From being clueless on what to do with a whole raw batang (mackerel) fish, she now can gut, clean and fillet it deftly, all by herself.
After her Singaporean husband died from lung cancer five years ago, then 29-year-old Vietnam-born Mai Thi Ngoc Yen was left to pick up the mantle and be the sole breadwinner of the family.
With three young daughters and few other options, she decided to take over the fish soup hawker stall which her husband started. The stall, Hai Kee Seafood, is located at Blk 210, Toa Payoh Lorong 8 Market & Hawker Centre.
According to Shin Min Daily News, the 34-year-old lady boss, who prefers to be known as Ah Yen, had come to Singapore in 2008 to look for work opportunities.
At a friend's introduction, the 19-year-old met her husband who was working as a fishmonger then. The couple subsequently fell in love and got married.
Sadly, her husband was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in October 2018 and died within six months.
A month after his death, and with no other alternative income sources, Yen decided to resume business at the fish soup stall.
She explained that as her mother was also a hawker selling pho (Vietnamese noodles), she had some experience in the trade.
"After I got married, I would also help out at the stall. But to manage the stall I had to know how to do everything," said Yen. This included learning how to prep and slice a whole fish — hard work which her husband never let her take on.
"The first day that I opened the stall, the fish was on the chopping board and I didn't know what to do with it," expressed Yen. Through some hard knocks, and recalling how her husband used to break down the fish, she eventually learned to do it herself.
Yen, who's now Singaporean, shared that she still uses the same recipe from her late husband. The stall, which is opened Monday to Saturday from 11am till 8pm, also continues to attract a pool of regular customers, she told Shin Min Daily News.
When AsiaOne patronised the stall on a Tuesday evening (March 28), there was still a steady stream of customers, with two or three people helping out at the stall. What stood out were the generous portions in each bowl, with prices of most items starting from $5.
Although profit margins have thinned due to her preference for using fresh fish that is delivered to the stall instead of heading to the market like her husband did, Yen isn't complaining.
"It is enough to raise my three daughters, so I'm satisfied," she added. Yen runs the stall with the help of an assistant, but her three daughters, aged eight, 12 and 14, regularly pop by the stall to help out, reported 8days.
Yen told Shin Min Daily News that she doesn't allow the youngest to handle too-difficult tasks, for fear she might get scalded. She also expressed gratitude for relatives and friends who rallied around them in support following her husband's death.
"With life back on track, I managed to hire a helper two years ago to help take care of my father-in-law and children," said Yen.
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