known as Malaysia) where he was given work by his former boss, Tan Kah Kee. There, he worked as a cashier in a rubber firm under the Ghee Seng company.[9][10]

Khong Leng Biscuit Factory

After his stint at Tan Kah Kee’s rubber firm, Chew Choo Keng met up with a former schoolmate, Chan Beng Tee, who suggested the idea to start a biscuit factory. Initially financed by Chan’s uncle with a sum of S$3,000, the company was set up as Khong Leng biscuit company. It had 40 employees, all of whom were old schoolmates of Chew Choo Keng.[11][12]

Business during the Japanese occupation

The brothers were forced to leave Khong Leng biscuit factory in 1941 and sought refuge in Telok Anson, Perak (presently known as Teluk Intan). There, they made biscuits by hand. The brothers later moved in with Chew Choo Keng’s in-laws. With their help in raising initial capital, the brothers started a soap business. They experimented with using ashes as an ingredient. The pair was also involved in numerous ventures including the production of coconut oil, charcoal and rubber.[13][14][15] The brothers moved back to Singapore after the Japanese troops surrendered.[16]

Background

The Khong Guan logo as designed by co-founder, Chew Choo Keng.
An old advertisement for Khong Guan biscuits. Photo credit to Valda Jean Thompson.

In 1947, Khong Guan Biscuit Factory (Singapore) Limited was set up with an initial capital of S$60,000. Its first factory premises was at 18 Howard Road.[17] The factory occupied an area of approximately 50,000 sq ft.[18] Operations initially relied on the manual labour of the two brothers. By re-purposing discarded biscuit-making machines which were being sold as scrap, the pair created a semi-automated conveyor system. They used bicycle chains to transport biscuits to the ovens for baking.[19][20]


Over the years, Khong Guan has accumulated over 60 subsidiaries that provide supporting functions.[21] These include the production and distribution of various products from baking ingredients to oatmeal products. Khong Guan Limited holds the subsidiary, Federal Oats Mills Sdn Bhd, which produces products of the brand, Captain Oats.[22][23] As of 2019, Khong Guan Biscuit Factory (Singapore) Pte Ltd is a member of the following associations: Singapore Food Manufacturers’ Association, Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Singapore Manufacturing Federation.[24][25][26]

Khong Guan’s logo was designed by Chew Choo Keng. The trademark was first intended for their soap business during the Japanese Occupation. Modifying the logo to suit the biscuit factory, Chew Choo Keng added wheat straws around a ship’s steering wheel. The steering wheel represents a steadfast business direction.[27]

Products

Khong Guan provides a large assortment of biscuit products ranging from crackers to wafers. The business offers flexibility in purchase quantity — from single biscuit packs, assorted packs and bulk purchases in tins. Part of Khong Guan’s classic products include the Marie and Sultana Biscuits, Cream Crackers and Lemon Puffs.[28]

Factory tours

Khong Guan Biscuit Factory (Singapore) Pte Ltd is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industry partner with Science Centre Singapore.[29] As part of the Industrial Partnership Programme, the company organises tours at its Boon Lay factory. These tours are open to educational institutions under Singapore’s Ministry Of Education (MOE). Participants of the tour are introduced to the start-to-end production process of biscuit making.[30] The factory is opened to local government agencies and occasionally to the public as well.[31][32]

Business growth

By the 1950s, the brothers had expanded the business overseas.[33] They set up factories in Malaysia and nearby Southeast Asia. The company’s engineering arm built customized production lines. With vigorous marketing and expansion strategies, Khong Guan biscuit products started appearing in the supermarkets of countries such as the Middle East, Europe, Japan and the United States.[34]

