Hawkers: - Singapore Memory Project


Hawkers: - Singapore Memory Project
Success & Succession
Three stories of Singapore’s food
legends’ quest for continuity
All rights reserved National Library Board,
Singapore (NLB) 2013
This work was exclusively created
for the Singapore Memory Project, NLB
Text & Design by:
Makansutra (S) Pte Ltd
Photos by:
Makansutra (S) Pte Ltd
(unless stated otherwise)
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ISBN 978-981-07-7228-4
The Natural Nasi Lemak Pilot
Dearth and Death of a Hawker Legend
He Sells Fish Selflessly
Street food hawking in Singapore during the tumultuous pre- and post-war era,
was a means to make ends meet. Migrants, deprived of economic opportunities,
resorted to culinary ingenuity and hawked their family heirloom recipes on the
streets, often illegally. This became a way to feed the masses affordably.
Over the decades, as lifestyle and expectations changed, food culture went from
itinerant to iconic. Hawkers were housed in custom-built hawker centres with
basic hygiene facilities by the late 1980s, and eating, naturally, became a national
But due to economic advancements and evolving expectations of a newer
generation, the life of this well-loved local food culture is slowly ebbing away. Many
of the older generation of hawkers and their once young assistants are already
past retirement age or nearing it, with no natural successors of this culture in sight.
While there are concerns from both the public and private sectors over the effect
of this “cancer”, very little is being done to address the problems of continuity.
In a country that is of late so easily influenced by foreign cultures and trends,
Makansutra feels that our hawker food is one of our nation’s last bastions of
culture. Our unique street flavours have links to our past and migrant heritage. It
traces the “culinary silk route” of Singapore. It’s the most unctuous language of our
The stories told here are about the natural, unnatural and unfortunate tales of the
rebirth, death and dearth of our Singapore street food culture.
KF Seetoh
Makan Guru
CEO Makansutra
The quest for continuity of our beloved street food culture has been the biggest
bugbear of the street food industry here. Even the government and the food
loving public are up in arms over the potential dearth and death of this culture of
ours, and are finding ways and means to preserve it.
The younger, more affluent generation do not find being a hawker appealing,
with its long working hours, menial nature and sweatshop-like conditions. This
is coupled with operation and management woes and the pressure to keep food
cost low even as labour cost increases.
All hawkers, especially the successful ones, are bound to face the question
of succession. In the last three years, at least three old-generation hawkers
suddenly found themselves confronted with the issue.
Mr Ng Siaw Meng whose name was synonymous with satay beehoon, Mr
Hassan Abdul Kadir who was considered a nasi lemak legend and master, and
Mr Loh Mun Hon whose family created many signature dishes like sum lo hor
fun, were all dealt the same card by the hand of fate. But each generated a
different outcome to their quest for continuity and a future legacy.
Through the families and disciples they left behind, we trace the journeys of
these hawkers’ quest for succession. One was unplanned, one masterminded
it, and the other, only thought about it when it was too late. We also shed light
on their children’s stories on why they did or didn’t carry on their parents’ famous
street food legacies and successful businesses. We unveil the challenges they
faced, and why the old spirit of running a food business is difficult to upkeep in
this day and age.
The Natural
Nasi Lemak Pilot
Abdul Malik Hassan had always wanted to be an
airline pilot, but his father had other plans for him and
his four siblings – to manage the family’s renowned
Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak business. And in their family,
hierarchy and respect for the wishes of the elders and
seniors come first.
Being the eldest child, Malik was the “crown prince”
of the business. His father ensured he learnt the craft
of making nasi lemak as a teenager. After graduating
from university, Malik continued helping out at the stall
at the elder Hassan’s insistence, but in between, he
sold signboards to petrol stations. He dutifully traded
his tie for a T-shirt to help at the stall each evening,
unaware that one day, the switch would be permanent.
Malik, the “crown prince” of Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak, took over
the reins after his father passed on.
It was when Malik finally received a call to go for an interview as a pilot at
age 31 that his father gently and firmly laid down the rules and family plan
– he was to take over the family’s nasi lemak business instead. Freedom
gave way to duty and filial piety. By then, he was fully equipped to take
over because his father had systematically planned it all along. In Malik’s
words: “machiam Jackie Chan kena trained kung fu” (like how Jackie
Chan was taught kung fu).
Like a true master of his craft, Malik reveals some tricks and tips of
the trade: break eggs first into a bowl to ascertain their freshness; the
patterns on a cucumber’s skin reveal the moisture in the vegetable;
rougher basmati grains yield fluffier rice; curly dried chillies are milder than
the straight ones; ikan bilis from Vietnam are thinner and crispier; fresh
fish smells like the sea, not the freezer – all expert knowledge not noticed
by customers and lesser peers.
Crispy ikan bilis
from Vietnam.
Fresh eggs with
runny yolk.
