Hock Tong Bee Cornerstone Wines sits quietly at the corner of Sims Close, stilled in eponymy. Inside Clinton Ang’s office framed pictures of his family adorn the walls. Clinton, 45, managing director of Hock Tong Bee Cornerstone Wines, greeted us with a firm handshake. He swiftly got into relating the remarkable evolution of a company that pioneered the wine industry in Asia over three generations, doling out aphorisms with a quick sense of humour.
Hock Tong Bee was started by his grandfather with a good balance of enterprising grit and idealism.
“My grandfather left his hometown in Fujian province – he’s Hokkien – to come to Nanyang to seek a better life,” Clinton said. “Whatever he had, he sold to pay for the boat ride over. When he landed in Singapore, he decided that if he ever had a chance to strike [out] on his own and start a business, he would call it “Prosperity Together with Beauty” (Hock Tong Bee in Hokkien dialect). Why? Because prosperity together with beauty means a blissful life. “Prosperity” to him is a thriving business and “beauty” is finding the woman of his dreams.”
Hock Tong Bee began in the gunny sack trade, with Clinton’s grandfather cutting up gunny sacks that British companies were throwing out, and sewing them into individual bags for sale. Several months into the trade, he met his future wife.
“He made a little money and one day a lady was doing the same thing in front of him. He went to her, was very angry, and tapped her on her back and asked ‘What are you doing?’ She turned around. He was dumbfounded by her beauty and lo and behold, a few months later she became his wife. This was probably in the early 1930s,” Clinton shared.
Clinton’s father, Mr Aloysius Ang, circa 1970. Photo courtesy of Clinton Ang
As a child, Clinton was never allowed to rest on the laurels of his family success. His work ethic and entrepreneurial sensibilities were shaped by his immersion in the family business when growing up. He spent his school holidays going to the office and helping with manual labour and chores.
“My father did this because he wanted to instil some level of discipline in us. He also wanted to make sure that we took nothing for granted. That every cent, every dollar that you put in, is essentially worth every effort,” he explained.
The late Mr Ang was not one to spoil his children. He cultivated in them a strong sense of responsibility and independence without any self-entitlement.
“He said that, well I give out food every day, I give you a roof over your head; there’s no free meal or free lodging. You work for it. And you work for it over your school holidays,” he said.
Clinton’s father encouraged their holiday work by matching a dollar to every dollar that they made.
With both his grandfather and father living through World War II and the Japanese Occupation, they had to adapt and be flexible so as to keep Hock Tong Bee going. The store was then located in Rochor Road, where his father and his uncle, together with his grandfather and their uncles would run the business.
Clinton revealed, “Because food was very scarce, they had little bits of rice, little bits of potato and they had no meat, so they supplemented (meals) by eating rats and cockroaches. And even grasshoppers, insects, whichever.”
The old Hong Tock Bee site at Rochor Road, which was in operation from 1938–1970. Photo courtesy of Clinton Ang
They coped with the lack of palatability by frying the vermin and eating them with rice. Sugarcane and whatever was available in the forest supplied the liquids required in their diets. This ability to adapt and be resilient in times of hardship stood them in good stead for the survival and ultimate success of Hock Tong Bee.
Back then, with a store front strategically facing the canals, and with no money for stock and inventory, Clinton’s grandparents lined the entrance with empty bags of rice, flour, and sugar.
“The canals in the past were used for bumboats to come in so people would then come. We would negotiate with them and take the money and then my grandfather would call out to my father. My father would come, take the money, run five streets behind to the Indian stockists, the wholesalers, buy (the stock) from them and then bring the stock back and arbitrage,” he explained.
Clinton Ang, proudly holding a bottle of Cornerstone Classic French Red. Photo by Karl Chan
After the Japanese Occupation, Hock Tong Bee was put through the wringer again when the Indonesian riots erupted in the early 1960s. Faced with bankruptcy, Clinton’s father was torn between choosing his law studies or joining the family business. The stress from the troubles brought on by the Indonesian riots also proved too much for Clinton’s grandfather who passed away from a heart attack on the fourth day of Chinese New Year (the riots had begun on the first day). The rest of the family had to step in and keep the business going.
