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 KINO STREET-WISE 
KUCHING'S FIRST KOPITIAM
 BY ALAN LAU

Thompson's Corner at Nanas Road was the first outlet launched in 1985 by Frank and Belinda Ho (right, inset).

The People-people: How the  founders of Thompson’s Corner changed the way we eat

Frank Ho attracts a fair bit of attention when he sits in public. A constant stream of people approach him and his wife Belinda to shake hands. The affable gent in his 60s greets everyone by name with a big smile and there’s his general eagerness to engage everyone in conversation. Belinda, a former teacher and Frank’s wife of more than 40 years, hovers beside him; a constant, calm companion for her more outgoing husband. You would describe them both as people-people – an institution in Kuching. But, Frank and Belinda are better known as the founders of a veritable institution: Thompson’s Corner, Kuching’s first ever food court. From 1985 to 1999, the couple were the driving force behind one of Kuching’s most innovative eating establishments, sparking a quiet revolution that still resonates. It’s no stretch to say that this couple changed the way we eat out in Kuching today.

The Hos have shared a life that has seen many twists and turns. Frank was born in Kuala Lumpur into a Hokkien family; his father emigrated from China in the postwar years to start a thriving paper bag business. But what should have been a promising start in life was thrown off- course by 2 tragedies; the long illness and death of his father, and the death of his elder brother. The 15-year-old Frank suddenly found himself head of a business, head of a growing family, and saddled with medical bills. Frank had to quit school in order to attend to his late father’s business, to feed 13 mouths at home, and to pay off his family debts. But Frank doesn’t appear the sort of man to wallow in self-pity for long, and in any case, he had little choice but to press on. So with the help of his widowed sister-in-law (and eventually, Belinda) he proceeded to run the business and to gradually pay off his father’s debts. Further opportunities beckoned, and Frank segued into the taxi-driving business. But his first foray into food-and-beverage industry came with the opportunity came to join the team of Malaysia’s first ever McDonald’s restaurant, and soon he was posted to Singapore for training. For Frank, the McDonald’s experience was awe-inspiring. “I had never seen anything like it,” he says. “There were daily briefings for the staff. There were standards specified for everything, from food preparation to the manner it was served. There was even a procedure for how to mop around a toilet bowl.” In fact, toilet-cleaning was one of the first training tasks the future assistant manager was set, to the merriment of his colleagues. But for Frank, it was illuminating.

KINDLY PAY WHEN FOOD IS SERVED"This was never asked before. Many felt insulted, feeling that their honesty or capacity to pay were in question"...amused Belinda Ho

His view of what it meant to be a manager and a leader was profoundly shaped by his years with the franchise. Leaders, his mantra goes, should clean toilets with their own hands. This experience was what brought them to Kuching, as a businessman from Sarawak came looking for an operations manager for a new fast food outlet in Kuching – none other than Sugar Bun. “He was very persistent,” Frank says. He made Frank an irresistible offer, and soon the couple were on a plane to Kuching to bring all the rigour of his McDonald’s training to the new franchise. From his close understanding of staff issues, Frank lobbied passionately for an increase in staff wages. “I said, if you take care of your staff, they will take care of you,” Frank says. New uniforms and higher wages raised staff morale and instilled a sense of pride. If Sugar Bun was to be a reputable company, it should treat its staff accordingly. Pilferage dropped, and profits increased.

                     

                     

                                  Tan Lian Ngo, another "original " hawker selling her Bak Kut Teh"
                                           for all these years still remembers the Hos fondly.

"... customers were limited in their choices. Not for want of food diversity - there was a plethora of legendary hawkers and delicious local specialties such as kolo mee and laksa, but the majority of Kuching’s food scene was on the streets, in hundreds of mobile stalls, or in open air markets".

Providence and inspiration tend to strike in mid-air, and it was on an airplane trip together that Frank and Belinda mooted the idea of a new kind of eatery in Kuching. Drawing on Frank’s experience with international franchises, they wanted to create a new kind of coffeeshop. “Coffeeshops were so dirty,” Frank recalls, “there was no attention to service, or hygiene, or staff welfare.” But more importantly, customers were limited in their choices. Not for want of food diversity - there was a plethora of legendary hawkers and delicious local specialties such as kolo mee and laksa, but the majority of Kuching’s food scene was on the streets, in hundreds of mobile stalls, or in open air markets. “Even in these open markets, stalls had tables reserved for their own customers,” Belinda remembers. “You couldn’t simply sit anywhere. It was a problem.”

