No screams for ice cream on Orchard Road amid Covid-19 pandemic

Uncle Chieng is a familiar face in Orchard Road, but gone are the days with long queues of eager customers.

The sound of a bell ringing fills the air from below a Housing Board block where a motorcycle with a sidecar is parked. A man stands next to the sidecar under a bright red umbrella which shelters him from the blazing sun.


Mr Chieng starts his day around noon and for five to six days a week he stops at about seven locations, spending about an hour at each one, and packing up at 9pm. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


Mr Ho Chuen Choy (right), an acquaintance of Mr Chieng, getting ready to start his day in Ang Mo Kio, where he usually works. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


Siblings Ng Li Yan and Ng Yong Jun enjoying ice cream bars sandwiched between wafer biscuits that they bought from Mr Chieng in Bukit Purmei. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Mr Chieng Puay Chui, 73, who is more fondly known as Uncle Chieng, is peddling ice cream in Bukit Merah and the surrounding estates.

The grandfather of six has been selling ice cream for 56 years, 27 of which was spent parked outside Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road.

He is instantly recognisable among locals and tourists alike, always seen in a red polo tee, shorts and sandals. He has had pictures taken with Hong Kong actor Nicholas Tse and former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.


Mr Chieng showing off a board with pictures he has taken with celebrities and politicians, which he hangs above his cart. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


A picture of Mr Chieng with his cart on the Instagram page @wheretodapao. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Covid-19 made Mr Chieng leave his comfort zone and venture into HDB estates. During the phase two (heightened alert) restrictions, there were hardly any customers in Orchard Road.

"People were not allowed to eat outside. There was also no one in Orchard. So I decided to bring the ice cream to them."


Mr Chieng's last stop for the day was at a housing board block in Telok Blangah. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


Mr Chieng sees less customers in the day as most are unwilling to venture out in the hot sun. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The tighter restrictions in the community, which began in mid-May, meant that people were not allowed to eat out. The public was also asked to stay at home as far as possible.

"It is definitely more tiring travelling from place to place compared with being stationary in one spot", said Mr Chieng. "As long as I can sell ice cream, I will be happy."

The grandfather, who started selling ice cream when he was 16, was bored when he had to stay home last year during the circuit breaker.

Mr Chieng starts his day around noon and for five to six days a week he stops at about seven locations, spending about an hour at each one. He usually packs up to go home at 9pm.


Mr Chia Boon Cheok (right) supplies ice-cream bars to independent hawkers like Mr Chieng Puay Chui at an HDB block in Kim Tian Road. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


Mr Chia (right) hands Mr Chieng blocks of dry ice to chill his ice cream. Each day’s supply of ice costs about $20. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


Mr Chieng tying his red umbrella to his cart after folding it. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

After a few weeks, residents are familiar with his routine. There is more often than not a short queue, and some customers even bring their own containers to buy ice cream in large quantities.

Daily takings have increased slightly although Mr Chieng says he now earns only about half of what he used to.


Mr Chieng’s son Alvin, 40, has been selling ice cream since 2002. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


Mr Chieng scooping ice cream into cups for a customer buying six cups and four bars with bread to share with his friends. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Almost every afternoon, his wife, a retired machine operator, brings him tea for his break. She takes over the manning of the stall while her husband looks for a quiet place to rest.

In the middle of last month, as Mr Chieng was finishing up his baked muffin and teh-o kosong, he received a phone call from his supplier. Another ice-cream seller he knows had just been placed under quarantine.


Mr Chieng enjoying a baked muffin and teh-o kosong at an HDB void deck near where he parked his cart in Bukit Purmei. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Covid-19 is never far from Mr Chieng's mind. "Of course I am afraid. If I have to be quarantined, I also have no choice," he said.

As dining in resumed last month, Mr Chieng immediately headed back to his favourite spot in Orchard Road even though he was slightly injured. He was limping and walking slower than usual, as a result of an accident on a rainy day in the same month.


As dining in resumed last month, Mr Chieng immediately headed back to his favourite spot in Orchard Road even though he was slightly injured. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO


A plaster covers Mr Chieng’s toes as he stands beside his cart on Orchard Road. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Recounting the incident, Mr Chieng said he and his wife were caught in the rain near Alexandra Road while they were travelling between housing estates.

His motorcycle would not start. As he tried to push the 300kg deadweight down a wet road, he slipped and fell. "It wasn't that bad. I still can walk," he said.

People did walk by the sidecar every evening but only a few regular customers spotted him and welcomed him back to the shopping district. They bought one or two bars of the old school ice-cream sandwiches - a crowd favourite.