Stay focused. Do not look at the customers staring daggers at you as your trembling hand weighs 1kg of bak kwa.
That was one of the many lessons I learnt from a gruelling day's work at popular bak kwa brand Lim Chee Guan's flagship outlet in New Bridge Road in the heart of bustling Chinatown.
With no prior training, I was thrown into the thick of the action just half an hour after the shop opened at 9am on Wednesday last week.
Senior staff member Wong Kim Fah, 33, had the unenviable task of being my supervisor for the day.
My tasks included weighing, wrapping, packing, sealing and grilling bak kwa. Simple enough, I thought, until I discovered the intense speed at which the Lim Chee Guan staff were working at.
With about a week to Chinese New Year, there is a queue of about 100 people at any given time of the day, said Mr Wong, who has spent 13 years with the company. Lim Chee Guan itself was established in 1938 by the late Lim Kay Eng and is now run by his son, Mr Rod Lim, 61. It has two other branches, in People's Park Complex and Ion Orchard.
Customers gave me frustrated stares as I took 10 seconds too long to weigh 500g of the caramelised pork slices. It was nerve-racking to see people, who started queuing as early as 6am, give you the evil eye. People impatient for their bak kwa can spot a slow-moving newbie from 50m away.
Packets of barbecued meat started piling up because I was too slow to shove them into bags for sealing. I heard a weary sigh from the cashier when I failed to seal bags fast enough. Press too hard on the sealing machine and the bag could melt from the heat. Don't press hard enough and it does not seal properly.
Even when I accidentally dropped a small piece of bak kwa on the floor, there wasn't time to apologise or ponder the gravity of my mistake. One of the staff noticed and wordlessly kicked it away. Five seconds later, it was like nothing ever happened.
I never felt slower in my entire life, even though I was moving as quickly as I could.
Throw in the high volume of bak kwa ordered and my head was spinning after a few orders.
In the lead-up to Chinese New Year, this flagship outlet limits buyers to 50kg of barbecued pork slices a person. The other two outlets have set lower limits of 15kg and 3kg respectively. Limits vary during the festive period, depending on the supply available. It costs $52 for 1kg of bak kwa during the Chinese New Year period, compared to $46 on normal days.
Complicated orders slowed down the retail process. For example, one order required me to split 100kg of bak kwa into 61kg (wrapped in 500g portions), 38kg (1kg portions) and 1kg (200g portions). Oh, and split the bill of at least $5,000 among four credit cards, please.
I now have the utmost respect for Lim Chee Guan staff, a mix of part-timers and full-timers who have been working with the brand for more than 10 years.
All of them were calm and collected in the face of impatient customers, even when dealing with difficult buyers and the odd complaint of people "cutting queue". When customers cut queue, the protocol is for a member of the staff to go out and ask them to join the queue.
My comrades in bak kwa-selling worked like a well-oiled machine. They had the routine down pat, each action part of a time-saving strategy, from the displaying of bak kwa in the most mouth-watering way on trays (put nicely cut square pieces on top) to the folding of the merchandise in grease-proof paper into the perfect parcel (the trick is in folding and tucking the paper in swiftly).
Pity, they had to cope with me - the spanner in the works.
It turned out that what I was most concerned about - grilling bak kwa - was actually not so stressful, even though I burnt a few pieces. The heat of the charcoal fire was nothing compared to the searing gaze of anxious, restless customers.
During the Chinese New Year period, bak kwa is grilled on a 24-hour basis at Lim Chee Guan's factory at Pandan Loop, to cope with the volume required. But on normal days, the staff are trained to grill the pork slices too.
I worked up a sweat as I spent about an hour throwing pre-marinated bak kwa on the fire and constantly flipping each piece with the help of Mr Wong, who doublechecked that each piece was cooked properly and not too charred.
There is no timer to monitor the cooking of the bak kwa but it takes about five minutes to cook each piece. The slices are cooked when the fat in each piece has been rendered, caramelising the meat.
Away from the crowd, Mr Wong finally lightened up and said that I was "okay" for a newbie. "Perhaps I can hire you next year," he added.
Then, in a very grave tone, he advised: "If you are working tomorrow, you'd better sleep early tonight. If not, you won't be able to move."
Another senior member of staff, Mr Lai Chee Kean, 28, joked: "Do you have articles to write? Tell your editor you can't. You need a massage."
They were not kidding.
It took every ounce of strength for me to drag myself to work the next day. My body, especially my right arm and shoulder, cried out in agony. I am relieved, though, to be writing stories instead. Fast-paced as the newsroom is, it is a breeze compared to the literal and psychological heat of selling bak kwa.
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