A look inside the lives of handsome hawkers

Five of Singapore's best-looking male hawkers tell us how being a hawker has affected their spending power, family life, and yes, their romantic prospects

The young entrepreneur
The young entrepreneur
27 Apr 2016

The young entrepreneur

Douglas Ng, Fishball Story

If you know Fishball Story, you might not know that its 25-year-old owner makes thousands of fishballs by hand every day at the break of dawn. For Douglas Ng, who started Fishball Story when he was 22, all the hard work is worth it. He’s always been the risk-taker in his family anyway, and for someone who doesn’t have a hawker background or culinary degree, he’s done well for himself. 

How did you learn how to be an entrepreneur? 

It started when I was sitting in a coffee shop with my friend during the wee hours, and I saw this old uncle alighting a taxi. He was carrying really heavy stuff, so I went forward to help him. The bags were so heavy! I peaked inside and saw it was actually fishballs. It was then that I felt something — that it was a special moment. Before that, I had already been thinking of starting a fishball business and now here was this uncle. It was like destiny. I started talking to him and he told me the fishballs were handmade, then he shared his story with me. 

Was he the one who showed you the ropes? 

I helped out at his fishball stall the week that his staff was off. That week I only slept for three hours a day. I had to be at his stall from 2 AM to 10 AM, and during the daytime I worked at a restaurant. I was really tired but I looked forward to helping him every day.

Why fishballs?  

My grandma got the recipe from a Teochew fishball master, and she made it at home twice a year. I just wanted to have it more often. I picked up the skill from her and it me took four months to master the recipe. Every time I wanted to start a F&B business, the fishball would come to mind. Then I met the uncle. So I thought why not give it a shot? We use 100% fish meat. To me, authentic fishballs taste like this. I just want to serve what I feel is authentic and traditional. 

The young entrepreneur
The young entrepreneur
27 Apr 2016

The young entrepreneur

When did you know you had something good?

My family, just the five of us, we can eat 100 fishballs. You can just keep going because it’s really good. I enjoy it still, even when I make 3000 to 4000 fishballs every day. I can do it with my eyes closed now. 

What keeps this job challenging and interesting to you? 

I opened two shops in four months. I used to just serve 300 portions a day, and now I’m serving three times more. As you expand it’s difficult to keep up the quality. My staff is older than me, and it’s difficult to earn older people’s respect when you’re young. “I’m 67 years old, I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, why would I listen to a 25-year-old?” So I always use sincerity and kindness toward them. 

Does having good looks help your business? 

I don’t think I have good looks, but at my hawker stall we would get customers coming in leaving their numbers and Facebook. I still think it’s the product and the story — those are the reasons customers want to come. 

What is the one quality a girl has to have in order to date someone in your line of business? 

She has to be independent. 

Fishball Story is located at Timbre+ 73A Ayer Rajah Crescent, Singapore 139957, and at 2 College Avenue West #02-01, Stephen Riady Center, University Town @ NUS, Singapore 138607.

The hawker by heritage
The hawker by heritage
27 Apr 2016

The hawker by heritage

Michael Ker, Kway Guan Huat Original Joo Chia Popiah & Kueh Pie Tie

Michael Ker, 40, gave up his pharmacist job to sell popiah. Kway Guan Huat Original Joo Chia Popiah & Kueh Pie Tie was started by his grandfather with $15, and Michael wasn’t about to let the family business end on his watch. As a third generation popiah skin maker, Michael grew up watching his father mix, twist, and twirl popiah dough into paper-thin, chewy perfection by hand. Now in its 78th year, Kway Guan Huat Original Joo Chia Popiah & Kueh Pie Tie continues to grow, with Michael opening another stall in Singapore Polytechnic School of Design to bring a taste of Singapore's rich food heritage to youngsters. 

How old were you when your dad started teaching you the trade?

I was around 14 years old but it was like a fun thing then. I was interested, intrigued. During the school holidays I would loiter around the store and pick up bits of skills here and there. It was more like me wanting to learn. My dad wasn’t really keen because he thought it was better for me to concentrate on my studies. It was only after I showed my desire to learn that he saw there was potential in me, then he started teaching me.

What was it that intrigued you and made you want to learn?

During that time I lived upstairs and downstairs was my father’s shop. Naturally I would come down and see my dad working. If you watch people making popiah skin, it’s actually a pretty spectacular thing. We have a lot of tourists coming in to take a look. It amazed me as well, the skin-making, and the fact that it was like a show. People loved to watch. They are intrigued by it so as a kid you feel like you want to be a part of it too. 

The hawker by heritage
The hawker by heritage
27 Apr 2016

The hawker by heritage

Now that you’ve learned the craft of making popiah skin and are an expert by this point, does the job ever feel boring?

It can get really monotonous. If you look at the process, you have to stand there for three hours just for the skin. That said, a popiah skin maker can always be better. Is the pan hot enough? How do you thin it? You need to think about how to better yourself. I still have to think about it at this point. It’s not just moving your arms, it’s the manipulation of your fingers and joints, the delicate control. It takes one year to learn, a lifetime to master.

