'Won' tough life

SINGAPORE - I appreciate hawkers so much more now.

The $3 I hand over for a plate of rice or a bowl of noodles seems measly compared to the amount of work they put in.

Being a hawker is backbreaking work and even though I was put through school by my parents who were hawkers, I never understood how tough the job was.

Until last Wednesday, when I spent the day as a hawker assistant.

We previously reported on Madam Linda Heng, 50, who owns the Da Jie Famous Wanton Mee stall, located in a Jalan Besar coffee shop.

She had offered $100 a day to a Singaporean or permanent resident to become her stall assistant, but there were few takers. Those who gave it a try didn't last a day, she said.

I was excited to give it a try and at the same time fearful that I would embarrass my parents. They used to run a stall at Simpang Bedok selling mainly soon kueh, but had to sell off the business after more than a decade because they could not make ends meet.

Still, they managed to raise my two younger sisters and me on that income.

I was nervous the night before my shift at Da Jie Famous Wanton Mee stall because I didn't want to humiliate my parents and myself.

I had to take a taxi from my home in Tampines because bus services don't start till 5.30am and I wouldn't be able to make it for the start of my 6.30am shift.

Madam Heng is at her stall at 4.30am every day, preparing for the long day ahead.


My first task was to slice 8kg of char siew.

Madam Heng showed me once first, with a precision and quickness I could not imitate.

I ended up slicing the pieces too thick and she had to show me how to do it again.

"Don't chop, slice. Move the knife forward and back, that way you don't have to use so much strength," she said, slicing the char siew into perfect 1mm pieces.

It was a lot easier after that.

She also introduced me to her husband Royston Nerva, 63, who has been helping her for the past two years, and her son Benedict, 25, a student who was on his semester break.

Gayle Nerva, 26, the singer-songwriter and now actress, is Madam Heng's daughter. Madam Heng's youngest child, Cassandra, 18 is a student.

Within two hours, customers streamed in and one asked me if I were a China national. When I told him I was Singaporean, he looked genuinely surprised.

By the time I was done slicing all the char siew, it was almost 10am. Releasing the knife, I found that my hand had cramped up and I had to use my left hand to prise the right open.


My next task was to wash the dishes, but first the drying agent of the dishwasher had to be changed.

Kneeling on the wet floor, I switched the tubs under the sink, my hands trembling under the weight of the liquid inside. I can't imagine an older person doing this.

My back started to hurt after an hour, from bending to reach into the deep sink over and over again. It was then I understood why my father would always complain of backache when he was a hawker.

Madam Heng shared with me how many older people have tried working for her, but quit within a day as the job was tough.

"They would work one day and then disappear the next. Many don't even say they aren't coming to work any more," she said.

She added that some of her son's friends would also try during their holidays, but many gave up and would rather work in an office or cafe for half the pay and longer hours.


The lunch crowd came in at 11.30am. A line started to form. Orders came in varying quantities, from a single plate to 14 bowls of takeaway.

At one point, I was told to wash the soup bowls more quickly as they were out.

There were about 10 different types of bowls and plates and I was getting confused as to what went where.

I ended up splashing some hot water from a pail onto my shorts in my rush.

At the front of the stall, it was chaos.

The other three stall assistants took turns taking orders, using coloured clips to identify the various orders.

Inside the stall, Madam Heng was the only one who cooked the noodles. Her son added the vegetables and wontons.

Mr Nerva served up the chicken legs and mushrooms, while handing the orders over to his wife. "You want to try taking orders? Can try," he said.

I shook my head, fearing that I would slow down the system further and affect their business.

I noticed how Madam Heng took pride in her cooking and wondered if it was so for all hawkers.

When there was a slightly deformed-looking wonton, Mr Nerva would ask her what to do with it.

"Just throw it away. Doesn't matter. I don't serve this kind of rubbish," she said to her husband.

It did not matter that it would cost her, or that it might hold up the line a little longer.

When the stall closed for the day at about 2pm, I stepped out for a short breather. The warm afternoon air felt like air-conditioning against my skin.

My hands were wrinkled from all the washing and bits of skin had begun to peel off.

While clearing a few plates, I noticed one with half a serving of noodles left. What a waste. All that effort put in just to prepare a meal, and half of it was being thrown away.


I left the other assistants to wash up and sat down with Benedict to prepare the noodles for the next day.

Each bag of noodles had to be separated by hand, to prevent the noodles from clumping up. The noodles were also separated into boxes based on production date.

I asked him if he eats noodles at home. He laughed and shook his head.

"No way. I have eaten it for most of my life already. If I find instant noodles at home, I would probably throw it away," he said. "We get sick of it."

He soon left and Madam Heng took over.

