Legend says that in the 14th century, Sang Nila Utama, a Prince from Palembang (the capital of Srivijaya; a city-state in the island of Sumatra, Indonesia), was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. Taking it to be a good sign, he founded a city where the animal had been spotted, naming it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).(1)
In 1970, Anastasia Tjendri, the third of eight siblings who grew up in Palembang, made the same journey to modern Singapore. In the 1960’s, Anastasia had to stop school after the civil unrest in Indonesia but this did not stop her passion for learning. She took cooking and baking classes and then coached others to continue upgrading herself. Two years after marriage to Johnson Liew; she started baking butter and chiffon cakes from the kitchen of her four-room flat in Marine Parade to sell to friends. It became so popular that a department store in Lucky Plaza set up a special retail counter selling her cakes. The store, unfortunately, did not have a license to sell food and the government officials asked Anastasia to stop her little home business. However, this did not cease her popularity and customers kept asking for her confections. Few months later she opened a store close to home and named it ‘Bengawan Solo’ after her favorite Indonesian song about Indonesia’s Solo River.(2)
In 1981, Sunday Times published an article praising the cakes and Kueh turning the already popular shop into an overnight sensation and then there was no looking back! (2)
Anastasia remembers, “People would queue outside the shop before it opened and there would still be a line at closingtime when all the cakes had sold out.”(2)
The enthusiastic response led to another outlet in Centerpoint in 1983 and 4 years later, there were 5 stores and a central kitchen. With no negative growth to this day, investors kept lining up with huge bids to buy the company but Bengawan Solo remains firmly within the family as the passionate owner cannot bear to part with her ‘baby’.(2)
Most of Bengawan Solo’s more than 50 types of Kueh and cakes, including Kueh Lapis and Lapis Sagu, continue to be handmade by more than 130 factory staff to preserve their homemade goodness (company staff strength was at 350 by 2013). She readily embraces technology but only if it improves her confections and listens to customer feedback very carefully –
Her staff is like family, she tells them off, is patient enough to show them the right way, supports them with interest-free loans, is ready with doctor recommendations and cash support in case of staff medical emergencies and hosts Chinese New Year dinners at her home (she hosts two groups, about 200 people each time – shopping for ingredients and cooking herself with the help of two maids and her sisters).
Even with the opening of her 43rd store in 2009; Anastasia does not shy away from rolling up her sleeves and cleaning cake moulds if they don’t seem up to her standards.(2)
The first time I heard about the legendary Bengawan Solo was during my working life in Hong Kong. Every time anyone would visit from Singapore, they had to bring a Pandan cake and if I visited the island country, returning without packs of different types of Kueh was just not possible. The popularity and fan following crosses borders to Hong Kong, Japan and on occasions all the way to London.
Never compromising on quality and always using fresh ingredients (fresh pandan or coconut instead of bottled pandan essence or packet coconut milk); Mrs. Liew’s Bengawan Solo journey is even older than the official symbol of Singapore – The Lion Head (introduced in 1986) and as much a part of the island country’s modern history. Even at 68 this year, she continues to be hands-on with the business, making trips to the outlets to gather customer feedback and going on inspection rounds at the factory seven days a week.
Armed with a 6-months cooking and baking course; no Business degree or formal training of running a company; Bengawan Solo, that achieved a sales turnover of $65 million in 2019 (3), is a labour of love and a directive in following your heart’.
‘The cost of not following your heart is to spend the rest of your life wishing you had’
1. http://www.yoursingapore.com/content traveller/en/browse/aboutsingapore/a-brief-history.html
4. https://sg finance.yahoo.com/news/recipe-success-160004627.html
5. Confections images – http://www.bengawansolo.com.sg
6. Feature image – The Straits Times, 2009