By Kenneth Goh,
The Straits Times,
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Photos of a hunky Taiwanese beancurd seller made the rounds on the Net last week. The stall attracted snaking queues. Customers gawked at the washboard abs of part-time model Chen Yi-tin, 27, the 1.7m-tall godson of the owners of Hall Of The Most Traditional Bean Curd in Taipei. Closer to home, SundayLife! talks to 11 hawker hunks and babes.
MR DOUGLAS NG, 24
Fishball Story Golden Mile Food Centre, 505 Beach Road, 01-85
Open: 9am to 5pm (Monday to Saturday), 9am to 3pm (Sunday)
With his wavy hair and winsome smile, Mr Douglas Ng looks more like a K-pop singer than a hawker. His 14-month-old stall serves fishball noodles that is a fusion of recipes from his grandmother and his mentor, who owns a fishball noodle stall. He whips up bowls of noodles and tops them with lard, chilli and fishballs within minutes.
The 1.73m-tall hunk, who is dating a 25-year-old air stewardess, says he has had female customers in their 20s asking for his telephone number, even though his business card is placed at the front of the stall. He dishes out charming comeback lines such as "please love my noodles more than my looks".
He also asks customers to 'like' the stall's Facebook page. Joking and chatting with them pays off as the stall receives a steady steam of regulars. He is tanned and has a lean, athletic build, thanks to his days as a national ultimate frisbee player for four years and his current twice-weekly scoccer matches.
He says: "I stand out because not many people my age want to join this trade. Most are too pampered and have high job expectations." He used to co-own 3 Plus 1 Restaurant in Anson Road which serves fusion zi char dishes and worked as a chef in hotels and restaurants for six years. He does not believe good looks are an advantage.
"Eating in hawker centres is all about the food, unlike ice-cream cafes which have female staff. People think that food cooked by older people is better as they're more experienced." Being a hawker is far from a glamorous job, he adds, pointing to his sweat-soaked shirt, the result of making up to 700 fishballs every day from 5.30am and cooking until 5pm on most days.
However, he adds that it is a meaningful job. "I am protecting Singapore's hawker culture before these cooking skills get lost."
MS JEN WANG, 34
Palate Delights Block 212 Hougang Street 21, Kovan 212 Coffeeshop
Open: noon to 2am daily
The self-service sign at the wonton noodle and porridge stall in a Kovan coffee shop is there to spare co-owner Jen Wang unwanted attention. Middle-aged men, who go there late at night, would make separate food orders so that she would have to make multiple trips to their table to deliver food.
The 34-year-old says: "I felt like I was a beer girl. They were obviously oggling me from head to toe." The former air stewardess set up the stall with her 44-year-old partner, Mr Bruno Chia, in April last year. The shop sells about 20 types of noodles and porridge. They sell up to 100 servings of spinach wanton noodles a day.
Last October, she went back to her real estate agent job, one she held for five years before becoming a hawker. These days, she works at the stall only three times a week. Business dropped drastically when she stopped working at the stall full-time. She says with a laugh: "We saw a drop of $1,000 in earnings for that month. A lot of customers were asking for me."
She says her approachable manner balances her partner's tough-as-nails look, with his bulky frame and tattooed arms. She uses her girl-next-door looks to her advantage. Whenever she catches the eye of a potential customer, she asks him sweetly if he would like to order from her stall. This sales tactic has paid off as most people usually order something.
She says her stack of namecards, with her contact as a property agent, is placed at the stall-front and runs out quickly. The mother of an eight-year-old boy and two-year-old girl firmly believes in looking her best. The Mrs Singapore 2014 finalist, who picked up Best Dressed and Most Dazzling Smile accolades, puts on faux eye lashes, which accentuate her eyes. She says: "You are young only once so if you can look good, why not?"
MS NUR HIDAYU SAKUWAN, 21
Nur Indah's Kitchen Block 216 Bedok North Street 1 Market & Food Centre, 01-11
Open: 7am to noon (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday
Nur Hidayu Sakuwan is used to being in the spotlight. When SundayLife! visited her family's stall on Wednesday morning, she was creating quite a buzz with her prata- making skills. Some onlookers were snapping photos and recording videos. Despite the scrutiny, she was unfazed, flipping and folding roti prata like a seasoned hawker.
She is known as Singapore Prata Girl after a YouTube video of her went viral in March last year. The video, which was secretly filmed by one of the stall assistants, has since been viewed more than 74,000 times. She says: "The video has been spreading like wildfire and some customers still call me Singapore Prata Girl."
The 1.62m-tall hawker has been working full-time at the stall since she completed her electrical technology course at the Institute of Technical Education in 2011. While she mainly receives compliments from middle-aged female customers, she has noticed that men in their 20s would sit in the vicinity of the stall to stare and smile at her for at least an hour.
