From Clementi Road, the drab kampung-style place is hardly noticeable – except that customers have travelled from all over the island just to sample Union House’s famous paper-wrapped chicken. According to Mr Chia, the rustic restaurant had served customers for about 50 years, and he had been at the helm since he was 25.
His father, Mr Chia Sek Hong, started as a chicken farmer in 1953. The restaurant was started in the 1960s when his father’s friend suggested cooking and selling a chicken dish, since the chickens they reared looked plump and juicy.
By the 1970s, their signature paper-wrapped chicken had clinched several international awards. Unfortunately for Mr Chia and Union Farm’s legion of fans, the plot of land that the restaurant’s kitchen is built on belongs to their neighbour, the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM), and it needs the land back to expand its campus.
When Mr Chia’s father began building the restaurant after leasing the land from a friend in the 60s, the kitchen crossed over the property line into the neighbouring plot. That plot was later sold and taken over by SIM, according to Mr Chia. He declined to reveal what they’ve been paying in rent over the years. The sadness was palpable when we visited on the last day of operations.
“This eating house is essentially a big part of our lives. Without the kitchen, the eating house and our livelihood is at stake,”Mr Chia said in Mandarin. “The kitchen is as important as our heart. Without a heart, the human body cannot function.” The 10 part-time and full-time employees were also upset. “We treat them like a family and they treat this place like a home,” said Mr Chia’s elder sister, Madam Margaret Chia-Kearns, 64, who lives in England but visits the restaurant occasionally.
“They are sad that they have to look for jobs elsewhere.” Customers, too, were feeling nostalgic. Two Japanese women in their 30s hugged Mr Chia as a goodbye gesture. “This shows that people are still appreciating our dishes,”Mr Chia said.
A few days later, we caught up with him as he was combing through the remnants of his kitchen – the sadness still etched into his features as he salvaged some equipment. Mr Chia is not giving up with out a fight. He will be applying for permits to build a new kitchen next to the dining hall. If that does not work, he says, he will try to keep the restaurant going somewhere else nearby.
This article was first published in The New Paper on February 26, 2012.