Chai Huat Hin on Tun HS Lee establishes online presence as one-stop-shop for Chinese groceries

Modern families can have their soulful dose of chicken soup, with its whirlwind of uplifting words. For those who grew up in typical Asian homes, nothing beats a steaming bowl of dark, aromatic herbal soup, boiled with patience and love by mom, usually, who would have made a trip to the medicine room for some of the necessary ingredients.

These infusions may be bitter, but the stories of their nourishing properties and long-term benefits – they reduce stress and fatigue, stimulate appetite, improve digestion and balance yin and yang in the mind and body. body – told over and over to make you swallow every drop is sweet because it’s about home and family.

Lana Ng recalls being told that she was often sick as a child and prone to fever. “I had to drink a lot of herbal stuff [comprising] ginger and tangy black herbs,” ingredients sold in his maternal grandfather’s dried seafood and traditional Oriental grocery store.

Lim Boon Peng had established Chai Huat Hin (CHH) in 1972 with his partners at the central market in Kuala Lumpur. A year before her death in 2016, her granddaughter became interested in the business, wondering how she could connect the decades-old company to today’s consumers who, like her, grew up with regular booster bowls of herbal concoctions.

“I don’t want to focus on the health benefits of herbs and other products. I want to use the fun and quirky elements, something rooted in the past, like what my grandma tells me you can cook with one ingredient, so it resonates with the younger generation,” Ng says.

E-commerce facilitates this connection, with accessible and relevant marketing and creative content. She uses vibrant shades and attractive packaging to offset gray or brown herbs, dried seafood and charcuterie. Bringing in vibrant colors can make anchovies look great in photos, she adds.

There is more to the development of a business than meets the eye where traditions and practices are passed down from generation to generation through cuisines and delicacies. Each ingredient or dish has a meaning attached to it and a story. Customers may know what Mom used to put in the jar, but getting the ingredients can be daunting for the “banana generation,” an anecdotal term for those described as “yellow on the outside but white on the inside.” ‘interior’.

“Many of us here in Malaysia are not entirely ‘whitewashed’ and still very Chinese. I want to reach out to them,” says Ng, a banana herself. “I want to meet the needs of English-educated consumers who grew up in traditional Chinese homes.

“There are many online shops selling traditional herbs but they communicate in Mandarin. We can know the name of a particular element although we cannot read Mandarin. But some things have different names in different dialects and it’s very intimidating when you want to buy something and you can’t connect with the stores.

The biggest challenge she faced in trying to bridge the gap between tradition and modernity was getting to grips with CHH’s stock. “Browsing through all the products took a while because everything was in Chinese.”

Setting up the company’s website was also a lot of work. To seduce a new audience, it has developed recipes that facilitate the use of their various products. “We simplify as much as possible without compromising on taste.” Shortcuts, such as pre-mixed condiments for the various vinegars needed to chi keok choh (pickled pig’s trotters), clearing up uncertainties about weights and measures.

Encouraging customers to talk to the team on social media, asking them what they plan to cook and recommending specific items was another key step. When people know they can use a familiar ingredient in the kitchen, they’re inclined to go for it, she notes. Many products can also be used to make drinks, such as goji berry, red dates, ginseng, tangerine peel, and even black fungus.

Going online before the pandemic turned out to be a blessing for the CHH, because when the coronavirus hit, its website was up and running. “We already knew what to do. Without it, we would not have been able to maintain our activity, with the rental costs and [the salaries of] old uncles who have worked with us most of their lives.

Covid-19 and the focus on healthier eating and home cooking have had their lighter moments. “One thing we found was that a lot of people liked their lunch meat. They bought it commercially, especially during the first MCO (Movement Control Order). We literally missed it.

Cooking sauces are another bestseller among young people, who are looking for convenience. If the dish tastes similar to what they know or love, they’re in for the ingredient that makes it possible.

Same-day delivery, promotions and loyalty points are ways Ng engages with consumers who prefer to order online, unlike the older generation who like to go to the store and spend hours choosing fresh herbs packaged on site for bak kut tehas well as fermented tofu, mushrooms, fish sauce, nuts, beans, grains, rice wine, noodles, spices, imported preserves, and seasonal festive items such as duck oilskin and sausages.

Maybe they like to chat with the staff, veterans who know their stuff. “An uncle is an expert in mei tower (canned meat) – every year people search for it. Another can tell you what you need in terms of Teochew or Hakka cuisine,” says Ng.

The sports science graduate from Toronto, Canada is grateful that her maternal uncle, who took over CHH with his wife and sister after the death of her grandfather, gives her the freedom to do what she sees fit .

“When I joined the company in 2018 I told them I was not in marketing. I just want to try and have fun and see what I can do. They were very open to my ideas Every time I approach them, my uncle will say: ‘haiyah, things online that I don’t know about. You just do the H‘.”

Now on more solid foundations, Ng wants to give a “facelift” to CHH operations. “I’ll keep the old vibe but ultimately I want to systematize things, especially for inventory.” Which means that instead of going into the stockpile and counting the numbers, staff will be able to check what’s missing with the click of a button and replenish the supply. The old facilities where workers know what’s kept where are lovely, but “if you want to work and grow with the younger generation, you have to upgrade as well.”

Traditional specialties prepared in a modern way can help people preserve their culture and history. With that in mind, Ng hopes to bring gadgets that give busy cooks a helping hand, like a wood bak chang Mold (Chinese dumpling) that allows novices to hold the ingredients together before wrapping and tying the bundle. She brought a mold back from China, then hired a local carpenter to make one with the oiled and sanded wood.

Branding is the order of the day as the company prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in October. Ng, the only one of her generation in the family business – there are six others, all young – says consumers who see the shop photos she posts tell her their grandmothers or mothers used to go there. .

“They know of our existence, but not of our brand name. It’s time to let them know our name: Chai Huat Hin means continuous prosperity in Chinese. I want people to know us as one of the few traditional oriental grocery stores that still exist, where they can pick up the ingredients they can’t find in supermarkets.

Having grown up with traditional Chinese herbs, Ng also wants to assure consumers that these are not boring or difficult to use products. “Yes, some dishes can be tedious to cook. But they’re worth it if it’s something everyone loves or if you’ve eaten them every year, especially on festive occasions.

This article was first published on January 24, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

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