Hawker heritage

Singapore's hawker culture on Unesco list: Veteran yong tau foo hawker happy to train next generation

As Singapore awaits the Unesco decision on inscribing hawker culture on the intangible heritage list, Clement Yong speaks to three hawkers who are passing on their love of the trade to others through an apprenticeship scheme. He also asks the three students why they are choosing to enter the trade.

Mr Clement Wang learning the trade from Madam Tee Chun Moy at her Rong Xing Yong Tau Fu stall in Tanjong Pagar.
Mr Clement Wang learning the trade from Madam Tee Chun Moy at her Rong Xing Yong Tau Fu stall in Tanjong Pagar.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
(From left) Clement Wang at Rong Xing Yong Tau Fu stall in Tanjong Pagar with owners Foo Soo Lim and Tee Chun Moy.
(From left) Clement Wang at Rong Xing Yong Tau Fu stall in Tanjong Pagar with owners Foo Soo Lim and Tee Chun Moy.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Mr Clement Wang's traineeship at Rong Xing Yong Tau Fu began after a chance encounter in January when, while queueing at the Tanjong Pagar Plaza stall, he told the hawker he wanted to learn how to make her tofu and meatballs.

Mr Wang, 34, who then had an airline cabin crew job, felt he had no way of getting into the trade despite his interest, as his only experience was when he had helped out part-time in a restaurant kitchen at the age of 19.

But veteran stallholder Tee Chun Moy, 60, said she would be happy to take him on.

The two later began working together under a National Environment Agency hawker development programme, which pairs a hawker with a trainee for two months. By then, Mr Wang, who is single, could no longer fly, with planes grounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

He said he was motivated to be a hawker by his experiences overseas as an airline employee.

"At any point, I could think of five to 10 hawker foods I wanted to eat when I was overseas. You can go to a hawker centre for a month and not be sick of it," he said.

Having interned for 11/2 months, he will be ready to open his own yong tau foo stall soon.

"I am thinking of giving the traditional yong tau foo a twist by offering set meals. But I will keep focusing on the specialities she has taught me - the handmade ingredients, the soup, the sauces," he said.

Rong Xing Yong Tau Fu was opened 36 years ago when Madam Tee borrowed money from her father to venture into the trade.

Madam Tee, whose recipes were taught to her by her grandmother, is not wary of passing them on to those outside her family, even with her 19-year-old daughter helping out at the stall sometimes.

She wants to keep hawker culture alive by getting more young people involved, especially because her daughter might go on to take a regular 9-to-5 job.

Asked if she was worried about future competition from trainees like Mr Wang, she said: "It may be the same recipe but everyone's craft is different. The taste will end up being different.

"Singapore is not very big but there is a market for food. There is no need to be selfish about this."

She has mentored three others so far. Success has varied, from one who has opened his own yong tau foo stall at the ABC Brickworks food centre, to another who stopped the traineeship after just four days because he decided the 16-hour days were not worth it.

Madam Tee said she is used to the tough working conditions. Her customers' praise and growing success over the years keep her going.

"I have patrons from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan who praise my food on their blogs," she said. "I'll keep doing this until I retire, and even then, I'll think of how to sell smaller homemade yong tau foo ingredients."