Tweaks he made to the recipe included removing acar from the menu,
because he found that nasi lemak packed with the spicy pickled
vegetable spoiled and went rancid faster.
The elder Hassan died of lung cancer in late 2011, but his vision of
continuing of the family-run business carries on. Today, five years after
Business is as good, if not better, as their father’s time.
helming the business, Malik still manages and delivers, consistently to
the incessant queues at their stall each day. Even our prime minister and
the president are his regulars. Even though he has received invitations
to open franchises in food courts, hawker centres and even abroad, he
has remained at Adam Road, where his father started in 1998. Just as his
father had wished, the stall is now run by Malik and his siblings – the only
people he trusted with the cooking.
“Only family will ensure that every step of the
cooking is done right,” says Malik.
Each of them has their own special skills and
strengths to contribute to the family business.
“Only family will cut the cucumbers into equal sizes,” Malik reasoned.
They have since opened another outlet in Ang Mo Kio.
Malik’s third and youngest brothers chop and fry for him, while his
sister, who among them makes the best sambal, prepares the chilli at
their Ang Mo Kio outlet and then delivers it to them. His second brother,
who has a day job, cleans up the stall in the evening. “This business
has brought us closer, like in those days before we all got married and
moved into our own homes,” said Malik. Malik has also declared that
every Friday would be a rest day, so that the entire family, including the
children, can get together at their mother’s place.
The Hassan family, including Mailk (third from right), his three brothers
(left), sister (far right) and mother (second from right).
With the business becoming more promising and successful, Malik is
already looking to involve the third generation. After hearing his teachers
and classmates praise the family’s nasi lemak many times, his 14-yearold son proudly announced he would help out at the stall after completing
his National Service.
While Malik wasn’t a willing successor, unlike his eager son, he harbours
no regrets. When he watches his customers clean off their plates, he
feels as though he is on top of the world.
Dearth and Death of a
Hawker Legend
Image courtesy of Meng Kee
Bee Hoon
Ng Siaw Meng was christened a “Hawker Legend”
in 2005, a street food award accorded by food rating
and food consultancy company Makansutra, with
the support of the Singapore Tourism Board and the
National Environment Agency. The award has not
been handed out since, as such top flight street food
masters are few and far between.
Image courtesy of Meng Kee Satay Bee Hoon
Meng Kee Satay Bee Hoon’s first location at the now-defunct
“three-milestone” market in Upper Serangoon.
Image courtesy of Meng Kee Satay Bee Hoon
Mr Ng Siaw Meng started out young in the hawker business.
At the age of 12, Mr Ng had not had much education and hence, had no
choice but to inherit his father’s street food business. He took over the
reins at 27 when his father passed on and it was under his watch that
the family’s hawker reputation reached its zenith. Mr Ng was one of the
first hawkers to introduce self-service – seen as arrogant then – but it
was because he did not want to overwork his aging mother.
Arguably the most famous satay bee hoon in Singapore.
Mr Ng was truly a hawker legend – he toiled diligently everyday at
his humble stall at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village, churning out
consistently top notch satay bee hoon, a uniquely Singaporean dish.
His creation: a savoury, earthy, five-spice powder-laced peanut sauce
tossed with blanched vermicelli (because it enhanced, and did not detract
from the character of the sauce), topped with kangkong, pork slices, tau
pok (dried tofu), cuttlefish, prawns, pig’s liver (making it a filling one-dish
meal), bean sprouts for crunch, and blood cockles for an umami flavour. It
was the stuff of legends.
However, over time Mr Ng began to get thinner for no apparent reason.
He was eventually diagnosed with late stage stomach cancer.
Upon the unfortunate diagnosis, Mr Ng knew he had to do something to
keep the family brand alive. He announced that he was willing to sell his
“legendary” recipe to the right person. A few showed interest with one
being very keen but backed out when he learnt just how complex this
seemingly simple dish was.
Mr Ng accorded his children the freedom of choice and was happy to let
them choose their own career paths and become successful in their own
right. His son was into music and became a teacher, while this daughter
was an executive at a hospital.
Image courtesy of Meng Kee
Satay Bee
Mr Ng and his family on a rare outing at East Coast Park.
Mr Ng never once saw his fame and success as a “brand”, something,
if given thought, could be turned into a business. To him, he was just a
hawker, working hard to support the family. He could have developed
products, sauces, taught at schools, created franchise operations in the
region, but it was not to be.
Mr Ng’s deteriorating health received wide coverage in local newspapers.
Even though his brother (and assistant) was paralysed after a fall at
home, he did not think about the continuity of the business. His wife said:
“He was only concerned about the family, not the business.”
Mr Ng succumbed to his illness in November 2012. The culinary heritage
and recipe that his father had handed down to him, and Meng Kee Satay
Beehoon, have been lost forever.
