A day in the life of a Singapore hawker

Kelly Wong, 27, left her job as a service banker four years ago to sell wanton noodles.

After three years in the banking industry, Ms Kelly Wong decided to start learning how to make wonton noodles from her father around 2013, despite "knowing nuts" about the trade when she first started.

"I've been eating these noodles since I was young. We've got a very good product and it will be a waste if I don't learn, and take over from him," said the 27-year-old.

Her father, now 65, specialises in Cantonese dishes and has worked in the food and beverage industry since he was eight, cooking for canteen stalls and fine-dining restaurants. He also runs a small business that manufactures and supplies noodles, including spinach and tomato noodles that she also uses in her dishes.

 
 

She did not just want to supply noodles, but wanted to also be able to cook them herself.

"I wanted to understand my product, so that I would know how to deal with problems that my customers may face," said Ms Wong, who does not mind her long 13-hour work days.

For about four years from 2013, she ran a stall at Maxwell Food Centre, but moved to a stall at hip hawker centre Timbre+ when it opened last April, pulling in an average of about 200 customers every day.


Ms Wong, who set up Wong Kee Wanton Noodles in 2013, gets about 200 customers every day at her stall at Timbre+ hawker centre in Ayer Rajah Crescent. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG


Ms Wong's morning routine begins with cooking the soup at about 5.30am after opening the stall at Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent (above), slicing up the char siew and preparing other ingredients from close to 7am, and moving on to making the wonton by 7.30am. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Business at the Maxwell stall had been partially affected by ongoing construction work for the Thomson-East Coast MRT Line, and Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent offered a fresh concept that was more appealing to young patrons.


Ms Wong's morning routine begins with cooking the soup at about 5.30am after opening the stall at Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent, slicing up the char siew (above) and preparing other ingredients from close to 7am, and moving on to making the wonton by 7.30am. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

At Timbre+, stallholders meet regularly with management about once a month to go through suggestions or air concerns that they have about the operations.

Ms Wong also appreciates the automated tray return system and help with cleaning the dishes at the hawker centre.


Ms Wong's morning routine begins with cooking the soup at about 5.30am after opening the stall at Timbre+ in Ayer Rajah Crescent, slicing up the char siew and preparing other ingredients from close to 7am, and moving on to making the wonton by 7.30am (above). ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

A challenge young hawkers like her face are tight profit margins, and the need to establish themselves against bigger brands. She relies on social media for marketing, which Timbre+ also helps with by posting information on its website and social media channels.

"People will always think that older hawkers cook better than the young, because they have years and years of experience. But if you don't give us a chance, you will never be able to taste some dishes again. Such skills are built on experience, and we have to build it up slowly."


Hawker Kelly Wong preparing char siew at 6.20am at her stall in Timbre+. About four years ago, the 27-year-old quit a nine-to-five job in banking to sell noodles, and now works from 5.30am to 6.30pm. Tight profit margins for the hours they put in are always a challenge, young hawkers like Ms Wong tell The Sunday Times. Making ends meet is just as important as passion. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR


Ms Wong with her tasty fare. "I've been eating these noodles since I was young," she says. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Yuen Sin

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'A day in the life of a Singapore hawker'. Print Edition | Subscribe