Today, Bengawan Solo’s signature kuehs - soft mounds filled with oozing gula melaka and lightly coated with crunchy, fragrant coconut pieces, are a Singapore icon. What’s less well known is that they are also a testament to one woman’s tenacity in the face of a hard-choice – give up and close shop or become a self made, award winning entrepreneur.
Born the third of nine children in 1947, Anastasia Tjendri-Liew grew up on Bangke Island off Palembang, Indonesia.
Tjendri-Liew’s passion for food shone through from an early age when she would walk to school to save her bus fare for a more pressing need: lunch. Those days it was the spicy Indonesian fishcake, pempek. She always did well in school but her education was cut short in her teenage years due to civil unrest.
Thereafter, out of school Tjendri-Liew honed her culinary skills. Learning from her mother and aunt, She learned from her mother and aunt and also enrolled in cooking classes and very quickly her natural talent in the kitchen became apparent.
In 1970, Tjendri-Liew moved into Sinagpore as she married her suitor, accountant Johnson Liew and settled into the whirlwind of domestic duties and entertaining. But for this housewife, the compliments came a lot more often than most. Friends and acquaintances could not get enough of her butter and chiffon cakes. It was so much in demand, this budding entrepreneur began to supply supermarkets and shops with these homemade delicacies. Fresh, light and delicious – her cakes were even sold at a counter on Orchard road’s Lucky Plaza that was the most popular and first air-conditioned shopping mall at that time.
But this initial sweet success was short lived.
In 1979, she received a warning from the Ministry of Environment to close down her operations. She had been operating without a food-manufacturing license. In a decision that would go on to reward her handsomely: Tjendri-Liew looked at this set-back and decided she would press forward undeterred.
The indefatigable Tjendri-Liew worked to secure all the relevant licenses and promptly opened her own shop at Marine Terrace. She named it Bengawan Solo – after an Indonesian folk song.
Through passion, perseverance, patience and a small domestic oven, Tjendri-Liew’s business began to soar. Another shop in a more central location appeared in 1983 then another and another. Today with over 30 outlets - it has grown to become one of Singapore’s flagship brands having gone from a home baking business to a multimillion dollar enterprise (over SGD 40 million in revenue).
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