What does a girl have to be prepared for if she wants to date someone in your line of business?

You know they say Singaporean women are materialistic so I’m glad that my wife is understanding. We married when I was a practicing pharmacist and I actually took a pay cut doing this. It’s not a high esteem thing. If you look at the status aspect, it’s basically a hawker job. A person who isn’t proud of his heritage or doesn’t know the importance of tradition and the values he was brought up upon will think it’s just a hawker job. That’s why it might not be appealing to all.

Do you work out? Seeing as this is a labour intensive job, do you think making popiah skin helps you keep fit as well?

I do go to the gym around four times a week, however lifting 25 kg bags of flour during my course of work builds strength and muscle too.

Kway Guan Huat Original Joo Chia Popiah & Kueh Pie Tie is located at 95 Joo Chiat Road, Singapore 427389

From school dropout to head chef and Audi owner
From school dropout to head chef and Audi owner
27 Apr 2016

From school dropout to head chef and Audi owner

Chris Eng, Star Yong Kwang BBQ Seafood 

Chris Eng, 21, dropped out of school when he was 16 to help his parents with their hawker stall. They had just opened and a lot was on the line: If their business didn’t succeed, they were going to lose their house.

Today, Star Yong Kwang BBQ Seafood has grown to be the largest stall in Alexandra Village Food Centre, occupying three stalls with up to 10 employees. Chris drives an Audi, is the head chef, and is in the process of taking over the business.

What was it like quitting school to help at your dad’s stall?

When my dad started this business it was quite risky. We mortgaged our house to get a loan. The business was not very good then - we were just beginning. I had to help. I started learning how to cook since I was 10, so by 16 I knew how to cook. Even though it was a few months before my O-Levels, I dropped out and did my O-Levels as a private candidate. The hard part was juggling work and my studies. I would get off work at nearly midnight, and then go home to study. At first my parents didn’t really support my decision because they thought it was quite a waste but I told them I had to help ease the burden. I have two younger sisters. Even if I did very well with my O-Levels, if this business failed I wouldn’t be happy.

What are some crazy things that have happened at work?

I literally ate salted egg pork ribs for three months straight every day. That’s one of my inventions and I kept trying to improve the taste, then I got good feedback. I created it and now it’s really popular.

Another time when I was an apprentice, I used my hands to pick up hot plate tofu. I didn’t know it was burning already. Two of my fingers were totally burned - my skin just stuck to the plate. 

From school dropout to head chef
From school dropout to head chef
27 Apr 2016

From school dropout to head chef

What do you think is a misconception about young hawkers?

I actually have people who look down on my job. To defend it, I would say it’s my passion to cook. I’m a hawker now, then if I do really well, I can branch out into a restaurant. But even if I succeed in branching out, I would still tell people proudly that I started as a hawker first. This is my root. This is the place that started my success. I bought my own car and stay in quite a big house - another one, not the one that was mortgaged - these are the achievements that I got from this place. Without this business we wouldn’t have this house.

What do you think are the advantages of your job versus your friends who work a normal 9-to-5?

Being in an office can be quite mundane. Inside here, you have to experiment like in a lab. Try different tastes, if people don’t like your food then how do you improve it? My job is more the handling of food, handling what people need. To me it’s more challenging and interesting. If you see people who like your food and come back again and become friends, then it’s quite satisfying.

In the hawker business you also meet all kinds of people from different eras, different groups. A lot of very rich people eat here too and say the taste is better than in a hotel. I think it’s because hawker centres have been around for decades so some of them grew up eating this kind of local food. Even if they become successful they still enjoy the food they ate when they were kids.

Star Yong Kwang BBQ Seafood is located at Alexandra Village Food Centre, 127 Bukit Merah Lane 1, Block 127, Singapore 150127

The ambitious honours grad
The ambitious honours grad
27 Apr 2016

The ambitious honours grad

Abdhus Salam, Abdhus Salam Rojak 

Abdhus Salam, 29, is an Honours grad who's living his dream of selling Indian rojak. You could say it's his calling; his father has been making rojak by hand for decades, naming his hawker stall Abdhus Salam Rojak when Abdhus was just a little boy. When his father experienced health problems, Abdhus left his job as an assistant engineer to take over the stall. In fact, he went beyond and opened Ministry of Rojak, an expansion of Ahdhus Salam Rojak. Married with one child and another one on way, Abdhus plans to continue the journey his father started.

You left your job as an assistant engineer to take over your father’s rojak business. Was it a hard decision?

My father suddenly had chest pain, a slight heart problem, and after that he wasn't as active as before. I felt something then: My father worked so hard to build this rojak business. Without fail he'd start prepping at 3 AM and come out at 11 PM. We had the King of Kings title when we won the City Excellence Hawker Award by City Gas. All these scenarios were running through my head. I was thinking what if something happens and my father is not there? What is going to happen to Abdhus Salam Rojak? All the effort would be wasted. That's when I was inspired to take over and keep this business going, expand it and make it a franchise. To make it an international brand -- that's my dream.