She says: "It can be quite creepy as these men would smile the whole time they are sitting there. I usually ignore them as I can read their intentions." She has received 1,000 friend requests on Facebook, together with a few messages asking for dates. The youngest of five siblings turns down such requests as she is engaged to a footballer from Geylang International Football Club.
However, looking good has its perks. She says business has gone up by 30 per cent since the video went viral, with up to 700 roti prata sold in a day. She says: "More people remember the stall due to the Singapore Prata Girl video." Miss Hidayu, who learnt to make prata when she was 13, adds: "Athough I may look stern when making prata, I am actually quite friendly."
MR MICHAEL KER, 39
Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Original Popiah & Kueh Pie Tee 95 Joo Chiat Road
Open: 9am to 5pm, daily
Info: Call 6344-2875
This 39-year-old has been getting a good workout from helping out at his family's businesss, Kway Guan Huat Joo Chiat Original Popiah & Kueh Pie Tee. For more than 10 years, he and his four cousins have been making popiah skin at the 77-year-old shop.
They grab a fistful of about 300g of dough - which is made with flour, water and salt - and twirl it around their fingers before encircling the dough on 50-year-old cast iron pans that have been heated to about 200 deg C.
Mr Ker says: "You need dexterity to twirl the lump of dough continuously for 1.5 hours at one go. It is like carrying a bag of stones, but it helps tone the forearms."
He can make 12 wafer-thin popiah skins, which are 20cm in diameter, in one minute, and deftly manages four cast iron stations at one time while sweating buckets.
The second-generation business is now run by four siblings, including his aunts and his father, Mr Ker Cheng Lye, 66. The younger Mr Ker started a popiah stall at Singapore Polytechnic six months ago.
During live popiah demonstrations at the store in Joo Chiat from 9 to 10am on Saturdays, curious bystanders would often ask if he got his muscular physique from making popiah skins. He usually tells them that making the skins helps him keep fit.
The truth is that the 1.75m-tall hunk is an avid gym-goer who pumps iron four times a week, lifting up to 120kg of weights. He worked as a pharmacist for 12 years and is still licensed.
But he quit his job in 2010 to take a more active role in the food business because he wants to preserve his family heritage. His 40-year-old wife is also a pharmacist.
While he has not received direct compliments on his looks, Mr Ker, who is usually "dressed minimally" in a T-shirt and bermudas, says there are several male customers in their 30s who order popiah every weekend and watch him make the skins.
When asked if being good-looking is an advantage in the food business, he says: "Good looks can only get you the first bite of your food from customers.
"You also need to be thick-skinned and vocal when promoting your products, so it helps to be confident of your looks."
MR EDMUND GOH, 27 AND MR JAKE PANG, 25
Wafuken 12 Marina View, Asia Square Tower 2, 02-05
Open: 11am to 8pm, Monday to Friday, closed on weekend
Info: Go to www.wafuken.com
Looking fit and healthy comes in handy when running a health food kisok, say the co-owners of Wafuken, a two-week-old kiosk that sells healthy Japanese rice bowls. Mr Jake Pang, 25, says it is much easier to initiate dining collaborations with gyms. He says: "Sadly, the world is superficial, but it is easier to sell a health- related concept when you look healthy and fit."
He and his business partner and former army buddy Edmund Goh are avid gym-goers who dabble in sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts and calisthenics work-outs. Mr Pang, who is attached, took part in inter-gym boxing matches when he was an Information & Technology undergraduate at the University of Melbourne.
He says being good-looking and eloquent helped in negotiating with food suppliers and bank staff when starting up the business. The stall sells Japanese rice bowls topped with the likes of chicken breast seasoned with shiso salt and Australian wagyu with truffle oil. And business has been brisk, with about 200 bowls sold a day.
Both he and Mr Goh spend most of their 15-hour work days in the kitchen, while their shop assistants tend to customers. Mr Goh, 27, a culinary arts graduate from Shatec Institute, was an air steward with Singapore Airlines for two years before quitting to try his hand at his first business venture.
The 1.75m tall bachelor, who has a brown belt in taekwondo, says that when he was with SIA, some female Japanese passengers called him kawaii (cute in Japanese). He adds cheekily: "I'd rather customers say that the food we serve looks good, but I wouldn't mind if they comment on our looks too."
MR JAYDEN CHEONG AND MS ELIZABETH HUANG, both 27
Wow Wow West Genuine ABC Brickworks Food Centre 6 Jalan Bukit Merah, 01-133
Open: 11am to 8.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, closed on Monday and Sunday
Working in a hawker centre for more than 10 years, Ms Elizabeth Huang has had her fair share of unexpected encounters with male customers. Some want lengthy chit chats, others offer to buy her drinks and there are those who make orders in a lewd way.
