‘I’m losing money, might as well do good’: The hawkers helping the helpless
One young hawker has pledged free meals, no questions asked; while a chicken rice seller is selling at below-cost, or giving away free to the needy and elderly.
SINGAPORE: Every lunchtime, Jason Chua would dish out 40 to 50 bowls of his “creative zhap cai png” for a crowd of Central Business District-types. Ever since the "circuit breaker" measures kicked in on Apr 7, the 28-year-old has barely been able to hit 10 orders a day of his pasta and rice bowls.
Some of his neighbours at Hong Lim Market and Food Centre have even resorted to shuttering completely.
But this ‘Beng Who Cooks’ – the name of his stall – vows to continue showing up every day, for as long as he’s got at least one customer: An 80-year-old blind man, whom he’s promised to provide with one meal a day for a month.
This man is the first beneficiary of the ‘Beng Who Cares Foundation’, which Chua and his partner Hung Zhen Long, 27, initiated a day before the enhanced safe-distancing measures took effect.
Those in need can place their order - no questions asked - a day in advance with @bengwhocaresfoundation on Instagram before 7pm. The meals can be picked up at the stall, or be delivered between 12-1.30pm.
Chua, who has been running the stall for two years, said:
As long as we don’t die, we carry everyone, so everyone survives together.
That seems to be pretty much the mantra of several hawkers who have taken to social media to offer assistance to anyone struggling to get by, even as F&B businesses are themselves scrambling to stay afloat.
DON’T NEED MONEY, JUST SPREAD THE WORD
The ‘Beng Who Cares Foundation’ started “accidentally” when a close friend reached out to Chua with a heart-wrenching story of an elderly uncle begging for loose change. Given the money, he quickly bought and wolfed down a goreng pisang (fried banana) and a cup of coffee.
That’s when Chua and Hung came up with the initiative, with that friend’s financial backing. “He told me, don’t care about money. Just spread the word and make this happen,” Chua said.
And spread the word they did.
In a video message posted on Instagram, Hung said: “Don’t worry guys, if you need help just come forward. Very easy one. Just message us and collect your food. We don’t need proof.”
Overnight, the post gathered over 700 likes, with even celebrities like Fiona Xie sharing it, said Chua.
At least seven individuals and families in need have come forward. To deliver meals to them as well as usual paying customers, Chua taps on friends and kind strangers who have volunteered their time.
The duo have just one request: Don’t send them any monetary donations, as they have the means to finance the free meals – just help get the word out to those who could benefit.
While the two hawker-preneurs have taken an “80 per cent” hit in business since December, Chua said they can “still survive”.
Weren’t they worried about getting taken advantage of? Said Chua: “If people really resort to such things, then deep down, they really need that help.”
Beng Who Cooks
#01-44, Hong Lim Food Centre
‘PLEASE COME BACK, AFTER IT’S ALL OVER’
Tanjong Pagar Plaza’s House of Chicken Rice has seen long queues since Apr 3, after owner Khoo Leng How announced that he’d be selling chicken rice at S$0.90 a packet – below cost price. One usually goes for S$4.50.
“This COVID-19 outbreak has ruined things for everyone,” said Khoo, 40, who earned about S$1,000 a day but now takes home just some S$200.
“I thought, selling my chicken rice at S$0.90 to more people can’t hurt my earnings further anyway – I’m already losing money, might as well do some good.”
What also helped was that his landlord has waived three months’ worth of rent.
After Khoo’s Facebook post went up, about 50 customers showed up, most of them elderly folk residing nearby. Prepared for this, he’d laid out markers to ensure they stood the required metre apart.
Working solo at first, he had to chop up chicken while keeping an eye to make sure nobody cut the queue or stood too close to someone else. Khoo welcomed this busyness compared to the alternative: “Even if I sit here the whole day, nobody comes. Better to be doing something.”
Some customers started to help monitor the queue, while his friends and cousin also showed up to help.
At the counter, a bucket was placed for patrons to leave payment – and some have continued to pay the usual S$4.50, which Khoo is thankful for.
But there were also opportunistic customers who asked for 10, even 20 packets of chicken rice. So Khoo now limits each person to three packets; and meanwhile, those aged 55 and above can eat for free.
“People think I’m doing advertising but I’m not,” said Khoo, a long-time volunteer who is engaging a volunteer group to deliver 100 packets of chicken rice to the needy every Saturday.
And even as his stall winds down for the day, he always makes sure to hold some packets in reserve for last-minute customers. “I can tell when some have travelled a long way just for this meal.”
As for the cost of his supplies, Khoo hopes to work out a bargain with his suppliers at the end of the month. And should the ‘circuit breaker’ measures continue beyond May 4, he’s prepared to close shop for a while. The reason?
Food delivery platforms are still unaffordable for a small hawker like him, he said, even with the Government’s 5 percentage-point subsidy on commission costs.
“Now really spend savings only. No choice,” Khoo said. “I just hope that after this COVID-19 (outbreak) is over, people will come back to eat my chicken rice.”
Khoo has declined monetary donations. Those who wish to help can patronise the store.
House of Chicken Rice
#02-07, 1 Tanjong Pagar Plaza
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 11am-3pm
Editor's note: This story has been updated with the correct details of how free meals can be ordered from Beng Who Cooks.