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The stories of pioneer hawkers who have been around since your parents' time

We chat with seven of Singapore’s oldest hawkers who have been feeding us for generations. Photography by Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Nicole-Marie Ng
Written by
Nicole-Marie Ng
Rebecca Liew

This article was first published in November 2016. It has been republished as we believe that it's important for these stories to live on.

Our hawkers are an integral part of what makes Singapore's food scene beyond compare. There are those who have just started honing their craft, coming up with unique takes on local dishes to satisfy the modern diner. But there are also masters of the wok – those who have been tossing, frying and keeping the flames of our culinary tradition alive for years. We speak to some of Singapore's oldest hawkers to find out their story.

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Lim Wee Huat, 63

My father had a pushcart just outside this hawker centre on Sam Leong Road in the ’60s. Once he moved into Berseh Food Centre, I took over the business – that was after I finished my National Service, about four decades ago. I’ve always loved cooking so I was happy to do it and let him retire.

When I first took over, business was very slow because people didn’t know I was here. But I persevered and even tweaked the recipe to make it better. Of course, it’s a secret so I can’t tell you what I did.

We’re one of the few stalls in Singapore that has a soup version of orh luak so we get a lot of curious youngsters who order it to try. It’s a very traditional way of cooking orh luak, made by adding more water to the starch. And it’s good for old people who find it hard to chew.

Maybe in a few years, I’ll sell my recipe like those other hawkers. We don’t have a lot of savings, so retirement is a struggle. I’m getting old and I don’t know how much longer I can stay in the kitchen.

TRY THE fried oyster ($5-$10)

While most places are heavy on the starch and less generous with the eggs, Lim’s orh luak finds the right balance. Each plate of crispy fried egg intermingled with chewy pieces of starch and fleshy oysters is served on a hand-painted porcelain plate, some as old as the shop.

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Wong Yew Poh (right), 78, with his daughter, Wong Ai Tin, 48

Mr Wong passed away in 2019. Sungei Road Laksa is now run by his daughters.
As told by second-generation owner Wong Ai Tin:

We’ve been in business since 1956. The first store was right outside the ice factory along Sungei Road.

When my father was a teenager, he had nothing to do and would just walk around the area. An old man noticed him once and asked if he wanted to start a food business. My father said no at first, because he had no money and didn’t know how to cook, but the man, who used to work on ships as a chef, said he would teach my pa how to make curry puffs, mee siam, chicken rice or laksa. My father chose laksa simply because he liked eating it.

Business has been going well over the years, but when people see that your business is good, they tend to get jealous. We’ve shifted many times over the years because kopitiam owners would kick the chairs of our customers if they didn’t buy anything to drink. They would also sweep the floor around our customers while they were still eating to chase them away, or cut off our water supply.

We don’t have plans to expand. Maybe when my father is no longer around, I might decide to close the shop. It’s hard to get helpers and the next generation don’t want to take over the business because it’s very tiring.

TRY THE laksa ($3)

With only one thing on the menu, this humble eatery still rakes in long queues on a regular day. Its laksa gravy, cooked over charcoal, is light and not too spicy – that’s what the sambal is for. Stir it in if you want more heat in your bowl. Topped only with fishcake and plump cockles, you’ll polish off a bowl in under 5 minutes.

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Rolina is now run by Mr Tham's son, Bren.

Tham Niap Tiong, 78

I’ve been making curry puffs since I was 19. It was hard to get a job in the ’50s, and I didn’t even have food to eat. A Hainanese sailor, who was his ship’s chef, took pity on me and taught me his recipe when he saw that I had a wife and child to feed but no job.

My first stall was at Thomson. I would sell my curry puffs by the road near Novena Church. The aunties who came to my stall couldn’t pronounce ‘Novena’, and would call it ‘Rolina’ instead – that’s how I got the name.

I don’t use pre-mixed curry powder. I wake up at 3am every morning to prepare each puff. I’ll grind the curry paste by hand and add chicken, potatoes and egg, then fry them in small batches. 

It was very challenging in the beginning because I sold curry puffs for 10 cents each. It was hard to make a profit. 

I’ve since passed the recipe to my son, who’s been making curry puffs for 20 years at Serangoon Gardens.

TRY THE chicken curry puff ($1.40)

Halfway between an Old Chang Kee crescent and a Malay epok-epok, these golden puffs have a thin crust and filling that’s more spicy than sweet. They’re also a lot smaller than mass-produced ones, although that’s more than made up for with the chunks of chicken, potatoes and egg – you won’t find pockets of air in this one.

Azmi Restaurant
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Oudhraj (left), 72 and Abuzer Alam, 37

As told by second-generation owner Abuzer Alam:

My father started Azmi Restaurant more than 45 years ago, and even though he has passed on, we still have people like Oudhraj, who has been here since the very beginning.

My father chose to sell chapati because it was our kampong food – our whole kampong would make and share chapati with one another. We’ve been using the same recipe, made by hand, like we did all those years ago.

