Home-grown bakery and caterer Smiling Orchid founder Choo Yen Lan dies, aged 77

SINGAPORE – Smiling Orchid founder Choo Yen Lan, the tenacious yet affable personality behind the well known home-grown bakery and catering business, died on Monday (Oct 29) at age 77.

Mrs Choo came down with a cold, cough and fever about two weeks ago, and at around 6am on Monday, she had trouble breathing, said her youngest daughter Meilyn Choo-Jaimon.

She died at her home in Jalan Merah Saga shortly after, leaving behind two daughters and two grandchildren.

Speaking to The Straits Times on Friday (Nov 2), Ms Choo-Jaimon said that her mother’s death was sudden, as her ailments in the past weeks did not seem serious.

However, her mood had been low around the time she fell ill, as Smiling Orchid was also in the process of closing its three-decade long catering arm, she said. Costs were getting too high, coupled with a shortage in labour and intense competition in the market.

Even on her death bed, Mrs Choo had the business she painstakingly built into a household name on her mind, she added.

“In between breaths, she gave me instructions about the business, telling me where things were and what to do. And after she was finished, she left. The business was a big, big part of her,” said Ms Choo-Jaimon, who is in her 50s.

Born in Indonesia, Mrs Choo arrived in Singapore in 1960 to escape the racial turmoil in her home country.

After she married at 19, she began teaching cooking and baking from her home and at community centres here, before she and her husband raised enough money to start a confectionery school and bakery in Ghim Moh in 1980.

Over the years, they built a reputation for their huge custom-made cakes and pineapple tarts.

Mrs Choo named the shop Smiling Orchid as it was a direct translation of her name and also a reference to the orchids featured on Singapore’s currency notes of the time.

The pair were pioneers when they branched into food and catering in 1985. Their business was a hit among wedding couples.

The business expanded further through the years and achieved an annual turnover of around $6 million in 2016. At the height of its success, Smiling Orchid had five branches.

Mrs Choo’s husband died seven years ago from brain cancer, also at age 77.

On Friday, Ms Choo-Jaimon said that her mother had grit, but also heart, and a sunflower would best describe her personality.

In fact, Mrs Choo’s love for the bright golden blooms was mentioned in a 1999 Straits Times feature about her bountiful home garden.

Smiling Orchid founder Choo Yen Lan died at her home in Jalan Merah Saga, leaving behind two daughters and two grandchildren. PHOTO: ST FILE

At the time, she had 120 sunflower plants, with each one producing about 35 blooms. The plants grew up to 1.6 m in height, and the blooms were up to 20 cm in diameter.

“My mother was a loud and bright character, and even her dressing was always colourful,” said Ms Choo-Jaimon.

“She could talk to anyone. She used to sit on the swing chair outside her home, and greet the neighbours who walked by.”

Mrs Choo was known for whipping up a storm in the kitchen too, with her noodles, fried chicken wings and gulai kambing (mutton stew) among some of her best dishes, said Ms Choo-Jaimon, who has two children.

Last Friday, a few days before her death, she cooked a sumptuous meal for the entire family to celebrate her son-in-law’s birthday.  

She had cooked her special nasi lemak, chicken wings marinated with coriander seeds, Indonesian satay in kecap manis and fresh vegetables.

Growing up, Ms Choo-Jaimon said she spent a lot of time with her mother, having been involved in the business since she was in primary school.

“Every skill that I know, from baking to cooking, to menu planning, was picked up from my mum. I never went to culinary school,” she added.

Ms Choo-Jaimon started working full time in the family business after graduating from university. Her older sister currently lives in Canada with her husband.

Now the company director, Ms Choo-Jaimon said her greatest wish would be to see her mother’s business etched in history as a heritage brand.

She said: “I hope someone can bring it up to the next level, so that her legacy will not die. I don’t think my husband and I can do it alone, so we hope for some help.

“I just want to make my mother proud.”

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