Mr & Mrs Lee
“We can’t change fate — what’s meant to be yours will be yours, and what isn’t meant to be will never be.”
Indeed, it was fate that led us to Mr and Mrs Lee’s Miko Cake House, just as it was fate that has allowed their business to endure the test of time and life’s endless challenges.
If you’ve been following the Shentonista team’s adventures for some time, you’ll know that we’ve long trawled the streets of Tanjong Pagar and its neighbouring areas. From Tras to Amoy, Maxwell to Chinatown, the team has seen (and shot) it all. But International Plaza remains an area relatively untouched by the team, partly because we much prefer shooting in wider, open spaces, and also partly because the crowd that forms there during the lunchtime rush always seemed a tad overwhelming to us.
But a few weeks back, when we asked our community for recommendations of elderly-run businesses in the vicinity, Miko Cake House was the first name that popped up. So upon the suggestion of our Shentonistas, we ventured into the heart of International Plaza bright and early for breakfast at Mr and Mrs Lee’s humble little store.
“What do you want to eat? We have kuehs, dim sum, pastries, and all kinds of drinks.”
Immediately, Mr Lee waves us in and seats us at one of only three tables in the shop, and busies himself making us drinks and getting us food. Only after which he finally settles down himself and asks us, “So, what do you want to know?”
And thus began an hours-long conversation with Mr Lee about his life, as Mrs Lee flits around the store serving customers alongside their longtime staff, Mdm Wang (or as their regulars call her, Ahma (grandma)).
The second oldest son among almost 20 siblings, Mr Lee dropped out of primary school and started working at the age of 13—first at an uncle’s provision shop as a delivery boy and shop hand, before the door to the world of baking opened up for him.
“Once, I made a delivery to the house of a baker, who happened to be a family friend. His wife asked me if I wanted to learn how to make cakes, so I said okay and started working for them.”
But simply “making cakes” wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Back then (think late 1960s, early 1970s), before the time of electric mixers, everything had to be done by hand. And in a large-scale bakery, this meant that Mr Lee had to hand-whip kilogram after kilogram of egg whites, flour, and other ingredients endlessly. But despite the laborious nature of the job, Mr Lee stayed for over three years, honing his passion and skills in the kitchen.
Mr Lee’s story is far from over, but by this point, what’s struck us most about him is the life in his eyes when he speaks of his past, and the way in which he recalls these specific memories so vividly despite his age (he’s 76 this year, “old already” as he says, laughing). But back to his story.
Following his three years at his family friend’s bakery, Mr Lee went on to:
• Work six months in another bakery
• Run a small baking business out of the garage of a former colleague (a part-time accountant at the aforementioned bakery)
• Almost get conned into investing in the expansion of said small baking business (legally, he would’t have been able to be listed as a co-owner as he was under the age of 21 then)
• Run his own independent bakery out of his childhood kampong attap house
• Start a family business with three of his siblings, before almost falling out with his older brother, and then taking over the business completely
• Rent a small unit at International Plaza to sell their bakes (it’s the unit just opposite the current Miko Cake House!)
• Realise the landlord sold the unit to someone else before his lease was up
• Bear the cost of repair works after the glass window was smashed by a drunk man (the new owner disappeared conveniently when this happened)
• Negotiate the purchase of his current unit (he sought the help of a lawyer to go through the contract)
• Pay an inflated price of about SGD$150,000 for his current unit (after said lawyer asked the landlord for a cut of the profit)
• Let Mrs Lee run this unit while he went on to set up other franchises
• Bake curry puffs and other pastries for the late Lee Kuan Yew
• Close down his franchises after semi-retiring and return to the original Miko Cake House to help Mrs Lee out
“It’s all fate, really, that I am where I am today. With all of the hardship that I’ve been through, it’s like I’m a roly-poly toy—time and time again I’ve faced setbacks, but things always work out just fine in the end.”
With all that’s been said and done, it’s no wonder that Mr Lee has such strong views on fate. And we’re glad that fate has led us to Miko Cake House, where the service is warm and sweet, the space small but homely, and the food affordable and comforting.
Throughout our chat with Mr Lee, Mrs Lee has been serving the endless stream of customers tirelessly, many of whom are longtime regulars, a testament to the reputation that she’s built for the store over the decades—46 years, to be exact.
With a six year age gap between herself and Mr Lee (Mrs Lee is 70 this year), we learn that the couple dated for about two years before getting married. Outside of running the shop, the couple enjoy travelling together, and this past September, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
As expected, Mr Lee went on to detail the story of how he and Mrs Lee met, and the relationships he had before fate led him to her. But this, of course, is a story for another day.
For now, we leave you with these images from our time at Miko Cake House, and a reminder from Mr Lee:
“What’s meant to be yours will always be yours; even if you lose it, it will find its way back to you eventually.”
Miko Cake House
10 Anson Road, 01-48, Singapore 079903
Open Monday-Friday, 6am-5pm