Third-gen­er­a­tion owner of Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Popiah and Kueh Pie Tee, Michael Ker, is de­ter­mined to pre­serve the dy­ing craft of mak­ing popiah skin by hand


Kway Guan Huat is de­ter­mined to pre­serve the dy­ing craft of mak­ing popiah skin by hand

One of the first things that catches the eye upon en­ter­ing Kway Guan Huat lo­cated along Joo Chiat Place is the sight of a worker mak­ing popiah skin by hand. Stand­ing be­hind four cast iron pans, the man skill­fully twirls dol­lops of elas­tic dough around one hand, then places them ef­fort­lessly on the pans that have been heated to about 180 de­grees Cel­sius. He is un­fazed by the heat and is quick to lift his hand off, leav­ing a thin layer of dough on the pan. Af­ter about 10 sec­onds, he re­moves the per­fectly cooked skin and stacks it up neatly in front of him, and re­peats the process all over again.

Made in­di­vid­u­ally, the popiah skins are al­most iden­ti­cal—in terms of di­men­sion and thin­ness—which can only be achieved by some­one with years of ex­pe­ri­ence.

“An ap­pren­tice nor­mally takes about one year to pick up the skill, and there­after, many years of prac­tice to mas­ter the craft,” shares Mr Michael Ker, the third-gen­er­a­tion owner of Kway Guan Huat.

Kway Guan Huat was started in 1978 by Ker’s grand­fa­ther, who was a popiah skin maker from Anxi County in Fu­jian, China. He passed on the skill to Ker’s fa­ther and un­cles, who have been run­ning the busi­ness to­gether for the past 80 years at the present lo­ca­tion. Ker’s grand­mother, who was a Per­anakan from Malacca, came up with the popiah fill­ing recipe, which she handed down to her daugh­ters.

Ker, a trained phar­ma­cist, started help­ing out in the shop when he was about 12 years old. He took over the busi­ness in 2013 af­ter spend­ing over a decade work­ing in the cor­po­rate world as he did not want her­itage foods like popiah to be­come a lost tra­di­tion.

“Ini­tially, my fa­ther was not sup­port­ive of me join­ing the fam­ily busi­ness, as he wanted me to have a bet­ter life. Mak­ing popiah skin is a phys­i­cally de­mand­ing and stren­u­ous task—you have to stand for long pe­ri­ods of time at the stove, and it puts a huge strain on the fin­gers. But I saw that the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion was get­ting on in years and if no­body takes over, the popiah mak­ing craft will be gone for­ever,” Ker says.


Orig­i­nat­ing from South­ern China, popiah is a thin, pa­per-like crepe stuffed with in­gre­di­ents like vegeta­bles and egg. The dish was brought over to South­east Asia by im­mi­grants from the Fu­jian prov­ince. Fol­low­ing their ar­rival in Asia, the Chi­nese cre­ated sev­eral vari­ants of the roll, in­cor­po­rat­ing in­gre­di­ents from the lo­cal cul­ture. In Sin­ga­pore, there are two dis­tinct ver­sions—the Hokkien popiah and the Nonya popiah.

The for­mer com­prises bam­boo shoots and pork, while the lat­ter tends to fea­ture a seafood-based fill­ing, such as prawn or crab meat.


From sell­ing just popiah skin and condi­ments when they first opened, Kway Guan Huat has since ex­panded its of­fer­ings to sell freshly made popiah rolls, avail­able only on week­ends from 9am to 2pm. The Nonya popiah they make con­sists of gar­lic chilli, dark sweet sauce, let­tuce, scram­bled eggs, crispy fish bits, prawns and stewed turnips and car­rots, rolled up in freshly made skin.

While there are many popiah stalls in Sin­ga­pore, not many make their own popiah skin. Ker es­ti­mates that there are only about three to four popiah skin mak­ers like them left who make the skin from scratch.

“A lot of shops out there use ma­chine­made popiah skins be­cause they are cheaper and faster to pro­duce, com­pared to those made by hand. But the dif­fer­ence in taste and tex­ture is sig­nif­i­cant—ma­chine-made skins taste some­what ‘pla­s­ticky’, whereas the ones made by hand are soft and boast a de­light­fully springy tex­ture,” Ker ex­plains.

When asked what’s the se­cret to mak­ing good popiah skin, Ker was quick to say it is the dough.

“Un­for­tu­nately, we don’t fol­low a fixed recipe. Our dough is made with flour, wa­ter, salt and oil, but the amount of each in­gre­di­ent we use changes ev­ery time as the flour dif­fers with ev­ery har­vest, and the amount of wa­ter and oil is vari­able. It has to be done by touch. The fi­nal dough should be re­ally springy—the con­sis­tency is be­tween a waf­fle bat­ter and a roti prata dough,” Ker shares.


Since tak­ing over the busi­ness in early 2013, Ker has in­jected fresh ideas into the com­pany, among them the DIY popiah sets com­pris­ing popiah skin, fill­ing and condi­ments, which cus­tomers can or­der on­line and have de­liv­ered right to their doorstep. Great for din­ner gath­er­ings and par­ties, the DIY sets al­low ev­ery­one to get in­volved in mak­ing their own popiah rolls.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Ker has also been try­ing to raise the level of ap­pre­ci­a­tion of her­itage foods by ed­u­cat­ing Sin­ga­pore­ans on the popiah trade. He has taken part in sev­eral events over the years, such as The Fuller­ton Ho­tel’s Young Hawker Se­ries, where he demon­strated how to pre­pare the popiah dough the old-fash­ioned way—by hand and with a wooden pole. He also showed how the skin is made a la minute at the live sta­tions.

Be­yond Sin­ga­pore, Ker has also headed to cities such as Copen­hagen and New York to show­case his popiah-mak­ing skills at var­i­ous Sin­ga­pore Tourism Board and Tiger Beer events.

Look­ing ahead, Ker plans to con­tinue pro­vid­ing live demon­stra­tions on popi­ah­mak­ing at his shop de­spite on­go­ing ren­o­va­tions. The new space, ex­pected to be ready by next year, will in­clude a her­itage gallery that will show­case popiah-mak­ing equip­ment from yes­ter­year such as char­coal grid­dles. It may also in­clude a new popiah restau­rant.

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