Our Singabites tours are not just about the food, but also about the characters that make the food and shape Singapore’s food culture. Today I met Michael Ker who chose family over career.

In an old shop house on Joo Chiat road, Michael Ker rhythmically splats a circle of popiah skin paste on 4 hot plates, one by one. Each circle is as perfect as the last, just the right dimensions, just the perfect thinness. After 10 seconds or so they are finished and stacked up neatly,ready to be sold. In 1938 Michael’s grandfather began the exact same process in the exact same spot.

Kway Guan Huat Popiah has been in business for almost 80 years now. (If you haven’t tried popiah yet the easiest way to explain them is they are Singapore’s answer to a fresh spring roll.) They are the oldest popiah skin maker in Singapore and have used the same recipe since the beginning. A simple mixture of four, salt and yeast has kept the locals coming back for years.

Michael’s story is a bit different to many young men his age. Like his classmates at school Michael worked hard, gained his grades and studied at university. After another 5 years of pharmaceutical studies Michael became a full time pharmacist and was making good money and leading the life he was meant to lead, or was he?

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As with so many of Singapore’s original food cultures the art of popiah skin making is a dying one. The money isn’t there, the hours are long and the work itself  is arduous. You really can’t blame the younger generations for not wanting to be a part of this scene today. This is the problem that the family faced a few years back and so they decided to see if they could persuade Michael to turn his back on all the hard work he’d put in to his career and all the potential earnings he was looking to make.

Now how many of us would give up a 10 year career plus 5 years of study plus all of your normal education years to go and make popiah skin in an old shop house with your family? I’m willing to bet that not many people reading this would, but Michael has. He’s taken his grandfather’s and his father’s skills and he’s carried them into his generation. He’s given hope to his family that their business will keep going and perhaps even grow. He is no doubt a smart man and I’m sure he has some expansion plans and maybe a few ideas to bring the art into the 21st century. The family are lucky in the sense that they own the shop house and so have no rent increase worries for now. This will obviously change if expansion is on the cards and more awareness of their product needs to be achieved.

Tiger beer, whilst not everyone’s favourite tipple, has recently been praised for its promotion of Singapore’s heritage food culture. Michael and the team at Kwy Guan Huat have just returned from a trip to New York where Tiger used them to promote their beer to consumers in the big apple. A few years back the team were flown to Copenhagen to show their popiah skin making skills to potential Danish tourists to Singapore. Perhaps the fact that they are seen as one of Singapore’s showcase heritage food families can be better used to their advantage in the future.

It’s humbling to meet someone like Michael who has given one life away for a completely new challenge. His father and his aunties who I met when I visited the shop were all very proud of him and hopeful for the future of the business. If you around the Joo Chiat area pop in and say hello, they’re a friendly bunch. 95 Joo Chiat road.