On two occasions, a male customer ordered chicken chop by asking suggestively: "Can I have a milky white, tender and juicy chicken?" Ms Huang's father, Mr Eric Ng, 51, gave him an earful. She has been helping out at her parents' Western food stall since she was 12 and she also ran a branch at Redhill food centre for two years until 2012.
Her most shocking encounter was with a regular customer, an Indonesian-Chinese in his mid-30s, who offered to take her to a Formula One race four years ago. She says: "He told me to close the stall and offered to buy the remaining food for the day. He wanted to buy a new dress for me and showed me a stack of VIP tickets to the race."
As he was quite persistent, Ms Huang had to call on her friends to go over to turn him down. However, that incident has not stopped her from talking to customers. She says: "Though I try to stay away from some customers, I still enjoy chatting with people to hear about their lives. This adds a personal touch, which is missing in hawker centres these days."
In fact, this was how she met her husband, Mr Jayden Cheong, 27, who was a customer. They became friends in 2009 and were married in 2012. The former bank executive quit his job more than a year ago and helps run the stall with his parents-in-law. Ms Huang, 27, who works as a sales and marketing executive, continues to help out at the stall.
Mr Cheong, who resembles a K-pop singer, also has his fair share of fans. He says many middle- aged women chat with him while waiting for their orders and have tried to matchmake him with their daughters. He also gets attention from the younger crowd. His wife says: "I can see that girls take a longer time to order their food from him and they hold their glances a tad longer."
The couple believe that good looks help in the hawker business. Ms Huang says: "Humans are visual creatures. With a more approachable look, we can make friends with our customers while doing business." However, she adds with a laugh: "We are oily and sticky from working in a hawker stall and look like a mess. I wonder how people can find that hot?"
MR DANIEL SURENDRAN, 28 Heavens Heritage
Five outlets including at Changi Airport Terminal 3 Kopitiam Stall 2; and Jurong Point, Basement 1, Cantine
Open: Various opening hours
For six months, Mr Daniel Surendran had an unwelcome visitor at one of his outlets. A middle-aged woman would linger for a few hours every day, fiddling with the utensils and chatting with his staff while stealing glances at him and trying to snap photos of him secretly with her phone.
Sometimes, she would be at the food court before 8am, when he opens the stall. He says: "It was very weird. I don't think I'm so good-looking that someone would want to follow me for so long." Thankfully, he was able to "escape" as he was busy with the opening of another stall.
He owns Heavens Heritage, a chain of five shops which sells snacks such as putu mayam or stringhoppers ($2.40 for two), appam or fermented rice flour pancakes ($2.80 for two). The shops are an offshoot of Heaven's Curry, a popular 15-year-old Indian vegetarian stall in Ghim Moh Food Centre run by his 53-year-old mother.
Mr Surendran, 28, who is 1.82m tall, says that conversations with middle-aged female customers often include questions about his marital status. His staff would also tell him when younger customers are checking him out. He has received compliments on his strapping physique and good looks, and both men and women want his telephone number.
However, he says he "humbly accepts the compliments and politely declines any further gestures". The former bartender and waiter, who is married to a 28-year-old customer care officer, says: "Being in the service industry, we cannot afford to be rude to customers." He adds: "A pleasant appearance and warm demeanour helps, but for hawkers, it is the food that has to be beautiful first. That's what will enchant customers."
MR GERALD GOH, 37, AND MS JULYN TEOH, 33
Penang Kia Prawn Mee Block 205D Compassvale Lane, 01-02
Open: 8am to 9pm, daily
A couple selling Penang-style prawn noodles in Sengkang has been turning heads since the stall opened in January last year. Their bright smiles and cheerful disposition come from working previously as cabin crew members for Singapore Airlines and they have more than 20 years of experience between them.
The couple, who have been engaged for six months, quit their jobs in 2013 to settle down and start a family. However, they did not want to work in "boring corporate jobs". At the suggestion of Ms Teoh's father, who was a food vendor in Penang, the couple decided to sell Penang-style prawn noodles based on his recipe.
The broth, which takes eight hours of simmering to get right, has a distinctive orange-red hue and is brewed with pork ribs and fried prawn heads. The couple say their customers are curious about them because they used to fly for SIA and the middle-aged heartlanders compliment them on their looks and make small talk with them.
The 1.8m-tall Mr Goh, 37, says that their looks prompted celebrity chef Sam Leong to visit his stall. He says with a laugh: "Chef Leong read about us in a publication and came all the way here to find out what we looked like in person." They also get recognised by strangers when shopping in Chinatown.
These days, Ms Teoh, 33, works as a sales supervisor in the furniture industry to supplement the stall's earnings and usually helps out at the shop after work. Because their customers see them as a couple, they have not received any indecent proposals. Ms Teoh, who is a Singapore permanent resident, laughs and says: "If I were single, there would probably be some guys interested in me."
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