Longhouse lives on

Longhouse lives on

When a beloved hawker centre or coffee shop closes, there are usually laments from hawkers about finding a new place to do business, and from customers who will miss their favourite stalls.

The stallholders leaving the famous Longhouse food centre in Upper Thomson Road are a rather cheery lot, mostly because of what the owner has done to make moving out smooth.

The site was sold in January for $45.2 million to listed developer TEE Land and the centre's last day of operations is on April 20.

Instead of scattering here and there, the hawkers are likely to open in May at two locations. Six will set up shop at Balestier Market along Balestier Road, while five are moving to a coffee shop in Jalan Besar, near Jalan Besar Stadium. The owners of four other stalls, including Longhouse Roasted Meat and Asia Beef Noodle, have already vacated their stalls to look for new jobs or to return to their home countries.

Longhouse is run by Mr Ng Choon Gim, 62, whose late father bought the property for $678,000 in 1980.

The site was previously owned by oil giant Shell, which ran a petrol station there for more than 20 years. In 1980, fast-food chain A&W leased the site for eight years, followed by food court operator Kopitiam Group, which leased the premises for two years.

The premises were vacant from 1990 to 2000 when Longhouse set up shop there. Mr Ng took over the business eight years ago, and turned it into the successful food haunt it is today.

He bought new equipment for all the stalls, organised a central supply of ingredients, and also tested many other stalls before getting the current crop of hawkers that have, as he says, "stood the test of time".

He admits that the sale of Longhouse was "very sudden", so he looked for stalls the hawkers could move to, including a potential spot in China Street. The hawkers, who do not have any contracts with him, will also be able to take the equipment he bought for the stalls to their new premises.

He says that he encouraged those who have already left the food centre to look for other jobs, and gave them each a hongbao.

He hopes that the existing hawkers continue the Longhouse legacy after they move, by adding "Longhouse" to their signboards.

"It's my moral obligation to see them succeed," he says. "Being a hawker is a hard life and if they produce good food, they deserve the credit."

His Vietnam-born supervisors Vien Peh, 32, and Joey Kok, 28, who are Singapore permanent residents, have been helping him to manage the food centre. After the closure, they will continue to help the stalls moving to Jalan Besar.

Some of these include the popular Soon Kee Lor Duck Rice stall, Best Western Pasta & Grill, and Te Wei Popiah & Rojak.

Te Wei is run by husband-and-wife team Ong Tze Ghee, 41, who makes rojak, and wife Ong Wu Yun, 40, who makes popiah.

With the move to Jalan Besar, they are likely to sell only their popular rojak, as Mr Ong says that it is "too much work" to make popiah as well.

High rental is also a concern, Mrs Ong says.

She says in Mandarin: "Beginning at a new place can be tough. But as long as the food suits people, they will come back. We hope our regulars will remember us."

Mr Ong is the nephew of Mr Ong Tan Heng, 60, owner of Soon Kee Lor Duck Rice. To save costs, uncle and nephew will share the stall in Jalan Besar. The rent there is about $1,000 more than what the elder Mr Ong is paying at Longhouse.

He says: "I won't stop just because we have to move. I will continue working until I cannot work anymore. I was surprised when we heard the news, but at least the stalls are moving together."

Mr David Foo, 54, who runs Best Western Pasta & Grill, says: "We'll try and see how the new location works out. We have a stable crowd here, and I don't know what traffic there will be like. It will be a new challenge for us."

Balestier Market will welcome other popular stalls such as Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle, Bugis Street Chuen Chuen Chicken Rice and Boon Pisang Goreng.

Mr Tan Ah Hui, 68, of Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle, had initially considered moving to a coffee shop in Bishan, but decided to move with his fellow hawkers to Balestier instead.

He says: "The Bishan space was too small. I'm not worried about losing customers. Many have been eating our food since they were children. I hope to get new customers as well."

Mr Richard Ang of civil engineering company KTC Group, which manages Balestier Market, tells SundayLife! that the first stall from Longhouse, Longhouse Thai Cuisine, opens next month. The other stalls are likely to open by May.

The new tenants add to other new entrants such as Balestier Fish Soup, which moved there in February from Sungei Kadut industrial estate.

One of the workers at the stall, Ms Tay Bee Yong, 56, says: "We know that the Longhouse hawkers are coming here. Hopefully, that will increase the traffic. It can be quite quiet now because when diners come, they see that there are empty stalls. When there's more variety, people will come back."

Mr Ang is also looking to woo the tenants of other hawker centres, including those from hawker institution Lavender Food Square, which is slated to close later this year.

The hawker centre and the neighbouring Eminent Plaza will be replaced by ARC 380, a 16-storey freehold development with more than 160 office and retail units, slated to be ready by 2018.

Longhouse owner Mr Ng, a former property lawyer, says: "People ask me what's the secret to Longhouse. There is no secret. We have good ingredients, discipline and skills. I am pleasantly surprised that this place has become an institution. We constantly benchmark our food against the best in Singapore."

Will the standard of food remain high when the hawkers move? Diners that SundayLife! speak to are hopeful.

Housewife Maureen Goh, 53, who visits Longhouse every few weeks, says: "I'm glad that the hawkers informed us of where they are going. Many just end up disappearing. So I feel that they are clearly proud of their trade and will continue to do well."

Retired engineer Marcus Fong, 60, who lives in the Thomson area, says: "It is a pity to see Longhouse go. I do hope the food tastes the same in their new locations."

euniceq@sph.com.sg

Who's going where

Balestier Market
Where: 411 Balestier Road

Bugis Street Chuen Chuen Chicken Rice
What: Tender roast or white chicken with fragrant rice. It also has porridge options and side dishes such as chicken feet and Ipoh beansprouts.

Boon Pisang Goreng
What: Crispy fried banana fritters, as well as fried sweet potato and tapioca.

Day 'N' Night Herbal Soup
What: A variety of nourishing herbal soups.

Ah Hui Big Prawn Noodle
What: Dry and soup prawn noodle versions are available, and diners can also add pork ribs.

Rumah Panjang Nasi Padang
What: A variety of dishes for a hearty nasi padang meal. It will also serve ayam penyet at Balestier Market.

Long House Thai Cuisine
What: Thai dishes such as Thai-style crab vermicelli, seafood tom yam soup and pad thai.

Jalan Besar
Where: 100 Tyrwhitt Road (near Jalan Besar Stadium)

Soon Kee Lor Duck Rice
What: Tender braised duck rice with additional ingredients such as braised egg and peanuts.

Te Wei Popiah & Rojak
What: One of the best rojak stalls, with crispy you tiao, tau pok, pineapple and green apple. It will share the same shop space as Soon Kee, and is likely to stop selling popiah at the new stall.

Lucy Pang Yong Tau Foo
What: A wide selection of yong tau foo ingredients.

Long House Hawker Delight
What: The stall serves char kway teow, Hokkien mee and oyster omelette.

Best Western Pasta & Grill
What: Affordable Western cuisine such as chicken chop, fish and chips as well as pasta dishes.


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