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Refusing to wok away

Update: January, 05/2015 - 17:45

CHEF

Next generation: The number of young hawkers is small, but many who take the job, like Terence Chee, are dedicated.

by Rebecca Lynne Tan

Singapore's street food is at risk of vanishing as more hawkers hang up their woks and ladles, many without successors.

So who will form the next generation of Singapore hawkers?

In April last year, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan warned that Singapore's rich hawker heritage was in danger of disappearing because young Singaporeans are not joining the trade.

He added that there is a "real concern that we will not succeed because of manpower".

Indeed, the number of young, first-time hawkers setting up shop is small and attracting new blood has proved difficult, what with the long hours and hot, stuffy working environment.

Despite this, however, there seems to be a growing group of educated young hawkers who are starting, or taking over, businesses for various reasons.

Some are lured by the prospect of being business owners, or want to use hawker centres as a platform to develop larger scale businesses.

Others see opportunity and potential in continuing their parents' hawker legacy.

Many older hawkers in their 60s and 70s are resigned to having no successors to take over the reins and say they plan to keep cooking for as long as they can.

Others simply close shop for good when they feel that they are not able to continue or when they want to retire.

The owners of Lim Seng Lee Eating House in South Buona Vista, well-known for its Teochew-style braised duck, for example, will be retiring and closing their shop of 45 years next month.

None of their four children is willing to take over.

In fact, hawkers often say they do not want the same life for their children and even discourage them from taking over the businesses.

Ng Hock Loo, 60, who owns fishball noodle stall Ru Ji Kitchen in Holland Drive, objected strongly when his younger daughter Joanne Ng, 31, expressed interest in learning the trade and taking over.

He says, "I was very against it because being a hawker is a tough life. She has a university degree and she should not waste it."

But adamant to continue and expand the family business, Ng and her husband, Daniel Lee, 31, both university graduates, showed commitment to learning the secrets.

They now run a second Ru Ji Kitchen in Old Airport Road and will be opening another one in Redhill in the coming months.

Young hawkers also see the running of stalls in hawker centres and coffee shops as a stepping stone to bigger food and beverage outlets.

Lower rental and lower start-up costs are pull factors, they say.

Running a hawker stall is also a good way of learning how to operate a small-scale business, with the upside of being their own bosses at the same time.

The next generation

Emblazoned above Terence Chee's small coffee shop kitchen are the words Xiao Di Fried Prawn Noodles.

The term xiao di is Mandarin for little brother and is commonly used to address a boy or young man.

And xiao di is how most customers address the 23-year-old.

Over the years, customers have often questioned his cooking ability because of his youth.

Some would scoff while others would ask incredulously if he knew how to cook.

So, in a bid to answer all those questions and more, he put xiao di in his stall name.

He says, "I wanted to tell people straight up that, yes, a kid is doing the cooking."

Young he may be, but the hawker has already chalked up eight years of experience, working at stalls selling everything from fish soup to Western food.

He worked with a popular fried Hokkien noodles chain for four years and also with well-known Hokkien noodles stall Serangoon Garden Fried Prawn Noodle.

It used to be located in a coffee shop in Serangoon Garden before relocating to Hougang, then Serangoon North.

Chee had worked at the stall's Toa Payoh Lorong 8 outlet before leaving in February last year.

He then spent S$6,000 (US$4,606) to set up his own stall three months later in May.

The secondary school drop-out had taken on permanent direct sales jobs selling items such as perfumes, belts and toys, in which he earned about S$2,500 ($1,919) a month.

He had his first taste of earning money at the age of 12, selling ice cream door-to-door.

Enticed by the thought of earning more money, he deemed educational qualifications less important.

Chee says, "I was rebellious and I did not like the idea of 'chasing paper'. And S$2,500 was a very comfortable income for a 15-year-old."

When he dropped out of school at Secondary 3, his mother, Ng Mui Lee, 50, who now helps him at his stall, had warned him not to regret his choice.

She used to work at her brother's barbecued seafood stall in Changi Village.

However, he soon realised that he was spending more than he should and could not save any money because he had too much time on his hands.

He says, "I would spend on anything and everything – a lot of unnecessary things."

For example, he would take a taxi to travel short distances when he could have hopped on a bus.

He then started working at hawker stalls because he knew the longer hours would keep him occupied.

He worked 12 to 16 hours a day, for S$1,800 ($1,382) to S$2,700 ($2,073) a month, but he did not mind.

In 2010, to earn some extra cash, he offered to wash pots and dishes for the owner of Serangoon Garden Fried Prawn Noodle, who ran a stall in Serangoon North Avenue 4, next to the fish soup stall Chee was working at.

Later on, the prawn noodle stall owner taught him how to make the dish.

He says, "Hokkien mee is a dish that a lot of people can do well. The difference is whether a hawker chooses to give it his all.

"For me, it is all about staying true to the ingredients and cooking it the way it is supposed to be." — The Straits Times

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