December 15, 2013

{Sentimental Sundays} Being A Hawker. I Know How It Feels Like. I Was Once A Young Singapore Hawker.

One plate of roasted chicken wings, and so much memories came flooding back.

It was quite a long travel for me to Tampines, but I don't mind the distance since I was taking leave from work and had the luxury of time. What a worthy trip, as I had one of the best Siew Yoke (Roasted Pork Belly) ever, which came highly recommended by Uncle Smart. Digressing a bit: The siew yoke was indeed fantastic! Our group of foodies ordered another plate after we finished the first, local food guru KF Seetoh even ordered additional portion to takeway. I promise to blog about this awesome siew yoke soon, but first, back to the plate of roasted chicken wings.

(Update: Read One Of The BEST ROASTED PORK BELLY I've Tried in Singapore!)

The group met earlier and went to try the roasted chicken at another stall (Poh Kee Chicken Rice, Koufu Foodcourt @ Tampines Street 43, Blk 475) which is also located in the vicinity. Uncle Smart is indeed smart to order just a plate of roasted chicken wings for me (no rice) as I wanna save my tummy space for the upcoming siew yoke feast. Thanks to Tony too, for the treat :)

As I was enjoying every bite of the wings' thin crisp skin, Uncle Smart told me the stall is run by a young chap who does all the cooking himself. His wife is still doing her university studies and helps out at the stall too.

Then the memories hit me.

Yes, I was once a young hawker too.

No, I did not sell chicken wings.

I was selling Fried White Carrot Cake aka Chai Tow Kway (CTK)!

My then-boyfriend was fresh out of army and in huge financial debts. Being from a family of hawker background, selling CTK was the easiest and fastest way he could think of to get cash income on a daily basis. He borrowed a sum of money from loansharks (!!!), started a stall in a coffeeshop selling CTK, and soon made enough money to pay off his debts.

Needless to say, the stall was a success! The CTK was delicious!

Needless to say, I helped out at the stall.

But... needless to say, my mum was heartbroken.

That time, I was barely 19 years old, holding a role in the luxury fashion industry while studying fashion merchandising in NAFA. Though I probably wouldn't be a high flyer due to my lack of brilliancy in academic studies, my mum has never expect me to become hawker, especially when I'm hopeless with household chores and afraid of heat. I refused to go to the market with her because I felt it was wet and smelly. I never took up those part-time waitressing jobs together with my schoolmates because I don't wanna get my hands dirty. In short, I was a spoilt princess. Yet, her little spoilt princess was okay to spend all her free time sweating it out at a hawker stall for this guy. Mum couldn't bear to see me working so hard, and even came to help wash the dishes on Sundays when it was the busiest.

I was what my friends (back then) called a stupid + hopeless + devoted girlfriend. From the preparation of ingredients, taking orders to washing dishes, I did all of those. Can I fry CTK then? Of course I can haha! If you place me in front of a CTK stall's wok now, I think I can still churn out a pretty decent plate lol.

While we were glad that he's equipped with a cooking skill which is passed down from his parents, to us it was nothing more than a tool of survival to tide over the tough period. Much proud as we were when business was good and people told us that they love eating our CTK, we complained a lot about the harsh conditions of the working environment - the heat and greasiness, the long hours, the unglamorous aspects of it all when we compared ourselves with our peers. Being hawkers was something we did out of no choice and not what we wanted to do long term. We closed the CTW stall soon after the chains of debts are broken.

My path in being a hawker was a reluctant one, yet the whole experience gave me an invaluable lesson in life which I don't think I can ever forget. I've learned to be humble and to see all professions as equal, everyone has their own unique role to serve and make society come together as a whole. It made me see beyond the plate of Char Kway Teow and bowl of Bar Chor Mee, and is more appreciative of it. Working alongside with other hawkers in the same coffeeshop gave me the chance to understand some of the daily challenges they faced and also appreciate the beauty of lives dedicated to perfecting one's chosen craft.

These are simple people who did not set out with an aim of preserving street food culture, or harbour big ambitions of accumulating accolades, but are equipped with a sincere heart which wants to cook a dish to the best of their knowledge and ability for their customers while earning an honest livelihood. I'm more forgiving when the food turns out to be less than perfect, as I believe no self-respecting hawker wants to serve bad-tasting food on purpose. That being said, stalls that operate solely for profit purposes with little concern for food quality is another story altogether.

While we are lamenting that the younger generation are not interested in continuing their parent's hawker business and waxing lyrical about how some food used to be handmade and taste better in the past, or feeling sad that nobody is doing enough to preserve the hawker heritage which seems to be slipping away, perhaps at the same time, we should also ask ourselves:-

How many of us are willing to become hawkers?

How many youngsters are willing to become hawkers?

How many parents are willing to let their children become hawkers?

The answer to all the three questions would probably be: Not many.

Which is why I always feel hearten to see and read about the fresh waves of energy coming from young people who ditch the comparative comforts of a white collar job and chose to become hawkers, defying convention and breaking the negative stereotype that this career is only for the uneducated. They are genuine people who wants to share the passion of food through their cooking. That alone, gets my admiration and support. Having once been a hawker myself, all the more I know that this route is not an easy one.

To the next generation of delicious food! :D

加油! 加油! 加油!

{Sentimental Sundays} is a Sunday series where I share my thoughts and feelings which may or may not be food related. This post is dedicated to all the wonderful hawkers out there :)


  1. Ha ha I just had CKT this morning at Hai Seng Bedok Block 216.

  2. I love your story and respect what you have done and are doing. So glad that that humble plate of chicken wings was my treat hehe. Never knew it meant so much. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Hee thanks Tony! Food means so much more beyond food :)

  3. Replies
    1. Haha CTK or CKT, it's both nice! Looking forward to our makan trail soon :)

  4. 爱是伟大的! Respect!

    1. 爱情是盲目的! Haha! But it opened my eyes to a lot of things :)

  5. Wow I am only reading this now. Never knew you tried your hand at being a hawker (also cannot imagine you sweating behind a hot wok/griddle! That is amazing, yo! I half wish the CTK stall was still around! :P

    1. Even I myself can't believe I went through that period lol!