Dried meat at a Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore.
Food

The king of Chinese jerky still makes it the old-school way

Apr 03, 2019

Whether you call it yukgon, rougan, or bakkwa, those sweet, juicy slices of barbecued preserved pork can be found throughout southern China and Southeast Asia.

Dried meat at a Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore.
Dried meat at a Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore. / Photo: Kiat Tan Wei Jie/SCMP

Yukgon is the Cantonese name for jerky, rougan is the Mandarin pronunciation, and bakkwa is how it’s known in Hokkien, the dialect of Fujian province.

The jerky is made based on an old Chinese technique for preserving and drying meat. Expensive cuts of pork (and these days also chicken and beef) are typically marinated with spices, sugar, and soy sauce, and then dried on racks.

When the snack made its way to Singapore and Malaysia via Chinese immigrants, the meat was grilled instead of air-dried, giving it a smoky flavor.

Bakkwa being grilled in Singapore.
Bakkwa being grilled in Singapore. / Photo: Bee Cheng Hiang

One of the best-known brands that still does it this way is Singapore’s Bee Cheng Hiang, which traces its history back to 1933.

Corporate lore goes that founder Teo Swee Ee started the company by carrying a basket of bakkwa and a charcoal grill around Singapore.

Teo Swee Ee, the founder of Bee Cheng Hiang.
Teo Swee Ee, the founder of Bee Cheng Hiang. / Photo: Bee Cheng Hiang

Teo would set up his grill outside big concert venues and barbecue his meat on the spot.

They sold well, especially during festive occasions, and he eventually made enough money to open his own store in Singapore in 1945.

The first Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore.
The first Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore. / Photo: Bee Cheng Hiang

The name Bee Cheng Hiang, which translates to “beautiful”, “precious,” and “fragrant,” was allegedly chosen because each Chinese character contained nine strokes, and “nine” is a homophone for “longevity” in Chinese.

Today, Bee Cheng Hiang’s operations are overseen by Teo’s great nephew, Daniel Wong, who serves as group general manager.

Employees grill meat at a Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore.
Employees grill meat at a Bee Cheng Hiang store in Singapore. / Photo: Kiat Tan Wei Jie/SCMP

The company operates 376 outlets in 11 countries. More than 200 of them are in mainland China, but its bakkwa is also popular in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea.

While many food businesses have automated their processes, Wong has insisted that Bee Cheng Hiang’s bakkwa should still be spread by hand on traditional bamboo sieves and cooked manually. Each store grills its own jerky, and the key to getting it juicy, despite the high temperatures involved, is a family secret.

“I believe in only mechanizing processes that can be done better by machines,” Wong says. “I will not compromise quality in processes where the human touch makes a difference.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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