Sour sweet bitter spicy

Sour sweet bitter spicy

SINGAPORE - It's a quarter to four, and morning has not broken.

In the darkness, the HDB blocks in Beo Crescent - a small estate near Bukit Merah and Tiong Bahru - look like fluorescent-lit monoliths.

Outside the market and food centre, a stray siamese mix sits, still as a statue, staring into nothingness. A few metres away, four uncle-types sleep on concrete benches, one with his white singlet artfully rolled up over his firm, prosperous paunch.

The sound of rubber wheels crunching on pavement breaks the evocative quietness. A couple walk past in companionable silence: a diminutive grey-haired man in shorts and a white round-neck T-shirt, and a younger, more sturdily built woman pushing a shopping trolley filled with bags of meat and vegetables.

They stop outside Ho Pin Hng Coffee Shop at the foot of Block 40, just next to the market. They stoop in tandem - she on the left, he on the right - and work with their keys to lift the aluminium shutters of this shop, which has been around since 1964.

The darkness dissipates as the fluorescent lights come on, revealing time-worn mosaic flooring and old-fashioned baby blue wall tiles. It is fusty but the place has a beguiling dignity.

The woman kicks off her sandals and slips into a pair of rubber Wellies; the man unfurls a gravy-stained white apron and puts it on.

Almost immediately, Mr Pang Teow Chin, 67, and his wife, Madam Mo Zhuang E, 50, get themselves busy, washing woks, lighting stoves, cleaning squid, slicing fish, mixing spices and frying pork with rhythmic grace.

In just over two hours, an array of sauces and more than a dozen dishes - assam fish, crispy fried pork cutlet, braised pork belly, stewed cabbage, sambal squid, char siew - line their display counter at one end of the coffee shop.

Their stall - which has been around for nearly 25 years - has neither signboard nor name but foodies journey here from all corners of the island in search of a Hainanese curry rice fix. At lunch time on weekends, the line can be 30-people long, snaking from Ho Pin Hing to the hawker centre next door.

This brand of cooking flourished during colonial Singapore and was started by the Hainanese, whose culinary dexterity was prized by wealthy British and Peranakan families, who often hired them as cooks.

It explains why Hainanese curry rice staples include nonya dishes such as braised pork, assam fish and chap chye, as well as Western items such as pork chops and meat stews.

Also distinctive is the gravy, from spicy curry and piquant assam fish dressing to sweet braising sauce, heaped upon the rice and dishes.

"You must have suan tian ku la," says Mr Pang. In Mandarin, the phrase literally means "sour, sweet, bitter and spicy", but it is also an aphorism to describe life's joys and sorrows.

Once ubiquitous, Hainanese curry rice peddlers are now a disappearing facet of Singapore.

"It's not an easy life. You wake up early every morning, and you stand for hours every day cooking in front of the stove. Singaporeans want a simpler life and easier way of making money," he says with a rueful laugh.

The benign man, however, has known no other way of making a living.

"My parents were both from Hainan island and ran a curry rice stall in Market Street. In those days, many Hainanese came to Nanyang and just took to hawking," he says, using the Chinese name for South-east Asia.

None too academically inclined, Mr Pang dropped out of Ai Tong when he was in Primary 5. "I failed a lot of subjects and had to repeat a couple of years," adds the eldest of three sons, all of whom ended up in the same trade.

So at just 13 years old, he began working at his parents' stall.

Tough life

"I didn't know what else I could do. I was not very literate, and not strong either," he says.

It was a tough life.

"There were no machines. Everything was done by hand. If you wanted to mince meat, you just used two cleavers," he says, adding that the cooking was done at home in the middle of the night and the dishes taken to the coffee shop in a pushcart.

At 16, he took over the Market Street stall when his father fell sick, running it until the 1980s. He closed it because he found it difficult to find good help.

He worked as a cook until his second brother roped him in to start the stall in Beo Crescent in 1990.

Mr Pang took charge of the business in 1998. His second brother died of cancer in 2006, while his youngest brother, 63, has his own curry rice stall in ABC Food Centre in Bukit Merah.

Although Mr Pang did reasonably well, the business grew after Madam Mo - whom he married when he was 49 - came into the picture.

It was an arranged union.

"I actually never thought of getting married, but when I went on a trip to Hainan, relatives told me I was getting old and should have a wife who could look after me."

Madam Mo - 17 years younger and the eldest of five children of farmers in Hainan - was a good catch.

"She had worked in a coffee shop before and is not new to cooking or afraid of boiling oil and hot water. She's very hardy," he adds in piquant Mandarin.

"We developed feelings only after we got married," he says bashfully.

With great humour, Madam Mo - who completed her secondary education in China - says she got a raw deal because she has to work so hard in Singapore.

With a mock sigh, she says: "Jia ji sui ji, jia gou sui gou."

The Mandarin proverb means: "If you marry a chicken, follow the chicken; if you marry a dog, follow the dog."

More than just an able helper, the witty and affable woman has become his equal.

"She picks up things very naturally and easily. She's probably better at some of the dishes than me."

The couple, who share a tangible affection and camaraderie, live in a three-room HDB flat a stone's throw away from their stall and have two children. Their daughter, 18, is completing her pre-university studies at National Junior College and their son, 15, is a student at Outram Secondary School.

Except for Wednesdays when their stall is closed, their day begins at 4 each morning and does not end until the late afternoon.

Although they have five workers who help serve and prepare ingredients, the couple - who can sell up to 5kg of rice and 30kg of pork daily at the stall - do all the cooking themselves.

They cook twice a day, once before dawn and then at 10am.

"A lot of those who come in the mornings are labourers or do physical work. They need rice to help stave off the hunger pangs," says Mr Pang. "The office crowd comes during lunch."

Their fans run the gamut from rich towkays to students and celebrities. The couple have been known to charge the poor and the elderly less.

Mr Eric Khoo has been patronising the stall for more than 10 years.

"I love their crispy pork cutlets, and I ask them to ladle my favourite gravy on everything. It's really creative eating and is like playing with your food," says the film-maker, who is so taken up by the cuisine that he recently completed a telemovie, Recipe, which explores the relationship between an old Hainanese curry rice stallholder and her Western chef daughter.

Medical doctor and food blogger Leslie Tay agrees.

"Frankly, when there's so much gravy, the food looks like swill. But when you put it in your mouth, the combination works and magic happens," he says.

Mr Khoo desperately hopes the Pangs will pass on their recipes so that Singapore will not lose another culinary tradition when they decide to call it a day.

He says: "I get sad thinking about how we're losing so much amazing Singapore food because recipes are not handed down, and new generations are not taking over from their parents."

It's something that has been weighing on Mr Pang's mind.

"I will do this as long as I'm able to. But as you age, things become different. I'm getting tired more easily," he says.

Finding someone who is willing to put in the time and the effort is not easy. His children are not interested in taking over.

"It's happening all over Singapore. You just ask some of the stallholders in the market here; their children don't want to take over the business too. You can't be angry or sad. I'm happy as long as they study hard and go on to better things in life," says Mr Pang.

His wife adds: "It's very hard to get Singaporeans to do this sort of work. If I continue when he cannot do it any more, I'll do it on a smaller scale and change the opening hours. No more waking up in the middle of the night to cook."

It's 4pm. Ho Pin Hng is humming; its tables occupied by heartlanders nursing their favourite beverages.

Madam Mo tidies up the stall, while Mr Pang sits alone savouring China-brewed beer poured into a glass of ice, watching the world go by.

His day is done.

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