"How? Hard or not? It is not a job for everyone," she said.

I agreed.

Just then, a friend of hers popped by on his bicycle and joined in the conversation.

"Eh, Linda, new guy? Many people have heard about your $100 offer," he said.

"The other hawkers and supper places in the area are all cursing and swearing, saying you are crazy and spoiling the market."

Madam Heng laughed.

"No matter how much I offer, no one wants to do it," she said. "Many people try, but it is too tough for them."

A few minutes later, a thuggish-looking man came by, asking her if the position was filled.

"Yes, yes, I found someone already," she said, waving him away.

He left with a scowl on his face.

She then turned to me and explained that she could read people - the man was trouble.

"This type of guys are aggressive and cause a lot of problems. I have hired some before and it didn't turn out well," she said.

"It is not easy to find the right people for the job. Not that I am picky, but based on my experience, not everyone is suited for this line."

I asked her why she chose to be a hawker.

"I don't do it for the money. As long as the bills are paid and we have enough. But I feel very good when people blog about my noodles and customers come to me and say it's good," she said.

"I think that is the most rewarding part of being a hawker.

"But it is a dying trade. Nowadays, the youngsters want to open cafes, or if they do become hawkers, they expect to make a lot of money, which doesn't happen. That is why the number of good hawkers is getting fewer and fewer."

I left with a heavy heart, but also with a newfound respect for those who ply the trade.

It is not easy and perhaps it does not pay very well.

But those who set themselves on the path for good do it with dedication.

Hopefully, there will be enough of them to keep the hawker culture alive.

It would truly be a shame to see it go.

Meet the heroes behind the hawker stall


Madam Linda Heng, 50, the owner of Da Jie Famous Wanton Mee stall, started the business 14 years ago.

She said she started the business as a hobby which soon turned into a growing business.

"I had always wanted to be in the food business," she said.

"Previously I was a housewife for 12 years, staying at home and looking after the kids. But when they all grew up, I wanted to do something for myself."

And so she set up shop and found that she loved it.

"I love to cook. It is very fulfilling and it has always been my dream," she said.

"I am also a sucker for compliments, like when people tell me my food is good. I hope to keep doing this for as long as I can."


Mr Royston Nerva, 63, was an operations manager at a petroleum company. He retired two years ago.

Madam Heng said he spent some time at home not doing much, and so she forced him to help her.

Mr Nerva said he does not mind.

"I don't mind because I'll be wasting away at home or wherever, not doing anything, if I am not working here," he said.

"To me, it is a post-retirement activity, and I am already used to the hours because I used to work shifts."


Mr Benedict Nerva, 25, a student, helps out at his mother's stall during his holidays and every Saturday.

Asked if he would like to take over the stall one day, he said he would if he had no alternative.

"When I graduate, if I can't find a job, maybe," he said. "But no one in their right mind will want to do it unless they have the passion for it.

"It is a demanding job and is not for everyone. I am just doing it for now to help my mother because she is short of assistants."


Mr Calvin Tan, 52, started working for Madam Heng two weeks ago.

"I saw the advertisement in the papers and gave her a call, but she turned me down the first time because I had no experience being a hawker's assistant," he said.

"A week later, I called again... and I told her everyone starts from somewhere, why don't you give me a chance to try? She said okay, and I got the job."

He is partially colour-blind, and so a system of different types of clips was developed by Madam Heng to help him identify the orders.

He was previously a security guard.

"I jumped from job to job after that, and I have been through a dozen jobs in the past year," he said.

His wife works as a cleaner, and his son is studying in a polytechnic.

"Being a hawker assistant is actually okay. The pay is all right, and it is all about the mindset.

"If you are willing to learn, you'll be able to do it, and get used to it soon enough."


Madam Karen Liew, 53, has been working as a stall assistant for Madam Heng for almost two years.

Her communication skills are poor, and she makes mistakes occasionally, but she is a hard worker.

Madam Heng said Madam Liew used to wash dishes for her many years ago.

"Then two years ago, she could not find a job and came to me. No one wanted to hire her and I took pity on her, so I gave her the job," she said.

"She is slow at times, but she has such a kind heart. No matter what, even when we scold her, ask her to hurry up, she doesn't hold a grudge, she doesn't take any of it to heart.

"She is such a sweet lady."


The Da Jie Famous Wanton Mee stall is in a coffee shop at 209 Jalan Besar. A bowl of noodles costs $3, and Madam Heng sells a few hundred bowls a day.

The stall is open from 7am to 2pm, and is closed on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays.

Busy periods are during breakfast and lunch time. Around 10am is when the queue is the shortest. The stall's braised chicken feet is just as popular as its noodles.

This article was first published on August 30, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.