From Kelong to Table: A conversation with Kai from Ah Hua Kelong

If there was one thing we could eat for the rest of our lives, it would be seafood, or more specifically seafood and pasta. Hence, when we met with managing director Jin Kai (otherwise known as Kai for short), we were thrilled to find out about Ah Hua Kelong and at the same time, moved by his passion to promote local seafood. What happened next is a no-brainer. We got into talks and decided to collaborate for a Dining Experience. Everything seemed to click and before you knew it, we came up with a bespoke seafood menu crafted by Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong’s Chef Jovan and our resident Chef Ryan. Better yet, Kai brought us on a tour of one of his kelongs, floating on the sea midway between Pulau Ubin and the Pasir Ris coast. There, he shares with us more about Ah Hua Kelong and his dreams for the seafood industry in Singapore.

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Hello Kai, can you tell us more about the history of Ah Hua Kelong?


Ah Hua Kelong is actually named after our founder Ah Hua, who founded this farm 20 years ago. We have two fish farms, one in Changi and the other in Sembawang. Ah Hua is the real expert and we picked up the ropes from him. He knows everything about these fishes and we’ll consult him if we’re unsure about things or if we run into problems. My other business partner runs the marketing aspect, whereas I handle the operations.

Back in 2014, my partner and I met up during reservist training and he told me about the local seafood industry and the kelong business. We recognised that there was a gap that could be bridged — connecting local Singaporeans with local seafood, and this was an opportunity like no other. We came in with the goal of increasing consumption of locally farmed seafood and changing the industry. I decided to take the plunge and join the team, so here I am now!

 
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Speaking of local seafood, what is our local seafood industry like?

In Singapore, 92% of the seafood we consume is imported from our neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. The remaining 8% comes from local fish farms such as ours and there are 96 as of today. Sadly the number is dropping as they are run mostly by the older generation. Most of the other farms run B2B supplier services with restaurants but we always aimed to be a little different and decided to go for the B2C route. Hence, we launched the home delivery service where customers can place orders for seafood via our website and enjoy next-day delivery.  

How do you run the operations of your online delivery service?

We run on the premise of freshness as that is paramount for seafood. My partner is in charge of collating orders, following that he will send the orders to our team at the kelong overnight. The next morning, our kelong team will harvest the seafood required from our nets and we’ll have it delivered fresh to our customers’ doorsteps.

 The Grouper, one of Ah Hua Kelong’s specialties, takes years to develop to a full size but can grow up to 20kg!

The Grouper, one of Ah Hua Kelong’s specialties, takes years to develop to a full size but can grow up to 20kg!

Sounds like a lot of work! How does your seafood differ from that of imported seafood?

Unfortunately, we cannot compete with imported seafood in terms of price. Manpower and operations are expensive in Singapore, thus our costs are higher. Hence, we make up for that in terms of freshness and premium quality. With our delivery system, you can be assured that you get your seafood a few hours after it’s been hauled from our nets. As for quality, we aim for sustainable farming practices and grow our fish naturally. We also feed our fish high-quality live feed, so that they have superior colour, fattiness, firmer texture and a sweeter taste.

Would you see the other local fish farms as competitors?

No, not at all! In fact, we do rely on each other quite a fair bit. For example, there is an elderly couple who come out to sea to catch flower crabs in their small boat. Sometimes if we have orders, we’ll get them to help us with the harvest. So I would say that our main competition would be the foreign fish farms instead.

Overall, I think it would be great if all the kelongs could come together and collectively boost the local consumption of seafood. If we could increase the local consumption to 10%, this would make the industry more sustainable economically. If we can increase it to 20%, then it can even be profitable and start to attract investment. With that, perhaps the younger generation would see the potential and start joining in. That is the ultimate goal because it’s important to keep the kelong culture alive for generations to come!

 Kai showing us the huge nets used to haul up tons of fish each day.

Kai showing us the huge nets used to haul up tons of fish each day.

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Speaking of Kelong culture, what is a normal day on the kelongs like?

Just like any other farm work, it’s definitely back-breaking and not the most glamorous. Most youngsters in our generation aren’t too keen on this, which is why most of the fish farmers are old uncles. We have a total of seven guys in the team and their day starts at 5 am. They start by raising the nets which normally takes an hour. From 6-7 am, they will scoop the feed and remove any dead fish. Following which, they will wash the nets and start cleaning out the shellfish to prepare for delivery. All this will usually be done by lunchtime where I will pick up the seafood at the jetty and have them delivered to our customers and our restaurants.

Sounds like a busy day! Can you tell us more about your restaurants?

The idea of opening restaurants was a natural symbiotic progression as we returned to our founding idea of bridging locals with local seafood. Through our restaurants, we hoped to create a platform that could feature our fresh seafood through carefully crafted menus, which celebrate its natural flavours and allow diners to taste the difference. Hence, dining at our restaurants is not just about our food but also the experience, as every plate offers a fresh perspective. We take every opportunity to educate diners on our farming processes and get them hooked on our local seafood. We sometimes share our interesting kelong stories and customers love this engaging aspect of the dining experience.

As of now, we have two restaurants, the first restaurant is simply named Ah Hua Kelong. It’s located at Jalan Riang and serves our freshly harvested seafood prepared Chinese ‘Zi Char’ style. The other outlet, Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong, takes on a modern Asian-fusion approach and is located at Haji Lane. For Scaled, we serve up a small menu focusing on affordable sharing plates to reach out to the younger crowd.

 A lot of work goes behind the scenes before our seafood reaches our tables, such as the cleaning of mussels (scraping off barnacles) which has to be done individually and can be labour intensive.

A lot of work goes behind the scenes before our seafood reaches our tables, such as the cleaning of mussels (scraping off barnacles) which has to be done individually and can be labour intensive.

That’s great to hear! What are your hopes for your brand and the seafood industry in Singapore?

First of all, we hope to build awareness and seep into the consciousness of consumers, to spark their curiosity and change their viewpoint on seafood they eat. We want them to start thinking critically and asking fundamental questions, such as ‘Where does my seafood come from? What is the process of fish farming? Who are the people responsible for my seafood?’ This creates a talking point which motivates people to seek answers, learn more, and ultimately see the value in our work which is very much under-appreciated.


The concept of ‘Farm to Table’ has been a buzzword in the West and slowly but surely, starting to catch on in Singapore. We have more and more young chefs who recognise the importance of supporting local and want to feature our seafood on their menus. We also have more farmers markets which are growing in popularity every year. It’s great that this concept of supporting local is picking up, although more can be done through education.


How do you plan to better educate consumers and spread this awareness?

As much as we’d love to run kelong tours and outreach programmes, it’s difficult due to strict AVA rules. Thankfully there is social media, so we can share photos and videos of behind-the-scenes of our team and our fish farming process.

On our restaurant side, we’ll continue to educate diners and at the same time promote our home delivery service so that our efforts come full circle. We’re also trying to do more collaborations with other chefs and restaurants to feature our local seafood. This upcoming Seafood Locavore Experience is our first collaboration so we’re definitely very excited!

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Thanks Kai, that was very insightful and meaningful and we can’t wait as well!


The Seafood Locavore Experience co-hosted by Chun Tsubaki and Scaled by Ah Hua Kelong is happening on Thursday, 1 November 2018 at 7pm. Sign up here to reserve your seat and taste the fruits of our local seas!