IT consultant Kent Phoa, 40, says he was lured by the prize vouchers when he took part in his first contest in 2007. He "left the scene to get married" and returned last year to check out the new crop of eaters. He says: "I don't bother to find out what the prizes are. Joining these contests is a way to catch up with the competition. The newer eaters are faster and eat on a bigger scale."
Like in any other sport, competitive eating gives participants an adrenaline rush from the race, the challenge of testing their physical limits and pride at possessing and honing a skill - in this case, relentless eating or a high tolerance of spicy food.
Gaming assistant Alvin Chen, who declined to give his age, has been eating competitively for four years and says winning boosts his self-confidence. He had "accidental training" in his last job in outdoor sales, where his lunch breaks were short and he had to eat fast.
Personal trainer Zermatt Neo, 28, who has participated in more than 30 contests in the past three years both here and overseas, is driven by the thrill of competing and getting bragging rights if he wins.
With the physical discipline required of his day job, he keeps in shape by hitting the gym six times a week. His daily diet consists mainly of vegetables and lean meats, although on his cheat days, he enjoys eating at buffets.
The competitive eating scene here is turning professional, with the setting up of Food League Singapore, an events firm that helps eateries organise challenges. It is in talks with 10 eateries and gets paid up to $4,000 to organise a challenge.
It also manages a team of eaters, including Mr Neo, Ms Ow and Mr Chen, sending them to relevant events and coaching them on techniques to speed up their game.
Food League Singapore founder Sean Lee, 34, a competitive eater himself, says these events are good marketing tools for restaurants. "Our food challenge videos usually go viral as people are curious and will watch till the end to see if the eater finishes the food."
Malls and restaurants which hold such events agree. JCube mall has been organising spicy noodle challenges for the past two years. Its centre manager, Ms Maggie Chua, says these events increase visitor traffic by more than 10 per cent.
Western food restaurant Southwest Tavern in Boon Lay Way gets about 20 challengers a week for its Spaghetti From Hell contest, featuring pasta tossed with fiery ghost pepper and Trinidad scorpion pepper. Owner Andrew Koh, 40, says: "My business has grown by 15 per cent despite our non-central location."
For the past four years, Peperoni Pizzeria has been organising the XXL eating challenge. Contestants need to eat a 21-inch pizza, the diameter of a car tyre, within 45 minutes.
Group manager Adrian Tan says: "The dish becomes a talking point, with more people signing up for the challenge over the years."
Medical professionals, however, frown on competitive eating.
Ms Jennifer Shim, a dietitian with Singapore General Hospital, says swallowing food without adequate chewing can lead to indigestion. Overeating can cause a spike in blood sugar levels which, in turn, leads to fatigue.
Dr Yim Heng Boon, a senior gastro- enterologist with Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, says serious side effects include tearing of the gut wall, choking and water intoxication from gulping large amounts of water to hasten the food passage, which can lead to nausea, muscle cramps and seizures.
He says: "Long-term side effects include gastroparesis, or slowing of stomach contraction from the frequent stretching of the stomach wall due to sudden ingestion of large amounts of food."
Other problems include loss of satiety, the body's signal to the brain that it is full and one should stop eating. Dr Asim Shabbir, senior consultant and director of the Centre of Obesity Management and Surgery at National University Hospital, says loss of satiety results in weight gain and problems such as obesity and diabetes.
Despite the health risks, most competitive eaters say they know their limits and space out their competitions. Mr Ng says: "How often does one have the chance to perform such crazy acts? These competitive eating achievements are something I can show to my grandchildren in future."
Meanwhile, it is back to the drawing board for Ms Ow. She failed to finish her seventh bowl of ramen as fast as she could, but it had only "a few strands of noodles and some pieces of meat" left.
She says of her personal challenge: "I am up to doing it again."
To watch the competitive eaters in action, go to http://str.sg/4JsF
Meet Singapore's top eater