In the early 1970s, Clinton’s father diversified the business by going into wines and spirits. The new venture, Cornerstone Wines, has since kept pace with the changes and evolution of the drinking culture in Singapore.
“My father [had] always wanted to make a wine for Asian cuisine. (A wine) made by Asians for Asian cuisine. That was number one. Number two, my grandparents also talked about the philosophy of chopsticks. If you put a pair of chopsticks together, you try to break it…very easy. But if you put a bunch of chopsticks together, you try to break it, it’s much harder. The idea was to group all the family businesses from all over the region together and band them together as one,” he explained.
in 1997, Cornerstone Wines developed two wines, and currently, they now have 28. They now also have a sales presence in 28 countries, up from just one back in 1997. The first vintage that the company produced sold 12,000 bottles. Today the company sells over a million bottles.
The youngest in a brood of four, Clinton confessed to being the most mischievous and headstrong, and admitted to drinking “too much” compared to his siblings. Interestingly, it was his teetotaller eldest brother who was most knowledgeable about wines and interested in the wine business when he was growing up. His other two siblings were “interested but were not really involved in the business”.
Perhaps Clinton was the one destined to helm the family business from the moment his grandmother named him. The last character of his Chinese name is 传, which is aptly symbolic of his role in the family business.
Clinton recounted, “My grandmother knew my parents were going to have four children. Don’t ask me how, but she knew. And she gave us our names. And the last character[s] of our names [are] 江山保传 – [传 meaning] you are the passer of your inheritance and the business and everything else to the next generation.”
To see him through some of the most daunting challenges in his business, Clinton tries to draw on the wisdom of his elders.
“My father, prior to passing away, shared something with me,” he revealed. “I complained to him ‘Dad, I joined the business in ’97, (and) every two years I have a stumbling block, I take five steps forward but four steps back. ’97 was the Asian Financial Crisis, ’99 was the Bali bombings, ’01 was September 11, ’03 was SARS – Dad, every two years.’ You know what he told me? He said ‘Son, be thankful that all these things come at you when you are young. Because when you’re young, (when) you fall, you can still get up and walk again. If all this hits you when you’re in your 40s or 50s, you may have just fallen and never gotten up. So count on this as a blessing. See it as a blessing. Understand it, grow from it, turn it around and make it happen.’ That was amazing, and my father shared that with me when he was in the ICU at the hospital.”
Learning from the past and observing patterns in the present helped Clinton to draw up roadmaps for the future. He is also aware of the possible complaisance of the third-generation business owner and pushes himself to constantly learn and grow the business.
“You are the keeper, you are the purveyor – you are there to keep, to guide, to hold and to preserve. So all eyes on the future generation,” he said.
While he is heavily involved in community service and had won many awards that now line his office space, Clinton is more proud of his father’s achievements. His legacy is not only framed in pictures but also lives on in Clinton’s work ethic and business philosophy.
The pictures in his office reflect not only his inspiration and guide from the past but also serves as a reminder for him to continue his good work for the future.
He gestured to the portraits behind him, “When I sit here, my father is on my left and Lee Kuan Yew is on my right. I always say that I sit here because my father and Lee Kuan Yew look over my shoulder(s) every day. I have my two pillars, so I think that’s very important.”
Behind him are strategically placed photographs of Lee Kuan Yew and Clinton’s father who are pillars of inspiration for him. Photo by Karl Chan
A family man at heart, his greatest treasure is his wife, Tina, and two daughters, Cora and Kiara.
“In life, you can be the richest person, you can be the poorest person. But money can never buy happiness. You must count your blessings and you must focus on the family and you will love it. I count my blessings every day because every day I go home I hug and kiss my wife, I hug and kiss my daughters and nothing can replace those moments, and that’s key.”
Written by: LY Kang
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign