Overnight queueing for Lim Chee Guan Bak Kwa

From ‘S’poreans queueing overnight for bak kwa’, 15 Jan 2012, article in insing.com, translated from SM Daily

…Singaporeans are even queuing up through the night to get their bak kwa this time round. Well known bak kwa store Lim Chee Guan saw its stock sold out within 75 minutes of its opening at 9am this morning.

…The prices of bak kwa has also risen from $48 per kg yesterday to $50 per kg today.Each person was limited to buying 30kg yesterday, and the limit lowered to 20kg per person today.

Bak kwa prices are expected to rise further as Chinese New Year, the biggest day of the year for the Chinese, inches closer. One of those in the queue, Ms Chen, told reporters that she had taken a taxi from Hougang to New Bridge Road at about 6am to get the bak kwa. Together with five others, the group queued for four hours before they managed to buy their bak kwa.

The group planned to spend $6,000 to buy 120kg of bak kwa for their relatives and friends, and to give out to company employees. They had even arranged for vehicles to help carry the bak kwa back.

Many in the queue also appeared prepared for the long wait as some came with portable chairs while others were seen leisurely reading the papers. Reporters spoke to some folks in the queue, asking why they would spend so much time queuing for bak kwa. They explained that this is because the bak kwa here is delicious, and they get to feel the festive vibe by joining the queue.

More than a week to go to CNY and the price of Lim Chee Guan bak kwa has already escalated to $50/kg. Last year, according to KeropokMan’s blog, it hit $52/kg on Jan 30 at LCG Chinatown, and an anecdotal forum complaint in 2011 cited $54/kg at the LCG in Ion Orchard, both prices surpassing the ‘Big Five-O’ which bak kwa lovers  feared in 2008.  There’s even a Bak Kwa Index to monitor ‘sizzling’ prices over the days leading up to CNY. According to a 2007 report, LCG raised its price to $44 from $38 a month earlier, more than 2 weeks before CNY on Feb 18 that year. The 2007 $2 increase per week seems conservative in light of how the same rise occurred A DAY this CNY.

A writer to the ST called the bak kwa companies ‘oligopolistic’, and swore to avoid the fatty snack altogether. Such profiteering was apparent in the early 2000’s, when $48/kg bak kwa was already in existence. But what’s curious about the CNY-bak kwa phenomenon is despite the hike, or BECAUSE of it, the queues have taken on similar characteristics to the HnM line last year; overnight camping and bak kwa lovers treating what appears to me is a sheer waste of time as some kind of ‘occasion’. 6 to 8 hour queues were unheard of when people first began jacking up the prices, and counter-intuitively, the higher the price per kg, the longer the wait. I’d rather spend the time spring cleaning my kitchen fridge, cabinets and all windows in my house.

Even more puzzling is how bak kwa can be taken for granted when it’s readily available throughout the year, when other seasonal goodies like pineapple tarts and love letters fail to take on the allure of scarcity to justify a price increase. A common argument is that prices of pork and oil have increased, but hasn’t everything else? Like flour, eggs, pineapples? The economics of bak kwa price hikes aside, there could be other human factors behind the absurd success of bak kwa, that people are willing to wait for ages and fork out such money for a few slices of dried BBQ meat, which in the Western context, is something you can prepare at home by simply plonking pork jerky over a weekend grill.

Surprisingly, it’s not so much the actual TASTE of Lim Chee Guan’s meat that draws the crowds. In a 2009 blind taste test, Lim Chee Guan was rated similarly to Bee Cheng Hiang, though both were chosen as top picks. BCH, of course, is the Sakae Sushi of bak kwa. I might as well buy a lot of bak kwa from the nearest mall, remove the packaging, trick my guests with a miserable tale of how I queued in the rain for 6 hours in Chinatown, and they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. In fact, even if they COULD tell the difference (which would rank them above the experts), they wouldn’t dispute and embarrass their host in the spirit of CNY. Perhaps the brand name helps too, since naming a bak kwa company after an actual person has a ring of authenticity to it, bringing to mind images of its founder (who happens to be NOT called Lim Chee Guan) sweating over the flames, stoking his moist, sweet hand-cut meats to crispy perfection.

What about  auspiciousness then? According to food guru K.F Seetoh, bak kwa is ‘long yoke’ in Cantonese, which means a ‘robust fortune ahead’, though true only for bak kwa sellers rather than those eating it  (more like robust ‘myocardial infarction risk’ ahead). Steeped in tradition and a ‘die-die-must-have’ staple aside, I’m hazarding a theory that it’s not the taste, or the ‘meaning’ behind bak kwa that drives people to camp overnight for what’s possibly the unhealthiest, most carcingogenic containing CNY goodie of all. Buying bak kwa is a gesture to show how much you’re willing to splurge and sacrifice for your guests, and the more expensive it gets, the longer the wait, the more generous and altruistic it makes you look, no matter how it ends up tasting like marinated cardboard.  Nothing scores more points than a gift of expensive bak kwa to your boss, or a prospective parent-in-law. It also helps that queuing happens to be a Singaporean pasttime, which pretty much explains everything.

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