Frank and Belinda envisioned a place, drawn from existing archetypes in KL, Taipei and other Asian cities, where all of Kuching’s culinary delights were available to everyone. Participating stalls would be carefully selected to provide a wide range of dishes. Customers could sit anywhere they pleased, and order from whichever stall they wanted. There would be meticulous standards for food preparation, service, and hygiene. Most importantly of all, stallholders and staff alike would be trained and briefed to maintain these standards.

                     

                          Lucy removed her mask to be photographed, happily preparing her
                                 Youn Tou Fu, saying that she's been here "for a long time" .

 

                     

              Chin Chiah How continued with this BBQ stall when his father retired in 2009. He continues
                        with the family tradition of making up to 5 different types of BBQ meats everyday.

                    

                    Lau Eu Kwee and his wife joined the Hos in this new Kopitiam concept in 1985. 
Working from an open-air market before that, Lau has been selling his Kolo Mee in Thompson's Corner ever since.

And so Thompson’s Corner opened in 1985 on a corner lot in Jalan Nanas. Up went the celebratory red ribbons, off went the obligatory firecrackers, and on pranced the lion dance troupes. What followed was not so much a surge in business, as a mass migration. The concept was an instant hit, inspiring admiration and envy alike. The crowds came in droves, prompting queues (a novelty in itself). Longer, standardised opening hours made Thompson’s Corner a haven for night owls.

In addition to local specialities such as kueh chap, Thompson’ s Corner was also instrumental in introducing lesser-known foods to Kuching. Frank laughs as he recalls the circles of curious onlookers that gathered around the roti canai stall, watching in awe as the Indian chef moulded and flipped the crisp flatbreads. “They had never seen anything like it!” he laughs. “They called it Indian biscuits.” Hainanese chicken rice too was an exotic curiosity to the locals, and likewise the concept of the “Economy Rice” stall, which offered a selection of pre-cooked dishes; all are now mainstays of any food court in Kuching today.

                    

                   For the Hos, cleanliness was a critical factor for success in their business. 

The name "Thompson's Corner" came from the chinese words "Tong sheng" meaning "Rising from the East". As we wanted to give the customers something different, the western pronounciation to match the chinese words was decided upon, says Frank... and it worked!

But it’s clear that culinary innovations aside, they are most proud of the difference they made as employers. In an industry noted for its lackadaisical approach to staff welfare, Frank insisted on personal insurance for his staff, even going to the extent of buying it for them on his own dollar. True to his earlier initiatives at Sugar Bun, he raised workers’ salaries, and provided them with food and lodging. As an enthusiastic new convert, moral training was also on the Thompson’s List of Standards. Frank brings up a testimonial from a former customer. “He told me, if I dropped my wallet at Thompson’s Corner, I knew it would be in good hands.” Years later, they still have previous staff come up to them, thanking them profusely for helping them through the hard times.

After nearly 15 years helming Thompson’s Corner, the couple finally decided to sell the business. Why? At this point, Frank shrugs. A slight caginess ensues. “Our kids had already left home and were doing well,” he starts. “We thought that we shouldn’t be greedy. After all, we had been greatly blessed for 14 years.” Eventually the business was sold to a band of partners who planned to use the profits for community work. Clearly the Hos have no issue with the stated aims of the new owners. But when I ask how they feel about the current state of the business, they are less sanguine. “It’s disappointing that they couldn’t continue the level of service we had,” Frank admits. He shrugs again. “But it’s like having children. They grow up, they go out, and you have to let them go.”

Would they do it all over again? Start another food business like Thompson’s Corner? “Why not?” Frank replies. “But we’d do it differently. We might not have the ability to be so hands-on this time.” It’s not impossible to imagine pastors Frank and Belinda transition unexpectedly into yet another stage in their lives. But somehow, you get the feeling that Thompson’s Corner was more than just a business model and a system. Without Frank and Belinda’s humanistic touch, it would have been something quite different. Less human, less people-centric. After all, Frank and Belinda are people- people, and still in a people business.

Alan, like most people, is only occasionally hungry for food. Luckily, he is always greedy. He enjoys trawling Kuching for the perfect laksa or kolo mee.

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