It’s hard to find workers. We used to have two shops but had to close one due to a lack of manpower. Even now, I’m looking to open another outlet, but I can’t find staff. I’m not sure what I’ll do once the senior members of my staff can no longer cook.

Compared to my father’s time, there’s more competition now as there are a lot of shops selling chapati nearby. But I think that most Singaporeans know us because of our long history. We’ve had customers come in with their children and once they’ve grown up, they bring kids of their own.

TRY THE chapati with keema ($5.20)

While there’s a wide variety of curries to choose from at Azmi, ask any connoisseur and they’ll tell you that chapati goes best with mutton keema. Tear off some of the warm flatbread, scoop up the devil-red mix of minced mutton, potato and peas, add a slice of raw cucumber or onion, and stuff it all in as the keema dribbles down your hand. It’s so good, you won’t mind the mess.
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  • Chinatown

Leong Yuet Meng, 87 

I’ve been doing this since 1965 – 40 years at the old National Library and 11 years here. I’d always wanted to set up a business, and I learnt how to cook wonton mee from my cousin who had a stall in Chinatown at the time. I was a housewife then and knew the basics of cooking but needed to perfect the recipes before starting a stall of my own. My wonton mee recipe hasn’t changed since I started.

What’s important is having passion and the willingness to put your heart into it. Even though I don’t cook anymore, I’m still here from 8am every day to take orders.

Let’s face it: I’m no longer young, and I don’t know if my son’s going to take over. Right now, I’m doing this by myself with some staff. Not many want to be in this line of work, but I want to keep doing this until I’m no longer around.

TRY THE wonton mee ($4-$5)

We’ll be the first to admit that, flavour-wise, this is not the best wonton mee around. The wontons and char siew are nothing to write home about, but everyone’s really here for the noodles: they’re thicker than usual and come swimming in a slightly soupy base of soya sauce and sesame oil. If anything, it reminds us of the version from our school canteens – and that in itself makes the dish special.

Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodles
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Lau Wah Kee, 75

When I started this stall, more than 60 years ago, a bowl of prawn mee cost 20 cents. [It’s a lot more today], but everyone still queues up because they know they’re getting a good deal.

You can see that my prawns are beautiful and fresh; I get them delivered every day. Yes, they’re expensive, and I don’t make a lot of profit, but it’s what I like to cook. Other places use pork in their soup but I use five types of prawns to make my base. Once you add pork, the soup becomes very ‘smelly’ and not as good.

Customers these days are very troublesome. Once, I served someone who had been waiting patiently in a corner for my big prawns to be delivered. The person at the front of the queue thought I was playing favourites and got mad. Even my own son queues, because if I serve him first, people will find fault with us.

I don’t think my son will take over
the stall once I retire. He runs a successful automobile business of his own. My wife and I are very old now, and sometimes we can’t cope with the crowds, so I just wish people would be more patient with us.

TRY THE big prawn noodles ($3-$20)

After braving the long queue at lunchtime, go all-out and order the $20 bowl of prawn noodles. Most people choose to have their noodles on the side, tossed in a spicy and sour chilli sauce and topped with lots of fried shallots and lard. But the star of the show is, of course, the glistening soup. The rich crustacean broth is definitely the best we’ve had.

Tat Kee Noodle Stall
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Tat Kee Noodle Stall has closed permanently.

Yong Tat Chen (left), 80, and his wife, Chay Ah Ho, 70

As told by Yong Tat Chen: 

I started with a pushcart outside the old Pek Kio Community Centre, back in 1975. Since then, I’ve moved five times around the area, and I’ve been at this location for 13 years now. Before cooking, I used to work in an office ’til I was about 30. 

My grandfather used to sell wonton noodles. He taught me his recipe, but I made some changes to it. Even today, I come in at 5 every morning to make all the dumplings and char siew. I get my noodles from the same supplier I’ve been going to for many years.

I don’t find being a hawker very challenging, maybe because I’m used to it after all these years. My children have asked me to retire, but I’d have nothing to do at home and would be very bored. 

The government knows we’ve been doing this for many years so they don’t increase our rent by the thousands. We only pay a few hundred more every year so we take our earnings as a form of pocket money – at least it’s something to do.

Once I retire
, I’ll pass the stall down to my daughter. It’ll be up to her to decide how she wants to develop it. If she wants to sell something other than wonton mee, I’m alright with that, too. I’ll take things a day at a time. I don’t need to think so much about the future. 

My children have grown up and I have a lot of grandchildren so I think life’s good right now. When my friends ask me to go for a holiday with them, I close the shop and go for a break. There’s no need to worry too much.

TRY THE dumpling noodles ($3-$4)

These plump dumplings are stuffed with minced pork, prawns, mushrooms and carrots, just like how your grandma used to make ’em. Have them with soup or served with more than enough noodles – the owners say they get a lot of the office crowd and want to make sure their customers are full – and some greens.

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