Heritage Hero: Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck

Third-generation owner Eunice Seah opens up about the history of this 63-year-old brand.
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As early as 7am, while the world rouses sleepily from slumber, green-uniformed workers have begun hanging up rows of glistening braised ducks. At Yu Kee House of Braised Duck, these tender birds are served either in congee, on rice, or together with kway chap (a popular local dish of braised innards). The queue forms as soon as the lights in the stall come on, and by 2pm, the first batch of braised ducks are usually sold out.
The Birth Of An Icon

To be sure, this is a common scenario that occurs daily at the Yu Kee flagship outlet in Kim San Leng Food Court, along Bishan. At present, Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck has five outlets spread across Bishan, Joo Chiat, Ang Mo Kio, Adam Road, and Lavender. There are plans to open their sixth outlet along Beach Road early next year.

But the story behind this popular stall dates way back to 1954, when first generation founder Seah Teck Yew started hawking braised duck from a push-cart along old Yishun road. The Yu Kee brand, along with its recipe, was then passed on to his son and daughter-in-law, who opened their first stall in the now-shuttered Lakeview Food Centre.

This very first stall would become the playground for third-generation owner Eunice Seah, who recalls her earliest childhood memories picking glossy saga seeds and snacking on bai bing (a flat biscuit dusted with sweet flour).
Lakeview Market back in 1980s.
Lakeview Market back in 1980s.
Taking a turn

Seah recalls how the early 90s' were golden years for her younger brother and herself. Then, their parents had expanded the Yu Kee business, with close to 30 outlets in shopping malls such as Lot 1 and Tampines Mall. Both siblings enjoyed material perks, such as being chauffeured to school.

But opening in the air-conditioned comforts of food courts presented a challenge. Says Seah: "Our cashflow was tied up back then. A lot of things like the suppliers and amenities had to be paid in cash, but the common practice was for the landlords to keep all the earnings for 45 days, deduct rental and then return the money to you. Because of this, cash flow was really tight, and it was very challenging."

The early 2000s also saw the outbreak of bird flu scare in Singapore, coupled with some bad investment decisions by Seah's parents that led them to scale down the size of the business.
Same same, but different

It was around this time that Seah's youngest uncle began expanding his own braised duck business as well, bearing the same brand name — Yu Kee — and logo as his older brother.
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While Seah's parents battled challenges like cash flow and lawsuits (fast-food chain KFC previously tried to sue Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck for using an old male figure in their logo), and had to downsize their business by reducing their number of Yu Kee outlets, her uncle took his business in the opposite direction. Sound investments meant he could afford rapid expansion; today, he owns nearly 20 outfits bearing the Yu Kee name.
A Recipe For The Ages

Still, neither Seah nor her parents bear him any grudges. In fact, Seah shares that the family still remains close, often gathering during festive occasions for feasting and merry-making.

She jokingly points out ways to differentiate between the two Yu Kee brands: "Our uniforms are green in colour, whereas his staff are dressed in black. My uncle used to display the same Yu Kee logo too, but he doesn't use the logo anymore. His gravy is also much thicker than ours!"

The 33-year-old also has no wish to follow in her uncle's footsteps. Rather, her game plan is simple: Focus on Yu Kee's original DNA, and stick to doing what the brand has always done best.
At each of her five outlets, only Yu Kee's signature duck rice, congee and kway chap are served. Quality is kept consistent thanks to Seah's mother, who personally goes down to the central kitchen to oversee production each morning at 2am.
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Here, Seah's mother still hand-picks the herbs like gui pi and ba jiao used to make the braising liquid, washes the innards with a special formula (hint: it's a soft drink) to get rid of the smell, and even cooks the roasted peanuts that are served on the side of the dishes.

"I will never get tired of eating our duck meat. I can have it every day," says Seah with a laugh. She also shares that each duck has a different thickness, and needs to be braised according to their weight and size.

"When the ducks are ready and we pack them to send them to our outlets, we make sure to only put four to five ducks in each vat, even though a vat can take up to 10 ducks," says Seah.
"This is because the skin of the duck is already so soft after braising, stacking too many ducks together will damage the smooth skin and the meat."

Keeping The Software

When asked where she sees Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck in the next five years, Seah pauses to ruminate on the question. She has, after all, been blessed — to date, Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck has retained most of their staff from nearly 30 years back, easily solving the manpower issue that most hawker stalls today struggle to overcome.

"Some of our staff are actually from our very first Lakeview outlet, and they have never left," shares Seah. "Our oldest staff member is nearly 60 years old. We also have young staff in their 30s who have been working with us since they were in their teens."
Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck, at the Kim San Leng Foodcourt in Bishan.
Yu Kee House Of Braised Duck, at the Kim San Leng Foodcourt in Bishan.
While the Yu Kee brand enjoys a loyal fanbase, Seah is also aware of the importance of social media. Channels such as Facebook and Instagram are used to engage with younger customers, and to continue building up the Yu Kee brand.

"There's so much talk about losing our heritage, but I can't even think about not having Yu Kee five years down the road," says Seah. "To me, it would be a waste to lose my grandfather's legacy, and I plan to keep it alive for a long time."
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