Early-bird hawkers

Early-bird hawkers

It is 2am and on the streets, there are people staggering home after a night out in clubs and bars, and others who have just ended a late shift at work or are gearing up for an early shift.

Most people are sound asleep but not hawker Loh Teck Seng, who is busy at his soya bean milk stall at Tiong Bahru Market And Food Centre.

He is among a group of hawkers who open for business in the wee hours of the morning and then pack up in the early afternoon.

Over a span of three days, SundayLife! visited 18 hawker stalls whose opening hours range from as early as 2am and close no later than 3pm. Most of them do brisk business before most of Singapore wakes up.

Mr Loh, 60, says he cooks batches of soya bean milk at his stall, Teck Seng Soya Bean Drinks, from midnight to 5am.

He says: "It can get extremely busy from 6.30am onwards, and if I start late, I cannot finish making my batches in time."

As customer traffic is not as brisk before 6am, he can cook the soya bean milk and curd and sell them at the same time. He has been operating his stall from 2am to 2.30pm for more than 30 years.

Hawkers interviewed say their customers are workers who have just ended late-night shifts or have early morning shifts. They include taxi drivers, police officers, 24-hour restaurant operators and wet market stallholders. Nightclub patrons also make up the pack.

Among this mix of customers, the majority are regulars who have been patronising the stalls for years.

Poultry seller Stanley Yow, 44, who opens his stall between 3am and 4am at Tiong Bahru market, buys breakfast from Teck Seng Soya Bean Drinks, fried dough stall Xi De Li or Yuan Ji Fishball Noodle, all of which open before 5am.

He says: "It's good that these stores open early because where else can you find food so conveniently at this hour?"

Some of the hawkers enjoy brisk business during these early hours.

One of them is Mr Teo Chai Kim, 53, who runs a porridge and noodle stall in a coffee shop in Bukit Panjang. It opens at 2am.

He sells the Koka brand of instant noodles cooked in pork broth and customers can add ingredients such as pork slices, minced pork, eggs and seafood such as prawns.

It is a hit with youngsters and the hawker says he sells more than 50 bowls between 2 and 3am.

When SundayLife! visited the coffee shop at 2.30am, there were about 15 people, ranging from teenagers to young adults, devouring the noodles. His stall had a regular stream of customers.

Student Ho Zhong Yu, 19, who was there at 3am and lives nearby, says he goes there to eat when he has to stay up late to complete assignments.

Student Kasey Lim, 22, who goes there once or twice a week in the wee hours for supper, says: "His noodles taste better than the normal instant noodles you cook at home. I come here because it's the only stall I know of that is open at this time."

Others hawkers have changed their hours to meet the increasing number of early risers.

Mr He Mei Fai, 43, whose stall, Pin Xiang Noodles, in Toa Payoh has been around for over 20 years, says his operating hours used to be from 6am to 2pm and 5pm to 11pm, but are now from 4.30am to 11am.

He decided to open earlier after having to turn away customers who would often show up before 6am.

On good days, he can sell between 20 and 30 plates of wanton noodles from 4.30am to 5.30am and says he no longer operates at night because his daily target can usually be met from just opening in the morning.

At the market and food centre at Block 112, Jalan Bukit Merah, seven stalls out of 22 are open for business by 5am.

Two of them, Jit Man Prawn Noodle And Lor Mee and a no-signboard stall which sells minced pork and fishball noodles, start at 3.30am daily without fail.

Ms Serene Teo, 50, who owns Jit Man Prawn Noodle And Lor Mee, says it is common for stalls at the food centre to open very early because of the poor afternoon crowd.

"It gets really quiet here from about 1pm and traffic slows down, so we usually close then and depend on our morning sales." Though she gets only about three to five customers at 4am, business picks up at around 6am.

School cleaner Hui Yew Hoo, 70, whose morning shift starts at 6.30am, says: "I come here at 4.30am to buy prawn mee to take away for breakfast as I don't like to queue and fight with a crowd later on."

Taxi driver Yeo San Teck, 55, adds that he usually drives to Redhill Porridge at Redhill Food Centre to eat after his night shift ends at 4am.

"Many taxi drivers frequent these haunts in coffee shops and hawker centres over 24-hour fast food places or restaurants because the food is much cheaper and tastes good."

The queue at the stall when SundayLife! visited at 5.30am last Wednesday was testament to its overwhelming popularity.

The stall owner wanted to be known as just Mr Han and would only say that his stall, which opens at 5.15am, does not need any more publicity as he is unable to cope with the current demand. He sells out before 8.30am every day.

Having to wake up at the witching hour to prepare their ingredients does not deter these hawkers, who say they are used to it after years of operation.

Madam Ngern Kah Cheng, 65, of Tanglin Halt Delicious Duck Noodles, says she has been getting up at 1am every day to prepare for her stall's 4am opening since 1969, when she started the business.

Closing in the early afternoon has its advantages, as hawkers say they can go home earlier to rest and have more time to prepare for the next day.

Mr He of Pin Xiang Noodles says going home earlier allows him to spend more time with his children and cook them dinner. He has a daughter, 19, and a son, 16.

Housewife Lee Cheng Toh, 54, says: "I always knew there were places that opened late but never knew there were ones that opened so early."

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