Madam Kwan: Her Journey from Coiffure to Cafe


Madam Kwan: Her Journey from Coiffure to Cafe

A tale of gutsy and fiery pursuit of one’s passion. Madam Kwan Swee Lian – of Madam Kwan’s restaurant fame – is living example that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. She speaks to AWANI Review’s Cynthia Ng.

Behind the famous Madam Kwan’s brand of restaurants is Madam Kwan Swee Lian.

While many Malaysians would know of her familiar caricature -  a grandmotherly figure with signature hat and glasses - many may not be aware that, at 84-years-old, Madam Kwan still visits at least one of the diner’s eight outlets everyday - a business now largely managed by daughter-in-law Datin Maureen Ooi.

“I do not have the old age mentality - be it to the staff or customers. We have a lot of young customers and they would go ‘Madam!” when they visit. They are very happy to see me,” says Madam Kwan with a smile.

Her journey in entrepreneurship - from starting one of the most iconic restaurants in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s, to losing it all in her sixties and starting over again - is one that is of tenacity and resilience. 


From Salon to Restaurant

What’s interesting about Madam Kwan is that her first business was actually a beauty salon. (She started working at 16 as a shampoo girl)

She also had a successful stint as salesperson with Sime Darby and McAllister. While the job gave her the rare opportunity to travel the world, the young Madam Kwan pursued her dreams to own her very own business.

So, armed with some savings, gumption and strong-headed passion, Madam Kwan set up Sakura Beauty Salon in the late fifties.

Business flourished for many years, but she wanted more.

“I felt that with the beauty salon, I could only attend to one client at a time. In a restaurant I could serve so many people at once and earn more that way,’ revealed the astute businesswoman in her biography “Madam Kwan: Her Untold Story And Beloved Recipes”.

So, after over two decades of running the salon business, Madam Kwan made a shocking decision close and reopen the salon as Sakura Cafe in 1977.

A rather unconventional and risky decision - seeing as Madam Kwan was not known to cook and had no prior experience in the restaurant business.

“It was at that time when Rudy (her youngest son) went to go abroad to study. It was the perfect time, therefore I took the opportunity to switch.”

Within two months of making the big decision, Sakura Cafe was up and running.

However, just days into its operations, most of her kitchen staff quit. So, left with no other choice, with a ‘never say die’ attitude, Madam Kwan rolled up her sleeves and set work in the kitchen.

“There was nothing that could be done so I had to take matters into my own hands.” This was also when Madam Kwan developed and perfected her signature Nasi Lemak dish (after many failed attempts, she admits).

“In the 1970s, there were few restaurants that served hawker food in a posh environment. It was either street hawker stalls or the hotels. So, when we opened our restaurant and offered that, it was an instant success,” Madam Kwan explained in her biography.

Lowest Point in Madam Kwan’s Career

Madam Kwan had everything going for her - Sakura Cafe flourished and was an icon in her heydays. Business was so good that it expanded into a few row of shops.

But then misfortune struck in 1997 when an investment decision by Madam Kwan left her with crippling debt, forcing her to sell the business she worked so hard to build over four decades.

What made it worse, Madam Kwan was also made to stay on for a year as cook at Sakura Cafe by the new owners.

“I was so happy the day I got fired, I wanted to open my own place again.” And so she did. Leaving with nothing but her own kitchen knife, Madam Kwan went on to open a tiny stall at food court in 1Utama Shopping Centre.

However, the stall was a far cry what she had helmed before. Despite her tenacity, Madam Kwan was exhausted, and sad from losing all that she had worked so hard for.

My hopes are that all the customers are happy when they dine in our restaurants. We do not want to disappoint them.

That was when her son Datuk Rudy Foo and Datin Maureen Ooi stepped in, to help their beloved matriarch to carry on her .legacy.

(In 2002, Madam Kwan unexpectedly lost her son Hooi Sing to a fatal heart attack. She also suffered heartbreaking loss of her eldest son, Tonny, her daughter-in-law and two grandsons in the 1993 Highland Towers tragedy)


Bringing Back the Taste of Sakura

And so, Madam Kwan’s opened its flagship store in Bangsar Baru on 21 August 2009, keeping some of the most popular items off the old Sakura menu such as Nasi Lemak, Nasi Bojari and Curry Laksa.

“We had a lot of good will to start with. People knew who we are, people who have eaten our food had come back to support us. I guess that was one of the advantage that we had. We just had to carry on the story of why we exist in the first place.” says Maureen.

“The selection of the food to what sort of quality we represent, the raw material we use,products and selections have never changed.”

“This is the work to carry on mom’s legacy. So, there is not a day that you are unsure about what you want to do.”

As for Madam Kwan, she enjoys making her daily trips down the the diner (she is usually at the Pavilion Shopping Mall outlet) and spend time with her staff, at the same time, delighting customers.

“My staff has been around ever since I started my business. I am very happy to have such staff, following and listening to us.”

“My hopes are that all the customers are happy when they dine in our restaurants. We do not want to disappoint them,” says Madam Kwan.

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