29-year-old Chinese hawker selling mala noodles in Singapore after mum's death: 'Focus on my food, not my story'

PHOTO: AsiaOne

With Singapore's hawker culture officially added to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, AsiaOne takes a look at young hawkers who snub the corporate rat race to slave over stoves instead.

It's usually a case of 'the more publicity, the better', when it comes to media attention in Singapore's competitive F&B landscape.

So we were surprised when our request for an interview with office worker-turned-hawker Wei Liang Chen was met with some trepidation.

Right off the bat during our interview, the 29-year-old Jiangsu native hesitantly asked if we could focus less on his personal backstory and more about his food.

To provide some background, Liang Chen's mum was diagnosed with Stage 3 pancreatic cancer in January 2018. The Singaporean PR took no-pay leave from his job as an operations technician here, dedicating a full year to her care back home in China. The 64-year-old died in December that year.

A local TV show on Singapore's young hawkers last year latched on to Liang Chen's heartrending story. "But because they only had seven minutes for my feature, they decided to focus on the story about my mum instead," shared Liang Chen.

The focus of the attention made him uncomfortable and in his own words, "a bit embarrassed".

"Many people have gone through what I did, I never thought it was anything worth mentioning," said the Temasek Polytechnic graduate, who first came to Singapore in 2009.

His mum's illness was a stressful time for the then-26-year-old, who had to help inject her with morphine nightly when the pain got too much.

Wei Liang Chen shaved his head as a show of solidarity when his mum was undergoing chemotherapy. PHOTO: Wei Liang Chen

Liang Chen described how she was so weak towards the end "that she couldn't physically wake me up at night".

"Instead, she'd call me using the phone and I'd rush over to her room to administer the jab."

He also began cooking for her as well as taking care of his dad's needs.

At that point, for Liang Chen the thought of becoming a hawker had yet to cross his mind. But after his mum passed and he returned to Singapore, Liang Chen realised he could no longer take the punishing schedule of his office job.

"I had to do overnight shifts in my job, but in 2018 because of my mum's illness where I was up nearly every night, I found that my body couldn't take it anymore."

That was when his thoughts drifted to opening his own business.

During the months that he cooked for his mum, she would give him her feedback and also passed to him recipes for her prized dishes. One of the main ingredients of the noodles at Liang Chen's stall — the minced meat sauce — is adapted from her recipe.

PHOTO: Wei Liang Chen

The idea to bring a taste of Chongqing's famous mala noodles to Singapore was in part due to a memorable trip he'd taken to Sichuan province with some friends in 2015.

"I tried the noodles there for the first time and was impressed.

"I thought wow, this is so tasty, it's even better than mala hotpot," said Liang Chen, his eyes lighting up at the memory. After he made up his mind to quit, he flew to Chongqing to apprentice under a noodle master there.

Opening his stall on his mother's death anniversary

PHOTO: AsiaOne

Liang Chen chose to open his Da Shao Chongqing Xiao Mian stall at Upper Boon Keng Food Centre on the first anniversary of his mum's death. The drawing of peony blossoms on the signboard is a representation of her name. 

Liang Chen shared that the money for the stall was pooled from a portion of the donations from the funeral, his mum's savings, and funds from his elder sister, who lives in Shanghai.

But why the name Da Shao (literally translated as "master")? The former ping pong champ filled us in that the nickname was coined with some derision by his childhood table tennis coach. "I would always be running late and my parents would be helping me wear my shoes on the sidelines as I ate my breakfast.

"My coach was quite unhappy about it," said Liang Chen, laughing at the memory. "But the nickname stuck."

A pampered young master Liang Chen sure isn't, at least not now.

Being a first-time hawker meant there were some missteps along the way. From burning his hands on the industrial stove to getting customers' orders wrong, Liang Chen also revealed that the rent he is currently paying is about double the market rate for the area. 

"It's more than $2,000," said Liang Chen, blaming his high bidding price on inexperience and impulsivity. And it is a burden that he'd have to shoulder for two more years before the price can be adjusted.

As for taking the wrong orders due to miscommunication, it's a valuable learning experience that Liang Chen cherishes.

"One auntie was very angry that there was no 'liao' (meat) in the Chongqing noodles when I said there was. But in China, 'liao' just means ingredients or seasoning," said Liang Chen, laughing at the memory. "Another customer asked for 'spicy, a bit' in Chinese when she wanted it less spicy, but I took it to mean the opposite.