He Sells Fish
In its heydays, Hong Kong Street Chun Kee was the
go-to-place for sum lo hor fun, har cheong kai and
fish head bee hoon. At one stage, the stall sold about
150kg of hor fun (rice sheet noodles) per day, an
amount an average cze char (referring to a stall selling
ala carte dishes served with rice or porridge) stall
would take a week to clear. It was very tempting for the
cooks to strike out on their own with recipes they had
Hong Kong Street Chun Kee began in the 1960s at
Hong Kong Street, once a bustling lane in town lined
with itinerant hawkers. Mdm Leung Sow On was a
helper at a stall that sold fish head bee hoon and har
cheong kai. When her boss retired, she took over
the business and named it after her daughter, Loh
Pui Chun (hence the name Hong Kong Street Chun
Kee), who played second fiddle to the head chef. Her
son, Mr Loh Mun Hon, who would later take over the
business, minded the stall.
Their signature sum lo hor fun was born only after
they moved to Telok Ayer Street. According to Mr
Loh’s younger brother and their ex-employees,
cooking noodles with fish slices, bean sprouts and
julienned spring onions was a special request made
by a customer from Hong Kong. This plain-looking hor
fun dish received a lukewarm response from other
Sum lo hor fun received a lukewarm response from Singaporeans until it
was featured in a local television programme.
customers until a local television programme featured it in the 1990s. That
propelled Hong Kong Street Chun Kee to fame and many chefs wanted to
learn how to prepare the dish.
It was a conundrum most towkays (bosses) of such stalls faced – to teach
their cooks to prepare their dishes well but risk having them become part of
the competition eventually. But Mr Loh, or Ah Hon as he was widely known
in the industry, understood that employee loyalty was precious, and that
it would be far more dreadful if his cooks established copycat stalls with
poorly cooked food. He allowed the disciples in his kitchen to not only bear
his stall’s name if they struck out on their own, but also allowed them to
copy his signature presentation style – but on one condition.
Ah Hon had a fish farm in Malaysia that reared fish specifically for his
business. He once told Makansutra (while filming for its television series
in 2001), that in exchange for using the Hong Kong Street brand and
style, the stalls would get their seafood and fish supplies from him.
It was pure business logic and since it was a far better deal than a
Har cheong kai which derives its unique flavour from the savoury
prawn paste marinade is another Hong Kong Chun Kee staple.
franchise arrangement, many agreed to Ah Hon’s condition. Ah Hon would
not have to worry about suspicious accounting over franchise commissions.
It was a simple, yet shrewd business move.
Unbeknown to him, that business strategy yielded a far deeper impact
on our food culture – it ensured continuity. Today, we see many “direct
disciples” and distant pupils of Hong Kong Street cze char stalls sprouting all
over the island.
There are at least a few dozen of such stalls in Singapore today, but only
a few belong to the original owner Ah Hon, who once told us, “It was okay
by me, so long as they could provide jobs for at least 10 people, it meant
providing a living for families too.”
Ah Hon succumbed to cancer in 2009 after a decade-long fight with
the illness, but his family’s Hong Kong Street cze cha legacy lives on.
Unintentionally, he gave Singapore the invaluable gift of a culinary heritage
we can be proud of.
One can’t claim to be a loyal customer
of Hong Kong Street Chun Kee without
having tried their fish head bee hoon.
1 kg chicken wings,
only drumettes and flats (centre)
24 g prawn paste
1/2 egg
1 tsp baking powder
20 g sesame oil
12 g shaoxing wine
30 g water
pepper to taste
100 g tapioca starch
70 g peanut oil
cooking oil
Add all ingredients (except chicken,
tapioca starch and oil) into a bowl and mix
Add chicken wings into the marinade and
mix well.
Add tapioca starch and peanut oil into the
mixture and toss until the batter coats the
chicken evenly. Do not stir for too long or
the batter will become very dense after
frying. Also, make sure to perform step
three only after step two, otherwise the
tapioca starch and peanut oil will clog up
the pores of the chicken and prevent it
from absorbing the marinade.
Refrigerate the marinated chicken wings
overnight (at least 6 hours).
Just before frying, allow the chicken wings
to sit at room temperature for about 10 to
15 minutes. Toss them a little to loosen the
Meanwhile, add oil (enough to submerge the wings) into a wok and heat it up
over high heat for about 5 minutes.
One by one, drop the chicken wing into the oil.
Once all the wings are in the oil, turn the fire down to medium low heat so
that the skin is browned but not burnt by the time the meat inside is cooked
thoroughly. Fry for 4.5 to 5 minutes. The wings will float to the surface once
they are ready.
Just before plating, turn up the fire to maximum heat for about 5 seconds to
purge out the oil from the chicken. Remove the chicken with a colander, then
turn off the fire.
Serve the har cheong kai with a squeeze of lime and your favourite chilli sauce.
Ah Hon’s former head chef, Mr Lim Kwang Wah of 136 Hong Kong Street Fish Head Bee
Hoon, kindly shared this recipe with us, just as someone else shared it with him. But the
real trick, as we all know it, is in the cook’s skill.