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Fourth-generation hawker Debbie Yam at Tang Kay Kee
Photograph: Dawson TanFourth-generation hawker Debbie Yam at Tang Kay Kee

Hawker spotlight: Tang Kay Kee

A fourth-gen hawker keeps her family legacy alive in hopes of inspiring youths to preserve Singapore's hawker heritage through more dialogue

Dawson Tan
Written by
Dawson Tan

In the heart of Chinatown, hawkers are hustling every day at Hong Lim Food Centre. Household name Tang Kay Kee Fish Head Bee Hoon has been at it since 1946, serving zi char fare including their famed fish head bee hoon – but only for dinner. This was the modus operandi for the longest time until the daunting issue of the lack of manpower caught up with the veteran. So much so that it prompted the idea of selling the business back in 2016.

When Debbie Yam (whose great-grandfather was the original founder of the stall) heard about the troubles, she felt a great sense of loss. The business graduate then decided to leave her job in marketing to lend her grandaunt a hand. Most of her family members warned her about the tough working conditions of hawkering but her grandaunt remained extremely supportive.

Hawkers Kamen Tang, Debbie Yam and grandaunt Tang Yock Cheng
Photograph: Tang Kay Kee Fishhead Beehoon via Facebook by liuying.photosHawkers Kamen Tang, Debbie Yam and grandaunt Tang Yock Cheng

After all, Yam was no babe in the woods. “My cousins and I grew up in the hawker centre as our families were very much involved in the daily operations of the stall. So much so that it became our playground growing up,” shares Yam.

While getting familiar with the business, Yam recognised the potential of the stall’s location right in the heart of the CBD. And since lunch in the CBD is kind of a big deal, the fourth-generation hawker decided to launch a modern zi char concept to cater to the time-crunched folks around the area. But tackling the lunch crowd was uncharted territory for the stall and it would prove to be an uphill task for Yam.

Fourth-generation hawker Debbie Yam working the wok
Photograph: Dawson TanFourth-generation hawker Debbie Yam working the wok

Despite the scepticism from hawkergoers and even some of Tang Kay Kee’s loyal patrons, Yam did not let it dissuade her. And as if the emotional damage wasn’t enough, the physical soon followed. “I burn myself all the time. There wasn't a part of me that wasn't torched by fire or the nasty oil splatters,” reveals Yam while pointing at her battle scars.

“Nobody wanted to try the food when they saw a young chef at the helm of a zi char”

Things took a turn for the better for Yam when her grandaunt (current owner Tang Yock Cheng) endorsed her in front of her regulars and encouraged them to try out the modernised lunch program. Bowl by bowl, lesson after lesson, the fearsome wok soon became more of a friend than foe.

Tang Kay Kee – Modern Zi Char Lunch Bowl
Photograph: Daniel IskandarTang Kay Kee – Modern Zi Char Lunch Bowl

On the nifty lunch menu, hungry patrons can expect hearty jasmine rice bowls (from $6.50) paired with heady prawn paste chicken wings, slow-cooked spicy braised pork belly or silky beef slices. On the side are unconventional hawker toppings such as sous vide egg and crispy batter enoki mushrooms. 

Yam is also equally versed in serving up the nostalgic classics (from $5.50). At the collection counter, one can still find plates of fried rice and hor fun (stir-fried rice noodles) all dished up with the signature kiss of the wok.

“Practice makes perfect, I still learn from each bowl I cook”

Today, the cooking is mostly muscle memory. The 33-year-old now hopes that through sharing her story as a fourth-generation hawker, she will be able to ignite passion among the younger generation to carry on their family legacy or even kickstart their own hawker venture.

Together with an effort to destigmatize the negative image of hawkering, Yam engages with prestigious universities like NUS to share her perspectives during the Community Engagement Festival. Earlier this year, she even hosted a short hawker internship for students of Xin Min Secondary School as part of their Education and Career Guidance program.

While Yam provided the enriching opportunity for the teenagers to dip their toes into hawkering, she too had her own valuable takeaways. She realised that not all young people carry the aforementioned stigma of hawkers and there are those who choose to dine in hawker spaces over air-conditioned malls. Turns out, there’s still some hope for preserving Singapore’s hawker heritage.

Nonetheless, she is aware that the ageing hawker population will continue to shrink in the coming decade. “The fact is that there are fewer people entering the industry as compared to those who’re leaving” she explains. But for Yam, she remains eager to stick around for the long run – even after five years.

“To be able to sustain in this business, we cannot ignore our mental health”

Unlike her predecessors, where hawkering was a means to an end, Yam is one who values and acknowledges that taking care of her mental health is the key to going far in this business. She regularly catches up with a community of young hawkers like herself, and exchanges ideas on how to improve their work-life balance as well as uplift each other when times are hard.

And it is no secret that hawkering is back-breaking work. “We often lift heavy loads and stand in odd postures for long periods of time. Not to mention the heat too,” Yam grunts. “Keeping fit is also really important.” And to avoid crippling effects such as chronic backaches and hunching, Yam mitigates it through regular exercise. “I found out that it helps to build strength and stamina which won’t tire us out so quickly,” she adds.

Fourth-generation hawker Debbie Yam at Tang Kay Kee
Photograph: Dawson TanFourth-generation hawker Debbie Yam at Tang Kay Kee

In the end, it is the simplest of things that keep the young hawker going. “Some customers come back and tell me that their parents or grandparents used to bring them to eat at my great-grandfather's stall, back from when they were still peddling on the streets back in the 30s,” Yam shares. “There’s only a finite amount of meals one can have in their lifetime and somehow I am privileged enough to cook for them with my bare hands. I find it extremely humbling.”

Debbie Yam is, without a doubt, an inspiring figure. Her resilience and humility, coupled with her hunger to innovate within means, will be the key to keeping Tang Kay Kee’s legacy alive for a long time to come. And as for Singapore's hawker scene, it is much richer with her around.

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