Was everyone supportive of your jump into the hawker business?

There were a few family members who said, "Oh you studied so much, you have a degree, you got Honours, and you want to be a hawker. You’re going back to your father's past. Your father worked so hard for you to not be like that." But for me I am thinking far; it can be hard now but in the future once you stabilise and expand, you can have an even better life than an ordinary job.

The ambitious honours grad
The ambitious honours grad
27 Apr 2016

The ambitious honours grad

Any advice for girls who want to date or marry a hawker?

The girls need to be prepared to have the hawker perfume. Your outward appearance would be a bit messy. Being a hawker, if your business is really good that day then instead of closing at 10 PM you can close at 7 PM, so you can suddenly plan something last minute. But the guy won't have time to go home and freshen up, put on cologne. The guy is tired, he went through a lot of practical work that day. One look and you can see. The hair will be messy.  Some of the girls will be thinking, "My fiancé has food stains on his shirt." But you have to accept it because the nature of the hawker business is like that. You want to go to a movie but be prepared for that untidy look.

Another thing is sometimes the guy will be trying to visualise the future. Every hawker wants to expand -- that's the next level. The girl must be able to discuss the planning stage because it's all for the future.

Would you want your kids to take over the business in the future?

I would really encourage my children to take over one day, but I won’t force them to. I will show them the structure of the business but it must come naturally.

Does having good looks make a difference for your business?

Most of it is based on the food -- the taste and quality. But in terms of publicity having good looks can make a difference. People like good looking chefs.

Abdhus Salam Rojak is located at Ayer Rajah Hawker Centre, 503 W Coast Dr, Singapore 120503

Ministry of Rojak by Abdhus Salam Rojak is located at White Sands Shopping Centre, 1 Pasir Ris Central Street 3, Singapore 518457

The young hawker turned restaurateur
The young hawker turned restaurateur
27 Apr 2016

The young hawker turned restaurateur

Micah Jarrod Lim, MiCasa Kitchen & Bar

Grilled octopus served with lemon confit, pickled daikon and mustard dressing, seafood paella, roasted pork cheek with pickles and mustard dressing. Not something you would expect from a hawker stall, but at 26-year-old Micah Jarrod Lim's stall-turned-restaurant, MiCasa, these were all part of the menu.

Prior to opening MiCasa (now called MiCasa Kitchen & Bar), Micah attended culinary school in Paris and had roughly 10 years of professional and part-time cooking experience under his belt. At the restaurant, you might spy the 1.83m chef preparing wholesome Spanish food inspired by his travels to Barcelona.

When did you become interested in cooking?

It started at age 14. My grandma looked after me and she introduced me to cooking. A few of my family members were involved in a steamboat restaurant. I slowly progressed from waiter to dishwasher before working in one of the central kitchens, peeling onions and squeezing 40 kg bags of limes, wearing rubber gloves to prevent acid burns.

Is there anything you and your parents do to make your stall stand out?

My parents and I run Mi Casa like a family business. We interact with our customers. We sit them down and talk to them, put a 90 cent IKEA flower on the table. We like to embarrass the first dates. There was this student couple - you could tell it was a first date. We brought out the fake potted plant and some lights and said, “This is for your date.” The girl said, “We’re not on a date.” And the guy was like “…Crap.” 

How has your career as a hawker affected your love life?

I can easily say my love life, my personal life, is neck deep in cow crap. I just went on holiday overseas and couldn’t sleep most of the time because I left a lot of undone work. I was supposed to enjoy myself. I was in a hot spring bath, it was 4 degrees out, and it started snowing on the mountainside. I looked at it, thought, “That’s pretty… Oh I gotta call my guy later on.” 

The young hawker turned restaurateur
The young hawker turned restaurateur
27 Apr 2016

The young hawker turned restaurateur

You look like you really know what you are doing now, but what was it like in the beginning for you?

Oh man, you know sometimes you plan for things? I did a lot of mock up cooking at home to test my recipes but when I eventually cut and paste in the store, I was serving uncooked rice. It was still chalky, stuck between the teeth. But people were still buying it. I had to develop a way to properly cook the rice and it was only 11 months later that I figured out how to do that.

Do you think having good looks is an advantage in the hawker business?

In the hawker centre you look incredibly unattractive. You’re sweaty, your hair’s messy. But it’s not so much the physical appeal that brings people to my place. They’re coming back for the feeling I give them - and that feeling is me taking care of them. When a repeat customer says, “I don’t know what to order. You just cook what you want,” they have this reassurance that I’m not going to cheat their money.

What is it about food and cooking that makes you willing to sacrifice so much for it?

Everyone has their safe haven. Some do retail therapy, some go boxing, some get hookers, I cook. When I cook, it’s about me, the product, and the person consuming it. There’s absolutely no words to describe the feeling of having someone thank you for the food, the effort, the sweat, the time, the everything.

Micasa Kitchen & Bar, Micah's new restaurant, is located at 102C Jalan Jurong Kechil, Singapore 598602.

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