Spring Court Restaurant (Wing Choon Yuen)

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The photo of the restaurant at Great World Amusement Park. Photo from Spring Court.

Established in 1929, Spring Court Restaurant or Wing Choon Yuen (咏春园) is the oldest existing Chinese restaurant in Singapore. The restaurant specialises in Singaporean Chinese food and has been doing so for the past 90 years. It is currently located in a 4-storey heritage shophouse along Upper Cross Street and owned by Mdm Soon Puey Keow, the managing director of the family-run business.[1]

First generation

A capture of Ho Loke Yee from 1978. Photo from Spring Court.
Mdm Soon Puay Keow, the current owner and managing director of Spring Court Restaurant. Photo from The Straits Times.

Founding

The founder of Spring Court Restaurant, Ho Loke Yee (1899 - 1991),[2] arrived in Singapore from Guangdong province, China in the late 1920s. With the aim of building a better life for himself and his family, he took up a job as a driver. In 1929, he left his driving job and opened a restaurant in the Great World Amusement Park between Zion Road, Kim Seng Road and River Valley Road, where the Great World City shopping centre currently stands.[3]

Great World Amusement Park

When Spring Court Restaurant first opened at Great World Amusement Park, it was known by its Chinese name, Wing Choon Yuen. It started out as an eatery for Cantonese cuisine, focusing on steamed and boiled dishes that were light in flavour. Over time, Mr Ho incorporated local ingredients such as spices, chilli and curry to better reflect the regional and racial diversity of Singapore. This gave rise to the unique Singaporean Chinese cuisine.[4]


The restaurant flourished in its first two decades, as it was the venue of choice for group dinners.[5] According to newspaper reports from the late 1930s, Wing Choon Yuen restaurant hosted many anniversaries and celebratory dinners for a variety of sports club and businesses.[6][7][8][9]

Japanese occupation

Under the Japanese administration between 1942 and 1945, a part of Singapore's Chinese population had been resettled in Endau, Johor.[10] The Endau Chinese Settlement later became known as New Syonan.[11] In April 1944, it was reported that Wing Choon Yuen had opened a branch in the new settlement to serve the needs of the 3,000 Chinese settlers.[12][13]

Post-war

As early as 1950, Wing Choon Yuen at Great World Amusement Park was back to hosting dinners that catered for more than 600 people.[14] With the capacity to accommodate up to a hundred tables, it was the go-to venue for hosting banquets. In its heyday, the restaurant hosted up to five wedding banquets in one evening.[15][16]

By the 1960s, business slowed down. Renovation plans for the restaurant were postponed as the amusement park was due to shut down. In 1978, Great World Amusement Park was demolished for modern complexes,[17] prompting Mr Ho to close down the restaurant as well.[18]

Second generation

Spring Court restaurant when it moved to the second floor of the Oriental Theatre. Photo from Spring Court.

Oriental Theatre

In 1978, the restaurant moved to the second floor of the former Oriental Theatre site on New Bridge Road. With the move, the restaurant became known as Spring Court Restaurant.[19] Ho’s son, Ho Hun Cheong, an interpreter, and his daughter-in-law Soon Puey Keow, a banker, played a big part in the next phase of Spring Court’s development. Initially, Mr Ho Loke Yee did not want his children to take over the restaurant business, but Mdm Soon saw a future in Spring Court and persuaded her husband to take over. She started running the restaurant with her then-husband in 1978.[20]


When the elder Mr Ho retired, his son took over the kitchen while Mdm Soon worked the dining room. Business proved slow-going at first. Spring Court lost its grandeur as the restaurant shrunk to a mere 20 tables.[21] Invisible from the street, few knew the restaurant existed and the only signage outside the building was positioned above eye level.

Upper East Coast Road

13 years later in 1991, Spring Court was forced to relocate again. At that time, the owners of a seafood restaurant called Tai Sun were searching for someone to take over their premises along Upper East Coast Road and reached out to Spring Court.[22]

Divorce

In 1996, a major disagreement between Mdm Soon and her husband led to a divorce. Mdm Soon carried on with the restaurant on her own and officially took over the restaurant in 1997.[23] She worked 14 hours per day and her three children who were in their late teens would help out in the restaurant every day after school.


Despite her efforts, their business did not improve. The impact of the Asian Financial Crisis took a toll on the restaurant as sales plummeted in 1998.[24] As a marketing strategy, the restaurant sold its famous roast chicken for S$1 and successfully drew back the crowds.[25] Over the next few years, Spring Court continued to flourish, even though the business was affected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. During these crises, Mdm Soon did not retrench any staff. Instead, she tried to cut the cost of production by reducing the number of workdays.[26]

Third generation

The interior of Spring Court Restaurant as of May 2019. Photo from Spring Court FB page.

Upper Cross Street

In 2005, the Upper East Coast Road lease expired. Mike Ho, the son of Mdm Soon and her ex-husband, was at that time an investor in traditional shophouses and boutique property development. As he was entering the family business, he wanted Spring Court to own its own property. Together with Mdm Soon, they bought a small row of 4-storey shophouses at the end of Upper Cross Street when it was put on the market.


