Eng's wonton mee business fight: Court dismisses claims made by partner, founder's daughters

SINGAPORE - A court fight between the children of the man who founded Eng's wonton noodles and a business partner fizzled out on Tuesday (Dec 22), with each side losing their respective claims against the other.

But with a trademark dispute still before the court, the battle over the wonton mee business, which is known for its springy noodles and "gunpowder" chilli paste, is far from over.

The legal tussles arose from a joint venture between Mr Desmond Ng, the son of the late Ng Ba Eng, who ran a successful hawker stall at Dunman Food Centre, and Ms Pauline New.

In 2012, the stall moved to a shop at 287 Tanjong Katong Road called Eng's Noodles House, after Ms New's husband agreed to invest $150,000 to expand the business.

A company of the same name was registered, with the younger Mr Ng and Ms New as directors and shareholders.

The elder Mr Ng died in 2013. In 2018, after a falling-out between the partners, the company failed to renew the lease on the premises and ceased business on Feb28, 2018.

On the same day, a new company called Eng's Wantan Noodle was set up and took over the premises. The new lease was reportedly signed by Mr Thomas Hong, the chief executive of soup chain Lao Huo Tang.

On March 5, 2018, Mr Desmond Ng’s sisters Mui Hong, 52, and Mei Ling, 48, set up a company called Eng’s Char Siew Wantan Mee. They set up shop at 248 Tanjong Katong Road, doors away from 287.

Last year, Ms New sued the three Ng siblings as well as Mr Bill Teng, who handled the accounts of the defunct Eng's Noodles House and was allotted a 5 per cent stake in the company.

Ms New accused the defendants of conspiring to harm Eng's Noodles House by setting up a competing business.

Among other things, she pointed to the fact that Mui Hong had registered a trademark on Oct 3, 2017, comprising the word "Eng's", the Chinese characters for the brand, and a chilli logo. Ms New alleged that this was to prepare for the "usurping".

Ms New also alleged that Mr Ng and Mr Teng had breached their fiduciary duties to Eng's Noodles House. She accused Mr Teng of misappropriating company funds but withdrew her claim during the trial.

The Ng sisters counterclaimed against Ms New for passing off, alleging that she and her husband, businessman Jason Sim, had "stolen the family business".

The sisters contended that Ms New and Mr Sim had helped set up Eng's Wantan Noodle. Eng's Wantan Noodle has since expanded to multiple franchise outlets across the island.

A Straits Times check of business records showed that the company is owned by a 27-year-old individual named Eng Ye Yeng.

Eng's Wantan Noodle at 287 Tanjong Katong Road. PHOTO: ST FILE

In a written judgment on Tuesday, High Court judge Valerie Thean dismissed Ms New's claims that the defendants had conspired to harm the company.

Justice Thean found that Mui Hong, who knew of the deteriorating relationship between her brother and Ms New, was taking preemptive steps to protect the brand when she registered the trademark in 2017.

The judge found that the sisters setting up shop at 248 was not a premeditated plan, but a “hasty” move to assert their original brand in reaction to Eng’s Wantan Noodle taking over at 287. 

The judge also found that Ms New and Mr Sim were "instrumental" in the setting up of Eng's Wantan Noodle. Their roles included introducing Mr Hong to the real estate agent in 2018 to secure the lease.

Justice Thean rejected the counterclaim by the sisters that Ms New was misleading consumers into believing that Eng's Wantan Noodle was actually the same as their "family" business.

The judge said there was no doubt that during the years at Dunman Food Centre, the elder Mr Ng was the owner of the goodwill, or reputation, attached to the business.

However, the judge said the sisters failed to establish that the public attributed the goodwill to other members of the Ng family aside from the late Mr Ng or Mr Desmond Ng, who has been helping his father since 2009.

The judge added that the passing-off claim should have been brought against Eng's Wantan Noodle, not Ms New.

Mr Teng, through his lawyers Suresh Damodara and Clement Ong, said he was relieved to be vindicated in court.