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Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon8/28/2020 06:00 AM GMT+08  • 9 min read
Max How, managing director of Kee Hing Hung turned a multi-label watch boutique to one that focuses on Rolex timepieces.
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Max How, managing director of Kee Hing Hung, made a decision to turn a multi-label watch boutique to one that focuses on Rolex timepieces. He tells Options his reasons why and how the strategy has paid off.

An hour with Max How is like a lesson on the history of Rolex. He rattles off reference numbers as he fishes watches out from his collection of about 80 pieces, regaling us with interesting details about the beauty of each: Picking up an old Rolex watch, he tells us that it that was made in the mid-1950s and its nickname is “Big Bubble Back” because of the sheer size of its case.

Although How is not a Rolex historian by training, he is an avid collector who makes it a point to brush up on his knowledge before acquiring a Rolex timepiece. It is these nuggets of information, coupled with his affable personality, that hold him in good stead with the customers of his boutique, Kee Hing Hung Rolex Boutique. The newly-renovated boutique, located at People’s Park Complex, was one of the first few authorised Rolex retailers in Singapore.

Located at People’s Park Complex, the Rolex Boutique operated by Kee Hing Hung boasts a contemporary look

How tells Options that his passion for watches grew when he started listening to the stories and experiences of his customers. The soft-spoken managing director says: “Customers share with me about their watch-collecting adventures. They say if you love your job, you never have to work a day. It is a cliché, but I only got to fully appreciate this adage when I immersed myself into the business.”

Just like all collectors, How is still sentimental about his first watch, which is the Rolex Oyster made in 1961. He recalls: “[The watch] was the most covetable model back in the day. The watch is built to last and made to keep. It serves as a memento reminding me of our humble beginnings and how we stood against the test of time to become the brand we are today.”

Kee Hing Hung began as a trading firm started by How’s father, How Ting Hai, in the early 1960s. The company was originally a wholesaler of watches that were destined for overseas markets. In 1970, the business model of Kee Hing Hung evolved to include retail after its relocation to a shop in People’s Park Complex, a building that had just been completed in Chinatown. In those days, People’s Park Complex was a main shopping area in Singapore, much like the Orchard Road of today.

Under How’s charge, Kee Hing Hung progressed from a multi-label watch boutique to focus solely on Rolex in 2001. He had noticed that his customers often came into his store to ask about Rolex timepieces. The healthy market demand for Rolex watches convinced him to specialise in the brand. A few years later, Kee Hing Hung adopted the same strategy for Tudor — it is now “one of the first few Southeast Asian stores to adapt to the new brand concept” after completing a refurbishment in June 2019.

How says: “We place a lot of importance on the needs of our customers; most of our customers were looking to purchase Rolex watches and they were the main reason for our decision to streamline our business. We started to represent Rolex exclusively until Tudor, a sister brand of Rolex which we saw great potential in, joined our brand portfolio in 2003.”

The Tudor Boutique is anchored by the brand’s three iconic colours — black, red and white — designed to possess a bold and distinctive character

This year is the company’s 50th anniversary, but celebrations must wait as Singapore rides the pandemic out, How says, as he shows us black-andwhite photographs of the shop’s official opening in 1970, including a shy six-year-old version of himself hiding among the potted plants.

Collector’s haven

The gleaming boutique done in the official colours of the iconic Rolex green is a veritable Holy Grail for all Rolex watch collectors. Every tray in every glass showcase houses beautiful timepieces that customers can spend hours browsing through. On the door is the Rolex plaque that recognises Kee Hing Hung as its official retailer.

How says that clinching the role of official retailer is perhaps the most satisfaction he has ever gotten. “The best part is I get to be innovative in my industry — being active on social media, engaging my customers personally and always embarking on new initiatives (like establishing a mono-brand Rolex boutique, followed by a concept store in Southeast Asia for Tudor),” he explains.

His current favourite watch is the Rolex Triple Calendar Moonphase. He says: “I am lucky to be able to amass a large collection of Rolex watches throughout my career from pieces dating as far back as the 1950s to the current collection. I am now wearing the Rolex Triple Calendar Moonphase and rotating between a few others. The thing I love about a Rolex watch is how it can become an emotional symbol that brings to life exceptional moments. It can be an heirloom, a milestone of success or a gift, and represents a pivotal moment in someone’s life.”

Is How speaking from personal experience? He reveals: “The hallmark of Kee Hing Hung lies in our dedication to deliver the widest selection of Rolex and Tudor watches. The first thing that my father taught me when I joined the business was to always reinvest the profit back into the business: buy when people are not and always have the widest selection possible. Therefore, even until today, we have the most comprehensive Rolex and Tudor collections in Singapore.”

We ask How if he will pass down the values his father has taught him to his three children. “Definitely!” he says. “Like my father before me, I wish to pass on the same values and business acumen to my children. But I hope that they will also be able to inject new vitality into the business and witness continued growth as the third generation.”

How’s son, Tron (left), has joined the family business

Family business

Also present at the interview is How’s son, Tron, who is already working parttime alongside his father. The 23-yearold admits that he has a lot to learn and will join the family business fulltime after he graduates from his public relations and social media studies next month.

But Tron is already proving to be invaluable to the business as he brings a fresh new perspective in his role — he has gradually taken over the social media side of the business and introduced new approaches to customer service by taking advantage of digitalisation.

Did Tron feel any pressure to join the business? The answer is a resounding no. In fact, How tells us, Tron wanted to join the business to take the load off him so that he could spend more time with his wife. How has two other children — Tammiann and Troy. Tammiann works in the technology industry while Troy is currently serving his National Service. Of course, How is hoping that his other children will join the business, but he says: “I will leave it up to them to decide what their best path would be.”

How’s own path began 35 years ago when he started working at the boutique after completing his National Service. But that was not his first interaction with watches: he had occasionally helped out at the boutique during his schooling days.

“It was a natural progression for me to learn the ropes from my father and eventually take over the business,” he recalls, adding that he has always been interested in watches since young. “I remember that I was very curious about the mechanics inside a timepiece. Once, I was fiddling with a mid-sized, steelgold piece with a white dial and Roman numerals — I remember that vividly. Keen to see its inner workings, I ended up buying it.”

Despite the unpredictability of the world these days, How is optimistic about the future. He says: “With over 50 years of remarkable horological retail history and knowledge, Kee Hing Hung has grown to become one of the most unique retail experiences in Singapore. By our 60th year, I hope we will continue to stay ahead as an innovator in the industry and gain more traction with the younger customers and eventually grow Kee Hing Hung regionally.”

Retirement is far from his mind at the moment. “I do not think I will ever fully retire from the business as it has become a way of life for me. But I would like to take more time off to spend with my family once my children are able to take care of more aspects of the business,” he says.

Max How’s father, How Ting Hai, started Kee Hing Hung as a trading firm in the 1960s

In the beginning

The story of Kee Hing Hung began in 1960s Singapore when How Ting Hai established a trading business in a building along what was known as Old Park Road in Chinatown.

A former carpenter, How Ting Hai operated his firm out of an office on the third floor of a colonial building. The company, Kee Hing Hung, was a wholesaler of watches that were destined for overseas markets as its customers were primarily seafarers.

The trading firm operated out of an office on the third floor of a colonial building in Chinatown

In 1970, the business model of Kee Hing Hung evolved to include retail after its relocation to a shop in People’s Park Complex. The six-storey development of shops and offices was completed in October and Kee Hing Hung had its grand opening in the same month. The ceremony was attended by locals as well as overseas guests, many of whom were long-term clients.

In 2001, the Kee Hing Hung Rolex Boutique was one of the brand’s first few standalone stores in Singapore. The boutique remains the only official Rolex retailer in People’s Park Complex.

Customers can be reassured of Kee Hing Hung’s authenticity as there is a plaque at the boutique’s main door clearly stating its official Rolex retailer status. In 2003, Kee Hing Hung took on the Tudor dealership. Tudor used to be sold within the Rolex boutique but was transformed into a stand-alone presence in 2015. Conveniently located across the Rolex Boutique, the Tudor Boutique at People’s Park Complex was one of the first in Asia to display the new look for the brand’s shops.

Visit Kee Hing Hung to discover more on their illustrious history.

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