91-year-old hawker behind historic wonton noodle stall calls it quits
Amid the pandemic, one of Singapore’s oldest hawkers has closed her stall, while a hopeful 22-year-old who opened his new fish ball noodle stall gave it up within months. They share their challenges with the programme Belly of a Nation.
SINGAPORE: For nearly six decades, hawker Leong Yuet Meng, 91, had been getting up before the crack of dawn six days a week, to prepare her old-school wonton noodles.
One of Singapore’s oldest hawkers if not the oldest, this Cantonese cook is well known as the founder of the Nam Seng Noodle House that was just outside the old National Library in Stamford Road.
But she has closed her only stall, in Far East Square along China Street, where she had relocated 20 years ago. It is a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis, with the work-from-home norm having hollowed out the Central Business District.
“The business dropped drastically overnight. It was very hard to get back to where we were before,” she said.
“Ideally, I’d like to continue … I hope to preserve my brand (Nam Seng) — I built it up with a lot of hardship.”
In the programme Belly Of A Nation, hawkers such as Leong share their fears and dismay during the pandemic, and relate how getting by became more and more challenging.
HANDS-ON, EVEN AT HER AGE
It was in 1962 when Leong opened her stall — financed by her late husband — at a little food centre in front of the old National Library.
Her first foray into the hawker trade had been to sell chicken porridge and macaroni at a school in Queen Street, but she learnt to make wonton mee from her cousin, an amah who also sold this dish in Chinatown.
The stall’s name was suggested by her mother-in-law. “Nam means Nanyang (the region encompassing Malaya and the wider Southeast Asia), since we were doing business in Nanyang, and Seng represents a successful business,” said Leong.
During the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore later in the 1960s, her husband, who worked as a clerk for the British, was offered a chance to move his family to the United Kingdom.
“I said, ‘Please don’t joke with me. Go overseas? I don’t know a single English word. I’ll stay here,’” she recalled.
Back then, they sold their signature dish for 30 cents a bowl.
“You’d have had wonton, noodles and char siu,” she said. “I started at 30 cents and increased it to 50 cents (and then) to 70 cents; then from a dollar … until today’s S$5.”
Before the library was torn down, she relocated to Joo Chiat and then accepted an invitation to open a stall at Far East Square, where she also sold fried rice, venison hor fun and seafood hor fun.
Although she had a small team of helpers, Leong was still very involved in running the stall, including waking up early in the morning to pick up fresh produce at a wet market in Toa Payoh, where she lives.
Her second son, Michael Tang, would send her to Nam Seng, where she would spend the day making the wontons from scratch and taking customers’ orders.
“I like to be hands-on … A person must be able to do everything. I don’t rely on the workers,” she said.
“If you want to make money, don’t complain about hardship. Go back home to sleep if you worry about hardship.”
For two decades, she witnessed life in busy China Street, but that came to a halt when COVID-19 struck.
At her age, she belongs to the high-risk group, and with people also staying away from the CBD, she shut the stall temporarily. But the restless matriarch complained about being bored during the “circuit breaker” period.
“I just stayed at home for two months,” she said. “I read the newspapers, and sometimes I watched television.”
ENTERING THE TRADE BEFORE CIRCUIT BREAKER
For 22-year-old Delonix Tan Wei Jie, on the other hand, he could not have chosen a more inopportune time to enter the hawker trade.
Having signed up for the National Environment Agency’s Incubation Stall Programme, he opened his fish ball stall, SanDai Fishball, at Amoy Street Food Centre when the number of COVID-19 cases was on the rise.
“After four days of operation, the Government announced that on April 7, there’d be this circuit breaker,” he lamented, calling it suay (Hokkien for unlucky).
Although he had little experience in cooking, he had been helping his father make yong tau foo at a wet market in Toa Payoh, and thought he would like the “hectic” hawker lifestyle.
When he started off, he was doing double duty: During the day, he was at his stall, and overnight, he helped out with his family’s food business.
Given his schedule, his girlfriend helped him out with his stall initially.
“She knew that I was very stressed, running tight on cash, et cetera, so she offered to help,” said the newbie, who acknowledged that his cooking skills needed “some time to develop”.
This was after he shuttered his stall during the circuit breaker, as it was in the CBD and he realised there would be almost “zero footfall”.
After re-opening it in June, he saw that the lunchtime office crowd who used to throng the food centre had still not returned.
“We spoke to … our customers, and they told us most of them would be coming back only next year,” he said. So, after a few months, he decided to call it quits and help his father at the wet market.
“Instead of continuing (to) throw money into this black hole, we decided to just cut it off,” he said. “(Being) a hawker … is very, very tough work, and the (profit margins are) very, very thin.
“After this experience, I don’t think I want to be a hawker.”
PROMISE OF A COMEBACK
Leong also resumed business after the circuit breaker measures were lifted. “I did so immediately, even if it was just to meet people,” she said.
However, as her customers were mostly office workers in the CBD, business was quiet. In July, she closed her Far East Square outlet for good, owing to the dwindling crowd as well as leasing issues.
“When I started renting there 20 years ago, the people (building management) were nice. Who knew that they’d change this year and become difficult to talk to?” she said.
One of her employees has returned to China, another went to work in her brother’s restaurant and the last one “wanted to rest”.
WATCH: Old tastes — Singapore hawkers serving up traditional Asian recipes (46:25)
At her age, Leong should be retiring comfortably, but she is adamant about keeping the Nam Seng brand alive.
“I’ve worked for so many years. My focus and dedication these last 60 years have been for my brand. How can I bear to let it go?” she said.
“We’ll take our time, and we’ll find a new place. We’ll make a comeback. I’ll inform all of you through the newspapers, the Internet and telephone when we open once again."
Watch the programme Belly Of A Nation here.