Mike Ho helped with the renovation works immediately as his sisters, Ho Giao Pik and Ho Giao Yun were busy with their professional lives as a banker and dermatologist respectively. Mr Ho installed an elevator for the elderly customers and a fully-equipped kitchen on the second floor. Today, Spring Court spans across 5 four-storey shophouses in the heart of Chinatown, with enough space to fit 650 guests.[27]

Recognition

In 2011, Raintree produced a film called “It’s a Great, Great World” (大世界), featuring various popular Mediacorp and Taiwanese actors. The movie centred around the lives of the characters who lived and worked at the Great World Amusement Park. Spring Court, or Wing Choon Yuen, was featured in one of the stories when a wealthy businessman who held his daughter’s wedding at the restaurant which was disrupted by the arrival of the first Japanese bombing raids on Singapore in 1941.[28]

References / Citations

  1. Khoo, Hedy. “Owner of Singapore’s oldest restaurant, Spring Court, talks about how she overcame the odds”. The Straits Times. March 16, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/spring-court-owner-honoured
  2. Tan, Annette. "Savouring nostalgia". TODAY. April 13, 2013. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  3. Ow, Kim Kit. “Spring Court: How Singapore’s oldest family-run Chinese restaurant found success across three generations”. The Peak Newsletter. March 18, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://thepeakmagazine.com.sg/gourmet-travel/spring-court-singapore-chinatown-upper-cross-street/
  4. Ow, Kim Kit. “Spring Court: How Singapore’s oldest family-run Chinese restaurant found success across three generations”. The Peak Newsletter. March 18, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://thepeakmagazine.com.sg/gourmet-travel/spring-court-singapore-chinatown-upper-cross-street/
  5. Tan, Annette. “Our Gastro Legacy: Singapore’s oldest family-run restaurant, Spring Court”. CNA Lifestyle. August 6, 2018. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/dining/spring-court-restaurant-singapore-oldest-chinese-10593112
  6. "Untitled". Malaya Tribune. August 1, 1939. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  7. "USEFUL B.P". The Straits Times. June 10, 1939. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  8. "SIONG BOO ATHLETIC". Morning Tribune. March 2, 1939. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  9. "Group at dinner held at the Wing Choon Yeun Restaurant, Great World, by the Dunlop Rubber Co., (S.S.) Ltd., and the Singapore and District Chinese dealers in Dunlop products, in celebration of the 50th anniverary of the untitled practical pneumatic tyre by teh late J.B. Dunlop. Seated from right to left are: Messrs. Teo Boon Liew. Chua Hung Tong (chief clerk), Lee Boon Tok, Lim Choon Huat, R. Johnson (secretary), Teo Seek Guan, F. A. W. untitled (Managing Director), Tan Yeow Joo, K.B.H. Stevens (Sales manager), Teo Chip HOck, Eu Sim Chuan, Ong Chin Keng, Wed Cheng Kee.". Malaya Tribune. July 21, 1938. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  10. "Eleventh Batch of Settlers Leave Syonan For Endau". Syonan Shimbun. April 12, 1944. Accessed on 9 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  11. "From A Woman's Point Of View". Syonan Shimbun. December 23, 1943. Accessed on 9 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  12. "Typical 'Chinatown' Has Sprung Up In New Syonan". Syonan Shimbun. April 25, 1944. Accessed on 9 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  13. "Much Industrial Activity Seen In New Syonan". Syonan Shimbun. April 26, 1944. Accessed on 9 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  14. "DINNER PARTY". The Singapore Free Press. January 26, 1950. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  15. Tan, Annette. “Our Gastro Legacy: Singapore’s oldest family-run restaurant, Spring Court”. CNA Lifestyle. August 6, 2018. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/dining/spring-court-restaurant-singapore-oldest-chinese-10593112
  16. "Loke Yee will soon serve his last course". New Nation. September 2, 1978. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  17. "Great World sold for $60 mil?". New Nation. June 2, 1978. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  18. "Loke Yee will soon serve his last course". New Nation. September 2, 1978. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  19. "Loke Yee will soon serve his last course". New Nation. September 2, 1978. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  20. Tan, Annette. “Our Gastro Legacy: Singapore’s oldest family-run restaurant, Spring Court”. CNA Lifestyle. August 6, 2018. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/dining/spring-court-restaurant-singapore-oldest-chinese-10593112
  21. Ow, Kim Kit. “Spring Court: How Singapore’s oldest family-run Chinese restaurant found success across three generations”. The Peak Newsletter. March 18, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://thepeakmagazine.com.sg/gourmet-travel/spring-court-singapore-chinatown-upper-cross-street/
  22. Tan, Annette. “Our Gastro Legacy: Singapore’s oldest family-run restaurant, Spring Court”. CNA Lifestyle. August 6, 2018. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/dining/spring-court-restaurant-singapore-oldest-chinese-10593112
  23. Khoo, Hedy. "Owner of Singapore's oldest restaurant, Spring Court, talks about how she overcame the odds". The Straits Times. March 16, 2019. Accessed on 8 July 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/spring-court-owner-honoured
  24. Khoo, Hedy. “Owner of Singapore’s oldest restaurant, Spring Court, talks about how she overcame the odds”. The Straits Times. March 16, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/spring-court-owner-honoured
  25. Ow, Kim Kit. “Spring Court: How Singapore’s oldest family-run Chinese restaurant found success across three generations”. The Peak Newsletter. March 18, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://thepeakmagazine.com.sg/gourmet-travel/spring-court-singapore-chinatown-upper-cross-street/
  26. Khoo, Hedy. “Owner of Singapore’s oldest restaurant, Spring Court, talks about how she overcame the odds”. The Straits Times. March 16, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/spring-court-owner-honoured
  27. Ow, Kim Kit. “Spring Court: How Singapore’s oldest family-run Chinese restaurant found success across three generations”. The Peak Newsletter. March 18, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://thepeakmagazine.com.sg/gourmet-travel/spring-court-singapore-chinatown-upper-cross-street/
  28. “It’s A Great Great World”. Toggle. January 9, 2019. Accessed on 11 June 2019. Retrieved from: https://video.toggle.sg/en/video/movies/it-s-a-great-great-world/716686