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Hard toil and good times on the streets

Hawker centres more comfortable but hustle and bustle is missing

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It was back-breaking work.

Mr Tan Cheong Chuan used to cycle for hours to where the crowds were to peddle tutu-kueh in the sweltering heat.

When he arrived, he had to fan the flaming charcoal and wood to steam the rice flour cakes.

That was in the 1960s. Two decades later, this scene no longer existed. By the 1980s, Mr Tan worked in the comfort of a brick-and-mortar stall.

By then, he had also expanded his business - Tan's Tu Tu Coconut Cake - which now has two branches at the Havelock Road Cooked Food Centre and a coffee shop in Clementi Avenue 3.

The veteran hawker died of liver cancer in 2010 and his sister - 51-year-old Tan Bee Hua - now runs the stalls with the help of an employee. His wife, Madam Ho Cheng Khim, 70, helps out once a week.

While both women said that being in hawker centres is more hygienic and comfortable, they recalled the old days wistfully and still miss the hustle and bustle of selling their food on the streets.

Madam Ho said in Mandarin: "It was very lively then. We would go to Chinatown and People's Park because of the crowds. People would gather to watch wayang shows (Chinese operas), and buy our tutu-kueh."

She added that her father- in-law, Mr Tan Yong Fa, was one of the pioneers of tutu-kueh in Singapore.

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He came here from China's Fujian province in 1932 and started selling the home-cooked kueh on the streets in bamboo baskets. After initially selling them as plain rice flour cakes, he later started adding ingredients such as coconut to make them tastier.

The Tans bought a pushcart in 1964, which allowed them to travel farther and sell freshly made kueh. Madam Ho married the younger Mr Tan and helped out in the business from 1968.

Seven years later, they were relocated to the hawker centre in Havelock Road, as part of the Government's effort to put an end to street hawking.

A National Environment Agency spokesman said hawker centres with proper amenities were built from 1971 to 1985 to resettle the street hawkers due to public health and hygiene concerns.

Madam Ho said: "It's very different now. In the past, we had to push the cart around and that was very heavy. Now, you just pull a shutter to close the shop. It was also very hot and tiring as we were under the sun, but when it rained, we couldn't do business."

But business was better back then - they could sell more than 1,000 kueh a day during festive periods, such as Chinese New Year.

Ms Tan said in Mandarin: "There is more competition now. You have things like cupcakes, muffins, waffles and so on."

Their advice for the younger generation of hawkers is to persevere.

Madam Ho said: "If you want to be successful, you must work hard."

limyihan@sph.com.sg