"I replaced her bowls of noodles after she complained," he added.

“You think you know the local culture and customs but you really don’t. You have to experience it before you learn," he shared. 

Going solo

Each morning, Liang Chen makes the 50-minute trek from his rented room in Tampines to his Boon Keng stall at around 9am before making the return journey 12 hours later, often reaching home past 10pm.

Running the stall single-handedly from preparation, cooking to cleaning is no mean feat, and while the truth is that he can't afford to hire a helper at the moment, Liang Chen told us he prefers it that way.

"If I do everything myself, I can be sure that it is done to my standards. I'm confident that the cutlery is clean and each bowl of noodles is made from the heart."

Being accountable for the food he puts out is also the reason why he shaved his head earlier this year to sport the typical "number one" NSman close-cropped hairstyle.

"I found a strand of hair while washing the bowls, and while it's not mine, I realised it'll be terrible if my hair were to accidentally fall into the food," said Liang Chen.

His sincerity also shows in the post-it notes he sticks onto takeaway boxes, each with a personalised message.

PHOTO: Wei Liang Chen

"After all we're still in the midst of the pandemic, so I try to write some words of encouragement for everyone," said Liang Chen.

Of the dark days during the circuit breaker period, Liang Chen recalled that at its worst, he sold just nine bowls the entire day. But the experience has only made him more determined.

“Even if business is bad now in the afternoon, I’d tell myself 'it’s ok, I’ll wait for the evening crowd'. And if the crowd still doesn’t come, I'd think 'it’s ok, the day is not over'."

But he acknowledged that business has been looking up after the TV broadcast and from coverage on social media channels.

Said Liang Chen of the response after the TV programme aired: “It did bring in a lot of customers and I’m very happy for their support.”

One gets the sense that he is careful that his words don’t come off as sounding ungrateful.

“But the customers that came in seemed to look at me with sympathetic eyes, like I’m this poor fellow whom they feel compassionate towards,” he said. 

“An auntie who patronised my stall told me that my story made her heart ache,” added Liang Chen, recounting that he "felt bad for making her feel that way.”

It doesn’t help that in his eyes, the proliferation of sob stories in the media can be off-putting. “There are many others who are worse off than me.

“I really hope that new customers will want to come for a taste of my noodles, and not for my story.”

He admitted that after being in Singapore for so long, it feels like home now, even though he is all alone here with few friends.

“I’m used to life here. I feel the culture, people and lifestyle suit me better. I plan to make my days here worth living and don't plan to return to China unless my father needs me."

"My focus for now is to create a good bowl of noodles," said the bachelor, who shared that he doesn't plan to date or find a girlfriend.

"I’m a guy who really enjoys the solo life. I’m single but not available, because all my passion and focus is on my shop."

The food: Comforting and hearty with a fiery kick

PHOTO: AsiaOne

The meat-less Chongqing mala noodles may be his signature dish, but we opted for the recommended best-seller, minced meat noodles or zha jiang mian — noodles with minced pork in soy bean sauce. 

The noodles are available in three sizes here, from $3 to $4 for the Chongqing mala, and $4 to $5 for the zha jiang mian. An additional fried egg — cooked with olive oil, no less — costs an additional 50 cents. 

Liang Chen told us that he uses four different types of chilli that he sourced from China to make the fiery chilli oil he fries himself. He has also made the sauce less salty to cater to the local palate.

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We guessed that it may be a tall order to get the mostly elderly crowd we saw at the sleepy hawker centre warmed up to his offerings. True enough, Liang Chen shared that his regular customers are mainly those in their 20s and 30s who are more acquainted to the stronger Chongqing flavours.

We love that it is a hearty bowl of noodles cooked to the right firmness, and slathered with a generous amount of sauce. Singaporean tastebuds will also appreciate the tinge of sweetness in his mum's meat sauce recipe that has a depth of flavour from the spices used.

And while personally, we are not a big fan of the numbing sensation caused by Sichuan peppercorns, there is a good balance between the 'ma' (numb) and 'la' (spicy).

Good news for those who can't take the heat or love it mind-numbingly spicy — you can customise your bowl to be less or more fiery, and as we learned later, with or without the 'ma'.

Where: Da Shao Chongqing Xiao Mian, No. 17, Upper Boon Keng Road, #01-81, S380017

Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday to Sunday, 10.30am to 8pm. Closed Tuesdays.