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Familiar Faces In A Foreign Land: An Interview with Sandra Leong, Director of Old Chang Kee UK

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LONDON – It’s not easy uprooting from one’s home and moving to a foreign country alone. If anything, it’s often the lack of familiarity and family that gets to you first, and even knowing full well the number of fellow Singaporeans in London, it’s hard not to miss home from time to time.

That’s a feeling Ms Sandra Leong has encountered more than a couple of times, having spent the last 10 years or so living in London after moving here permanently to be with her British husband. Says Sandra: “None of my other blood relatives live here, and I wanted to stay connected to Singapore in some way, whether it’s celebrating National Day, finding Singaporean knickknacks, or sharing Singaporean culture with my peers – even Singlish!”

But as all Singaporeans know – the fastest way to reach our hearts is through our stomachs, and for Sandra, that came in the form of a quintessential Singapore food brand – Old Chang Kee, best known for their signature (and uniquely Singaporean) curry puffs. Reaching out to them in Singapore, they eventually worked out a plan to launch the brand in the UK, with an initial pop-up in 2017 at London’s Kentish Town to test the ground. Says Sandra: “The pop-up turned out to be a lot more popular than we expected! Our fryer could only fry 10 puffs at one go, and it wasn’t enough to meet the crowd. We had a lot of Singaporeans supporting us on the first day, but interestingly, we also had a lot of curious locals coming to us the day after, proving that there was a market for Old Chang Kee here.”

A year later, with Sandra taking on the role of director of Old Chang Kee UK, Old Chang Kee has opened their very first permanent, physical stall right in the heart of London, in the ever busy Covent Garden. But the road towards it hasn’t been an easy one, with Sandra mentioning how even convincing landlords of the business was a difficult sell. “I still had a full time job at the time, and wondered how it was all going to come into being. We took a long time to find the right place to set up shop, and many of the land lords would much rather have an established business like Subway or Wagamama use the space instead.”

While small, the space at Old Chang Kee Covent Garden is certainly cosy, and tastefully decorated with various ‘barang barang’, from colourful tingkats, to a photo of the brand’s founder in 1956, with the stall’s humble beginnings near the then Rex Cinema along Mackenzie Road in Singapore. Of course, the walls are painted in the brand’s signature yellow tone. Says Sandra: “As a heritage brand with over 60 years of history, we wanted to clearly differentiate ourselves from the rest of the Chinatown shops, and we wanted to have a more nostalgic look and feel.”

The staff at Old Chang Kee UK are few, but effective; only one, smiling employee serves at the counter, while a number of kitchen staff appear from the basement from time to time before disappearing down to quickly prepare more food to send up via the dumbwaiter. As Director, Sandra herself sees to the hiring process, explaining that there’s a good diversity of employees at the shop, including Singaporeans, British and international staff. “I don’t need a super-skilled chef since most of the work is already done back home, but what I do need is a dedicated team that believes in what they’re doing, who believe and understand the Singapore story and how we want to share it with the UK as this business continues to grow,” she adds.

The menu at Old Chang Kee differs slightly from the one back in Singapore, comprising a mix of both their snacks and fuller meals inspired by their sister brand Curry Times in Singapore. Catering to the local market, which places an emphasis on takeaway lunches for the office crowd and fuller meals to meet the larger appetites, items include bowls of Singapore Chicken Curry, Singapore Laksa Noodles with a side of sambal chilli, and even a Laksa Fried Rice, each retailing from £7.20. “We wanted to bring in the very best of Old Chang Kee, and even with a small kitchen, we have to make sure all our products are up to standard,” Sandra adds. “We have this lady from Old Chang Kee who knows every single recipe like the back of her hand. She flies over from time to time to make sure the quality is maintained and makes suggestions to make things more Singaporean by adding more spices for example.”

Many of the recipes have been adapted for a local palate, with the introduction of dishes such as sweet and sour chicken, and vegan options like a tofu and vegetable curry.  As for the curry puffs? A total of six different varieties are available, including their signature Chicken Curry Puff, the vegetarian Curry Potato Puff, a non-spicy Chicken and Mushroom Puff, and fiercely local variations such as the Beef Rendang Puff and Singapore Chilli Crab Stick puff. “The curry puffs were always going to be a must-have,” says Sandra, emphasising their authenticity with the fact that all the curry pastes are flown in from Singapore.

But beyond assurance of taste and having a physical space to buy the products from, the biggest challenge of all remains education, and informing people of what Singapore cuisine, or even what a curry puff even is. “We have to simplify and make our products accessible to the public to make them curious to try it,” says Sandra. “So we position these puffs as pasties, something the British are a little more familiar with. It’s especially important because a lot of them are afraid of not knowing what to order because these are such new products to them and their tastebuds, and that’s a psyche we need to change.”

“Over the last 10 years, the market has evolved to accommodate more than just ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ food,” she continues. “Nowadays you see people on the street eating Japanese food, Viet food, Thai food…so what’s stopping them from going South a little more and trying Singapore food? As more Southeast Asians come to London, the tide is shifting, and with a united front, we can really put our cuisine on the radar here, on one of the world’s biggest stages.”

Old Chang Kee has certainly been gaining a lot of traction since officially opening, offering catering options, and receiving plenty of support from overseas Singaporeans just wanting a taste of home. Plans to expand are in the works, but Sandra knows that there’s still a lot of work to be done: “We’re always on the lookout for more partners and collaborators interested in working together to help spread the word on Singaporean culture or food, and of course, local brands based here as well. As Singaporeans, we’ll always believe that our local cuisine is the best in the world, and as someone selling it here, it’s our responsibility to promote it!”

She concludes: “After moving here and getting married, I wasn’t really working towards anything in particular. All I knew was that I wanted maintain a connection to Singapore still. I never imagined that I would end up being involved with a Singaporean brand overseas. Now, I meet Singaporeans almost every day, sharing our story with locals and seeing just how much potential there is for our country to make a name for itself here. That’s certainly worth something, and working towards that is what keeps me motivated to keep doing this.”

Old Chang Kee London is located at 15A New Row, London WC2N 4LA, opposite the Tesco Express. Open daily, from 11am – 9pm (Tue – Sat), and 11am – 8pm (Sun-Mon). For more information, visit their website and their Facebook 

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