Timeline

An early design edition of Khong Guan's biscuit tin. Photo from Roots.sg.
A 1950s edition of Khong Guan's biscuit tin. Photo from Roots.sg.
Year Key Event(s)
1947
  • Khong Guan Biscuit Factory (Singapore) Pte Ltd was first founded
  • Established first factory at 18 Howard Road, Singapore
1950s[35][36][37]
  • Established 2 factories in Singapore and 3 factories in West Malaysia (Seremban, Kota Bharu and Butterworth)
  • Total of 1,200 factory workers with 50,000 tins of biscuits produced daily
  • Exported to Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Middle East, South Vietnam, Africa and New Guinea
  • Diversified investments into vegetable oil manufacture, shipping logistics and commodities trading 
1960s[38][39]
  • Established factories in East Malaysia (Kuching, Sabah), Thailand and Jakarta, Indonesia
  • Bought over Golden Eagle Biscuit Factory
  • Established the United Flour Mill in Butterworth, Penang
  • Established an oat mill. Production of oats under the ‘Captain’ and ‘Quaker Oats’ brand
  • Established Khong Guan Milling Private Ltd (now known as Khong Guan Limited) at Tanjong Rhu with a capital of S$5 million.[40][41] Khong Guan Milling Private Ltd was listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange on 12 March 1969.[42]
  • Diversified into tin-mining under Poh Guan Tin-Mine Company Ltd
  • Established a joint venture company called ‘Nissin Biscuit and Confectionery’ with the Japanese firms, Nissin Confectionery and Toyo Menka Kaisha (a trading firm).[43]
  • Incorporated Khong Guan Holdings Malaysia in November 1969[44]
1970s
  • Constructed an S$1.2 million single-storey factory in Boon Lay, Singapore that occupied 100,000 sq ft of floor space[45][46]
  • The factory at 18 Howard Road increased its daily production capacity from 15 tons to 75 tons, deploying 1,000 workers in three rotating shifts[47]
  • Formed a joint venture with Arnott’s Biscuits Australia on 19 December 1974. Khong Guan had access to Arnott’s recipe, formulae and production methods and the right to distribute Arnott’s products in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.[48][49]
1980s
  • Expanded biscuit production in the Shekou industrial zone of Guangdong, China[50]
  • Amassed over 60 subsidiaries in Southeast Asia with three core companies — Khong Guan Holdings Malaysia, Khong Guan Flour Milling and United Malayan Flour Mills[51]
  • Entered the United States in 1982[52]
  • Rebranded biscuit products and design packaging in the USA and Japan under the names ‘Miss Kate’ and ‘ハンディパック‘ (read as ‘Handy Pack’) respectively. Granted S$450,000 from the Design Ventures Programme run by the Trade Development Board.[53][54]
  • Rebranding efforts in the USA saw an increase in sales to $500,000 in 1986, 100% more than that of 1985[55]
  • Formed the food consortium with Woh Hup Noodle House, Effort Holdings, Tai Sun and Trade Development Board to promote product sales in Japan[56]
  • Shifted flour milling operations to Malaysia and China due to unprofitable operating results. Flour mill in Singapore converted into a real estate project (now known as Casuarina Cove).[57][58][59][60]
1990s
  • Established factories in Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Zhengzhou[61][62]
  • Named second most popular biscuit brand in China with a 7 per cent share in the market[63]
  • Invested in cocoa bean processing with a 45 per cent stake in Shanghai Daying Cocoa product[64]
  • Sold controlling shares of Khong Guan Holdings Malaysia to Tan Sri Lim Geok Chan[65]
  • Awarded the Plaque of Commendation at NTUC's traditional eve of May Dinner[66]
2000s
  • Reported sales of S$67 million worth of products in China[67]
  • Passing of co-founder, Chew Choo Keng (d. 11 July 2001)[68]
  • Passing of co-founder, Chew Choo Han (d. 18 November 2008)[69][70]
  • Khong Guan brand products sold across 40 over countries including the Middle East, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Europe, Canada, Philippines and the United States[71][72][73]

Newsworthy incidents

The renovated Khong Guan Factory at 2 MacTaggart Road. Photo credit to Darren Soh, META Architecture.

No. 2 MacTaggart Road Khong Guan Biscuit Factory conservation (2005 & 2018)

On 27 December 2005, the Khong Guan Biscuit Factory at 2 MacTaggart Road was given conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Singapore. The building was first constructed by Chung Swee Poey & Sons in 1952.[74][75] At the time, the three-storey building an office space and a warehouse for flour with a shopfront for selling Khong Guan products. Chew Choo Han and his family lived on the second storey of the building in the 1950s and 1960s.[76]


The building at No. 2 MacTaggart Road was the headquarters for the brand. Originally a three-storey building, the refurbished building has an eight-storey extension. In 2018, the building was given the ‘Award for Restoration and Innovation’ as part of the 2018 URA Architectural Heritage Awards.[77][78][79][80]

Melamine-tainted milk scare (2008)

Due to the discovery of Melamine-tainted milk that had affected babies in China in 2008, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) began testing products from Khong Guan. It was determined that the biscuits manufactured in Singapore were free of melamine contamination. However, the biscuits were recalled in Malaysia. It was announced that the biscuits contained excess melamine. Upon importing the biscuits, AVA conducted an additional test that revealed the biscuits to be safe for consumption.[81][82][83]

Kidnapping attempt on Chew Choo Han (1961)

The event took place on the night of 23 March 1961 at MacPherson Road, ad-joining Woodsville Circus. After leaving a food stall with his wife, Chew Choo Han was ambushed by a group of men while attempting to enter his car. The men threatened Chew Choo Han to follow them into their car but he had refused and struggled. Chew Choo Han was stabbed twice, once in his chest and once in his back. After which he was shot at close range in the back with an automatic pistol.[84][85]


The kidnappers then got into their car and drove off. Chew Choo Han attempted to stop the assailants by hurling a knife which shattered the getaway car’s windscreen. Due to massive blood loss, he then collapsed on the five-foot-way. He was later brought to the Singapore General Hospital where he survived the assault. The shooter was later identified as Goh Chiang Hong. He was sentenced to death on 15 August in the same year.[86][87]

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