Hawker Stall Owners

I used to wonder what a hawker’s life was like. Is it as tough as our parents make it out to be to scare us when we don’t study? How much do they cook every single day? What’s the pay like? These questions used to run through my mind whenever I queued up for Hokkien mee, orh lua, and of course, my favourite dish—chicken rice. But today, I don’t have to wonder anymore: I’ve got my mum to look to.

My mum’s first foray into the hawker business began when I was 16 and she was 59. Every few months, she’d tell me, “Not doing well, need to change idea.” I saw the signboard above our corner stall change three times; from Shi Chang Le Mixed Rice to Ho Kee Fried Fritters and finally Pin Xiang Chicken Rice.

My mum, Madam Tan Teng Teng, and big sister, circa 1980

Before my mum was an entrepreneur, she was a stay-at-home mum for 31 years. In the 90s, she bought a hawker stall to rent out with the idea that she could use it after retirement. As a child, I used to follow her on monthly trips to the old hawker centre to collect rent in big bags of 10c/20c coins. But at 60, my mum finally grew tired of collecting rent and entered the hawker business herself.

New Beginnings

Whenever I brought my friends to her fritter stall, she’d remark, “Aiya, don’t bring your friends la, here so noisy, so hot. Don’t come, don’t come” while taking orders from you tiao to red bean buns. But I never cared. I loved bringing my friends to her stall and taking some warm butterfly you tiao to go. As much as I loved the fritters, operational costs were high and they didn’t appeal so much to others. The business folded. Not too long after, the hawker centre closed for a revamp.

When the hawker centre reopened in 2014, my mum took charge of the stall and began selling mixed rice under Shi Chang Le Mixed Rice. Sadly, it received mixed reviews (pun intended). The variety of choices for mixed rice were innumerable, but the mixed rice they sold was nothing unique and they failed to break even. It was her second failed venture.

After brainstorming ideas for the next stall, she decided to venture into chicken rice with a business partner, Sam. Before the business took flight, there were many creases to iron out.

#1. Hiring workers
Hawker stalls aren’t allowed to employ foreigners, but everyone knows it isn’t easy to find locals who are willing to work the long hours of a hawker. She was constantly on the lookout for hardworking individuals with skills and a desire to learn.

#2. Making workers stay
12 hours a day for 6 days a week in a cramped little kitchen isn’t a life cut out for everyone and turnover rate is high. My mum tries to build a rapport with each of her workers, to be more of a friend than a boss. She’s physically present at the stall to help out. She eats supper with them. When they work late, she sends them home.

#3. Ensuring quality of food
“We cannot remove ingredients to cut cost. When we cut cost, the taste is gone. Selling good food means people are happy, and I only hope that people will be full, happy, and come back.” What keeps her going at her job is the magical feeling of seeing others happy.

When I look at throngs of customers queueing up at every hour for their signature Hainanese chicken rice, all I see is the result of sticking to your beliefs even when there’s always the “easier way out”.

Her Daily Routine

In the late morning, she orders vegetables and personally replenishes whatever each outlet needs. Some days, she tenders the cash register. On other days, she scoops bowls of soup. From chicken to Thai-style tofu, she makes sure each portion is just as big as the previous one.

When she’s not at the stall, she’s always making and receiving calls.

“Hey! The workers are complaining that the chickens are smaller this week you know.. Like that how to sell?” She’s always making sure her chickens are at least 2.2kg because that ensures big portions for every customer.

“John ah, where are you today? Are you coming for work? Late again ah, aiyo. Come soon okay, we need more people.” Latecomers mean less help, and less help means slower service. She does her best to ensure workers are not overworked.

“What happened between you and Xiaolong? Come, tell me, I will help both of you settle it.” Diplomacy is key in her role as boss, as she wants to ensure a happy work environment.

Aside from rushing to the busy Bedok stall, she also oversees her two other outlets (Ubi and Yishun).

During dinner time, she either cooks or buys food for her workers and always makes it a point to buy snacks for them to munch on so they don’t miss their meals. After the stall closes, my mum settles the business accounts while other workers continue to prepare for the next day of work. After they finish, they go out for supper. Subsequently, she sends workers home till midnight.

Even though my mum already has a lot on her plate, she’s planning for the expansion of her chain—another outlet will open at Terminal 4 in the second half of the year.

From Mum with Love

More important than the free chicken rice I get to eat, I’ve learnt valuable lessons schools don’t teach.

She tells me about the people she meets from all walks of life who encourage her to do better: the mother who says, “My son will not eat any other chicken rice except yours”, the family that returns every week to share a whole chicken, the girl who buys 10 packs of chicken rice fortnightly before returning to her job at Bedok Mall.

She’s inspired commitment and resilience in me, the inability to stop till I know I’ve done my best. She reminds me to be kind and fair to people, in the tender way she treats those around her. As my mother, she has always encouraged me to be a kind person, spurring me on to live my life in service of the larger community.

We can never predict the paths our lives will take. At 19, I don’t think my mum knew that she would ever own a chicken rice stall, let alone four of them. She reminds me that it’s okay to be unsure of what you want to do in life. She reminds me that it’s okay as long as you’re striving for the best in whatever you’re doing and thinking for others. She reminds me that there is no such thing as “I’m too old for this”, that you can always choose who you want to be, even at 60.