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How a Singaporean started a chicken rice war in Shanghai

SHANGHAI — While celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is milking his hawker centre concept featuring Singapore street food, among others, in New York City for all it’s worth, restaurateurs in China’s most populous and cosmopolitan city have been battling to meet demand for one of Singapore’s ubiquitous delicacies: Hainanese chicken rice.

SHANGHAI — While celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is milking his hawker centre concept featuring Singapore street food, among others, in New York City for all it’s worth, restaurateurs in China’s most populous and cosmopolitan city have been battling to meet demand for one of Singapore’s ubiquitous delicacies: Hainanese chicken rice.

Stalls have been popping up across the city and the locals have no qualms joining long queues for a taste of the dish. And it’s all thanks to a Singaporean named Xander Ang, widely regarded as the first person to introduce the concept of a stand-alone, independent chicken rice shop to Shanghai.

“I don’t know what I’ve done. A war is about to start,” sighed the 32-year-old chef.

Amusingly, some of these businesses have even adopted the names of some of Singapore’s most revered hawker legends. Sure, many Asian restaurants in Shanghai have been selling Hainanese chicken rice as part of their menus for many years, but Ang, who opened Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice in Shanghai’s Jingan district with a few family members and Chinese investors last January, struck gold.

Just to clarify, Ang’s Five Star establishment has nothing to do with Singapore’s famous chicken rice restaurant at East Coast.

“I didn’t want to call it Five Star,” claimed Ang, citing the need for integrity when doing business. “But my Chinese partners didn’t (seem to mind) having the same name as another brand in Singapore.”

(It should be noted that the “copycat mentality” is so notorious in China that even its President Xi Jinping has, in recent times, advocated the importance of originality and innovation.)

Still, it didn’t stop at least two other eateries in Shanghai from sporting the exact same red interiors and black-and-gold signboard as Five Star.

“I’ve created a disaster. Now the Chinese think that specialised chicken rice shops must come with red interiors and a signboard just like the one at my first outlet. It’s like they think everything must be the same as Five Star,” he said.

One of these shops is Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, located along Guangdong Road, which opened in July. No, it is also not affiliated to the famous stall of the same name at Maxwell Food Centre in Singapore. Rather, it is run by a 24-year-old local named Cheng Long Yuan, who previously worked at Five Star.

Why name his shop as such? “You know, because there’s a Tian Tian in Singapore, just like Five Star,” quipped Cheng.

Cheng said that while Shanghainese people have always liked eating poached chickens (or wen chang chicken), their poultry comes with a deep yellow skin and is distinctively tougher than the Singapore version. He also has plans to expand in the near future, seeing how business has been rather brisk. With poultry and labour being relatively cheap in China, the profit margins can get pretty high, pretty fast.

But for Ang, money isn’t everything. He left the business in the middle of this year after clashing with his Chinese partners over creative direction and brand management.

“I didn’t agree to open a second branch and that’s why relationships splintered. They wanted to franchise it fast but I wanted it to mature. I believe if you build the brand slowly before expanding, people will respect you and patronise no matter where you go next time,” he said. “They didn’t want that. They wanted the Chinese style — super fast expansion, grab the money and go.”

But Ang has re-entered the dining fray, with another chicken rice establishment which he claims is “uncopiable”: Mr Ang’s Chicken Rice. (Its Chinese name is Hong Xing, named after the gang in a blockbuster Hong Kong movie — Young And Dangerous.)

Located in a food mall in Pudong, the business has a simple shop front that is anchored by an open-concept kitchen. Besides chicken rice, the shop also serves familiar Singapore favourites such as laksa, teh tarik and kaya toast. But Ang is not looking to build an empire, nor does he see chicken rice as a ticket to quick fame and riches — although he conceded he might open another one or two more outlets in Shanghai.

“I’ve figured this out after 10 years in the business: All you need is to be passionate about the food,” he said. “This business is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to enjoy yourself and not think about the profits too much. The money will naturally come.”

Ang is not the only Singaporean in Shanghai offering a truly authentic plate of chicken rice. Sergeant Hainanese Chicken Rice, which operates under the Singapore-owned Food Republic banner, actually made its debut in Shanghai in 2013. In September, Ang’s friend Sammy Teo, who was also formerly from Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC), opened Bugis Chicken Rice at Zhenning Road.

If there is one thing that sets these Singaporeans apart from their Chinese competitors, it is their ability to deliver consistency. At Sergeant Chicken Rice, there are Singaporeans on the ground to ensure quality.

“The great taste is a result of our collective effort and teamwork. We have hired and trained Singaporean chefs to be based in Shanghai over the long term — maintaining our high standards in food quality and safety,” said a Food Republic spokesperson, who added that the brand will be opening more outlets in the near future.

Over at Ang’s outlet, the flavours presented were utterly spot-on, probably because Ang personally pulled the teh tarik, buttered the kaya toasts, chopped the chickens and mixed the chilli. It would be safe to assume that Singaporeans in Shanghai looking for a hearty comforting meal can always trust a fellow Singaporean to get the flavours right.

“The local cooks here cannot grasp the concept of our type of chicken rice. Most of them have never tasted it before. They always get the chilli sauce wrong,” said Ang.

“This is the food that we Singaporeans grow up with. You just don’t forget the taste.”

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