At 17, Lau Ah Kok fled Kinmen, Taiwan, during the Second World War with just $10 in his pocket.
The son of farmers, he sought his parents’ blessing to leave his homeland in search of better opportunities in Brunei, where his brother-in-law had promised him a job at a small grocery shop located in the middle of a rubber plantation in Berakas.
At the time, he earned just $4 a month, recalls his son Lau How Teck. He had to sweep the floors, count the stock, and had few friends except the ones he practiced Malay with after working hours.
No one in the family could have imagined that the young immigrant would go on to build his own retail empire under the Hua Ho brand of supermarkets and department stores, which now number nine branches across the country.
FROM THE ASHES OF WAR
With the devastation of WWII preventing him from returning to Taiwan, Lau started a small farm and “kadai runcit” in Manggis in 1947, built on five acres of abandoned land which he purchased for $160.
The first decade of business was not easy. After the war, the price of fresh produce dropped, and Lau was dogged by loans and illness. In 1958, he ended up in the hospital and couldn’t afford the $200 fee for a blood transfusion.
Although a senior nurse helped him raise money for the procedure, bankruptcy soon followed and he had to close the first Hua Ho store in Manggis, borrowing $3,000 from a friend to pay off his farm workers.
With the shop closed and her husband recovering from illness, his wife, Lim Kui Eng, had to take charge of the household and farm, ploughing the fields herself and feeding the chickens, as well as caring for her children at night.
None of the couple’s seven children were born with silver spoons in their mouths. In the early days, they had to help sell farm vegetables at the market, tend to the chickens, all while going to school, says How Teck.
“I still remember when I was 13 or 14, when my father started a chicken farm just behind our supermarket in Manggis with 200 layer hens for producing eggs and 1,000 broiler chickens for the meat,” he recalls.
“That is when it all started for my three brothers and I, learning the business. We had to go to school in the morning and come home and pick the eggs after.”
HUA HO REBORN
Lau managed to revive the Hua Ho grocery store in 1961.
For four years, the family maintained their shop, sold vegetables in the market, reared chickens and sold fabric door-to-door to broaden their income base. Business soon flourished.
“What I have today is from what I learned when I was young, through the difficult work we did,” says How Teck. “If not, we would not have what we have today.”
Despite a burgeoning retail business, farming was something that never left his father’s blood, and his dream to build a large-scale farm was one he was not willing to relinquish.
How Teck says that many of his father’s friends laughed at this “far-fetched” ambition, especially after his first attempt at commercial farming failed, pushing him into bankruptcy.
Between 1972 and 1982, the Manggis farm did not turn a profit and a land usage issue forced Lau to close the Hua Ho store once again.
Things could have gone downhill from there, but the closure actually spurred Hua Ho’s business expansion.
Undeterred, Lau put up capital to acquire supermarket space in Gadong and also opened the first Hua Ho Department Store in Lambak.
To restart his beloved vegetable and poultry farm, he purchased a 21-acre plot of land in Junjungan on the site of an old rubber plantation. Investing heavily in mechanisation and improving soil fertility, the businessman realised it could take 10 years to recover his cost.
“We thought that farming would never survive. We were financially poor. In 1984, when my late father bought a piece of land in Junjungan, he also bought a lot of farming equipment like excavators and we had a lot of loans with the bank,” How Teck says.
In 1988, Lau started another farm in Labi, where the land was known to be fertile and famous for producing oranges. Every day he would make the two-hour journey to Labi, trudging in soil and mud, but never happier, says How Teck.
“By this time, my father had left management of the department stores to his sons so he could focus on his real passion for farming. The first two years were terrible. But the only thing he cared about was making it a success.”
By the year 2000, the Labi farm was producing more than 10 tonnes of oranges a year while the poultry farm housed 100,000 birds. The Land Department gave Lau another 68 acres to expand the farm.
Mechanisation and modern farming methods also dramatically increased Hua Ho farm’s production capacity to the level it is today.
On average, Hua Ho farms sell 1,000 broiler chickens by the hour, says How Teck. Each month, seven tonnes of pesticide-free green leafy vegetables are produced and supplied to Hua Ho supermarkets across the country.
“My father was behind all this, and we had a lot of support from him,” says the 62-year-old, who was put in charge of managing Hua Ho’s farms as his father’s health deteriorated.
“My own interest in farming grew from when my father used to make me do weeding as a boy. From that day onwards, I knew I had to continue on with this but I did not expect that Hua Ho agriculture could become what it is today.”
Apart from building the biggest retail business in Brunei, Lau Ah Kok was known for his generous spirit. When he was living in Labi during the early days of the farm, he would make regular donations to needy families and eventually built a multi-purpose hall for the residents of Mukim Labi.
In 2004, at the age of 74, he was bestowed one of the highest honours in the country by His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam, bearing the title “Pehin Kapitan China Kornia Diraja” from then on.
In the later years of his life, Pehin Lau remained involved in the family business, but had already passed the day-to-day operations to his children.
How Teck firmly says that Hua Ho will remain a family-run business, and he expects his own children to join the fold.
His son, Lau Soon Tiong, is currently working as a manager at the Hua Ho Manggis Department Store and is starting to learn the agricultural side of the business.
“I plan to go back [to university] to study veterinary science so I can help out on the farm because we don’t have an in-house vet,” says the 30-year-old. “My grandfather said family should always stay together and then the best of things will work out.”
At 98, Pehin Lau died on January 7, 2018.
“He was having difficulty breathing the night before, and needed his oxygen mask. When his breathing problems persisted, I could tell something was wrong,” How Teck recalls. “I went to check on him around 3am and he was asleep. By 6am he had passed away peacefully.”
After several days lying in wake, the funeral for the late Pehin Lau will take place at his home in Manggis on Thursday, January 11 at 12pm. He will be buried at the Berakas Chinese cemetery according to Buddhist rites.
“The day before he died, I was showing him videos from the Hua Ho farms, and he was smiling and laughing because he was happy,” says How Teck. “He never liked travelling, although before he died he said that he wanted to return to Kinmen, Taiwan, one last time.”
“Sadly, it was the one thing in life he was not able to accomplish.”