Huddled in a quiet corner in a Japanese cafe in Paragon are two women. Each is distinct from the other in style, age and persona. The older of the two sports an immaculate bob and is dressed in a timeless black ensemble. The other, with tousled blonde-grey hair, wears a Gucci sweater that she accessorises with a teddy bear necklace. Such stark differences notwithstanding, they seem similar. Perhaps it is the way their faces light up when they smile.
The women in question are mother and daughter, Ginny Ng and Dawn Koh. Ng is a respected and now semi-retired veteran of the retail industry and Koh is a co-founder of Chalk Farm, a bakery she started with elder brother Bryan Koh.
“My mum and I may be different in appearance but we are generally quite similar in our outlook on life. Of course, we have differences but she raised me, so it’s inevitable that we’re also alike. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree right?” Koh says with a smile.
We find out the similarities and differences in their experiences while growing up, their love for the kitchen and their take on fashion.
THE JOURNEY INTO THE KITCHEN
Ng became acquainted with the kitchen before she even turned 10. Hailing from a traditional Peranakan family, she always found herself assisting her mother as well as grandmother in cooking. “Peranakan women are so particular about how the vegetables are cut, how things are sautéed or when exactly an ingredient goes into a dish. I learnt things you will not find in a recipe book. For example, if you are boiling mung beans, always add the sugar last, to get them really soft,” she shares.
This early exposure has made her competent in the kitchen. Both her daughter and son bear testament to this. “My mum is a great cook and has always prepared delicious meals for us. In that way, she inculcated our love for food,” Koh says.
The matriarch also went the extra mile to inculcate this love by arranging for thematic meals — such as Japanese, Indian or an American barbecue — on Sundays when her kids were growing up. It was Ng’s way of keeping her family close as she feels that nothing beats sitting down and enjoying a meal together. “My son Bryan, who now has two recipe books to his name, probably discovered his love for food during those years. Dawn helped out but her love and interest in food only came later,” Ng reveals.
Koh only discovered her passion for food and the kitchen about six years ago when her mum persuaded her to learn the basics of cooking. The matriarch pointed out to her daughter that it was a useful skill to have, even if it wasn’t for professional purposes. Convinced, Koh, who is a graduate of the London College of Fashion decided to apply to Le Cordon Bleu. “One night, my mum, brother and I huddled around the laptop and I applied for a position at the school,” Koh recalls.
A week later she received the good news that she was accepted. Even though Koh was thrilled, she was also apprehensive as she had no prior experience in cooking. At the encouragement of her family, she went with an open mind and describes the school as an amazing learning experience. “It not only taught me skills but also discipline. I came from not knowing how to boil an egg to preparing proper meals. I learned how to multitask, how to manage six stove tops simultaneously and other rules of the kitchen,” she shares.
Koh attended the school in 2012 and completed two semesters before taking a break, during which she returned to Singapore to open Chalk Farm’s bricks-and-mortar store. After three years of growing the bakery, she went back to London to complete the final semester and earn her diploma.
CHALK FARM, THE BUSINESS
After 40 years in the retail industry, Ng has finally decided to go into semi-retirement. However, being an active person by nature, she is not one to sit and idle for too long. Of late, she has been lending a hand to her children’s business and plays an advisory role in legal and financial matters. “Managing your cost and expenses is so important in running a business. When I was much younger, I overlooked this aspect and learned the hard way. I don’t wish for my kids to make the same mistake,” Ng, who has led several international brands, says.
Her other piece of advice is that a business should always pay attention to its customers. “Customer feedback is very important. I always tell my kids, listen more than you speak. If they tell us a cake is too sweet or too dry, keep an open mind and think: What can be done? We usually try to adjust it to meet the expectation of our customers,” she says.
Even though the retail and F&B businesses are starkly different, Ng believes that some approaches remain the same. For example, one has to be hands-on to fully understand the business. “If your staff can do it, so can you. Don’t be conscious of your title; there is no shame in getting your hands dirty. I always remind my children of that. Hierarchy shouldn’t be viewed so seriously.”
Upon her return from London in 2013, Koh and her brother opened Chalk Farm’s bricks-and-mortar store in Paragon. Prior to that, the bakery had been operating solely online. “You can say that it was serendipitous. The opportunity came at the right time,” Koh says with gratitude.
The opening of the store, while exciting, also proved to be a steep learning curve. Koh learned very quickly not to sweat the small stuff. Instead, she diverted her attention to more important things such as building customer relationships and ensuring the quality of Chalk Farm’s cakes. “Criticism is all part of the learning curve. I don’t take it personally but instead see it as an opportunity to improve ourselves. My mum always reminds us of that,” she says.
While she concentrates on managing the shopfront, her brother, Bryan, manages the kitchen. He is primarily responsible for testing out new cakes and that their goodies are made with the freshest ingredients. From only two on the menu, Chalk Farm now offers more than 20, with a quarter of them changed each month.
THE GROWING-UP YEARS
Despite being a busy working mother, Ng always had time for her kids. She attributes this to the flexibility of her workplaces and a series of understanding bosses. Weekends were reserved for the kids and when she went on work trips, her kids and the nanny would come along.
Before her foray into retail, Ng was in the finance industry. Even though she did well, she felt that she was not in the right place. When an opportunity to be an assistant branch manager at a retail store opened up, she bit the bullet and took the plunge. “I didn’t give it a second thought even though the retail industry was in its infancy. It was the most enriching and exciting time in my career,” she says.
This is one experience which has strengthened Ng’s belief that one should enjoy what she does in her career, and she has applied this to her kids. When it came to their interests, she allowed them a lot of room to explore. “We would discuss their options and I would give them advice. I might disagree but the final call is theirs,” she says. “When one loves what she does in her career, or anything else for that matter, the chances of it being a success is greater.”
Ng also has no qualms about apologising to her kids if she makes a mistake or comes down too hard on them on any particular matter. “I’m too frank sometimes and speak my mind as I dislike letting things fester. It can come across as harsh, so sometimes a ‘sorry’ is in order. It doesn’t matter that I’m the parent; it builds a positive relationship.”
Growing up, Koh always felt close to her mum and remembers her as extremely supportive. “If I didn’t achieve a certain grade, we would talk about it but she never made me feel that I was worth any less. She would encourage both my brother and I to find out what we were good at and to give our best when trying. It was impressed upon us that if something doesn’t work out despite giving our best, find something else that might,” she recalls.
To keep their relationship tight, mother and daughter make annual trips to Tokyo, Japan. They stay at the same hotel and use it as a base to discover new restaurants, shopping spots and everything else in between. This tradition started back when Koh was just 10 and has been continued every year since.
FASHION & ALL THAT JAZZ
Decades ago when Ng started her career, there were very few exciting fashion choices for women nor were there many international brands in Singapore. Such lack of options led her to develop a style that was simple and clean. She also favours looks that can be taken from day to night. “My wardrobe predominantly consists of white, black and different shades of blue. I pick out key looks with interesting seasonal prints to complement my existing wardrobe,” she shares.
Koh has always been decisive about what she wants to wear or not wear. Take the time when as a four-year-old on a family trip to London, she refused to wear anything that wasn’t pink. “I packed only two outfits in pink so they had to be interchangeably washed and worn,” Ng recalls with a laugh. As a child, Koh always favoured bold colours and textures — sartorial choices she tends to favour even today. When asked for a fashion tip, her reply comes quick: Pick pieces you can wear confidently and know what works for your body type.