The Lives They Live

The Lives They Live: Tiong Bahru Market's 'chicken boy'

For more than 60 years, Mr Chan Lay Boo has been selling chickens at Tiong Bahru Market and its predecessor Seng Poh Road Market, earning him the moniker "chicken boy".
Mr Chan Lay Boo, 82, has been selling chickens at Tiong Bahru Market and its predecessor, the Seng Poh Road Market, for over 60 years and even met his wife - the daughter of a vegetable seller near his stall - there.
Mr Chan Lay Boo, 82, has been selling chickens at Tiong Bahru Market and its predecessor, the Seng Poh Road Market, for over 60 years and even met his wife - the daughter of a vegetable seller near his stall - there.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

While the pioneer political leaders were the original architects of modern Singapore, everyday heroes helped build the society. This is a story of one such person in the series, The Lives They Live.

The neck got the first chop.

In one swift strike of his cleaver, Mr Chan Lay Boo cut off the neck of the chicken plucked bare, followed by the head.

He then carefully carved out the chicken breast. The thighs and wings are sliced off, leaving just the spine of the fowl. "People buy this bone to boil soup," he said.

After over 60 years of practice, the 82-year-old can chop a chicken into pieces in less than a minute.

He has been selling chickens at Tiong Bahru Market and its predecessor, the Seng Poh Road Market, since the 1950s, earning him the moniker "gai zai", or chicken boy, in Cantonese.

"I was a boy when I started selling chickens. I am now a grandfather," he said with a grin.

Born in China in 1936, he came to Singapore in 1948 with his mother and sister. His father was already in Singapore.


Mr Chan Lay Boo is the "chicken man" of Tiong Bahru market. He has been selling chickens at the market for a staggering 63 years. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

The family rented a room in Joo Chiat and Mr Chan, who was then 12, had a string of jobs - helping to sell bak kwa (roast pork) and general provisions. "I did not go to school," he added.

Some time in the mid-1950s, he set up a stall at the former Seng Poh Road Market, selling braised duck. His father had returned to China and he was the family's sole breadwinner, supporting his mother, two brothers and three sisters.

"The rent of the stall was $10 a month," he recalled of a time when a cup of coffee cost two cents.

After less than a year, he switched to selling chicken to avoid having to wake up early to braise duck.

His daily routine hardly changed. He would wake up between 3am and 4am and cycle from his home in Silat Road - the family had moved there from Joo Chiat - to Tanjong Pagar to buy live chickens from a relative. They are taken home to be slaughtered and cleaned before being taken to his market stall.

Not far from his stall was a vegetable seller whose teenage daughter caught his eye.

When asked about their courtship, he would only say: "Our generation, who talks about dating and courtship? It is about fate."

They married in 1960. Mr Chan was 24 and his bride, Madam Chiang Yee Lui, was 19.

His wife helped him at the stall until their first child was born in 1961. They went on to raise nine children, who gave them 16 grandchildren.

Life was a struggle for the family in the 1960s. In 1966, they moved into a three-room Housing Board flat in Guan Chuan Street in Tiong Bahru. It cost $19,600, a price that weighed down the family.

FROM RAW CHICKENS TO CHICKEN RICE

To make ends meet, the couple expanded their business in 1970 by getting a stall at Commonwealth Avenue Cooked Food Centre, more popularly called Margaret Drive hawker centre.

They sold chicken rice. "It was the logical thing to sell, since we were already selling chickens," said Mr Chan.

"There is the famous chicken rice upstairs," he said, referring to Sin Kee chicken rice. "We are the not-so-famous one downstairs," he added in jest. "But we have our regular customers."

The couple would sell chicken in the mornings in Tiong Bahru and chicken rice in Margaret Drive in the afternoons and evenings.


Mr Chan Lay Boo and his wife Yee Lui met while working at the market and have since been married for 48 years. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Their children helped out at the stalls after school.

In 2011, he stopped selling chicken rice when the hawker centre was demolished.

During his long years as a stallholder, he has experienced several ups and downs in his business. The first big drop was in the 1990s.

In 1991, the Government started phasing out the slaughter of live poultry in wet markets. By 1993, only chilled and frozen chicken was sold in wet markets.

His earnings plunged as costs soared. He had to pay a fee to the slaughterhouse for chickens, while demand fell because Singaporeans tended to shun frozen or chilled chicken. After more than a year, business improved as people gradually became used to such chicken.

Then in 2005 came a bird flu outbreak which, at its worst, halved his business.

Over the years, Mr Chan also witnessed first-hand Singaporeans' changing tastes for chicken.

In the 1960s, chicken was expensive and families would eat it about once a week. "Some customers would ask me to wrap the chicken in newspaper," he said. "They didn't want people to see they had bought chicken and think they were rich."

Chicken breast is now popular with those who are health-conscious. "In the past, people would buy a whole chicken, not the parts, as people do now," he noted.

He still sells chicken at the market, tending to his stall five days a week and closing it on Mondays and Wednesdays.

His wife and children continue to take turns to help him.


After over 60 years of practice, the 82-year-old can chop a chicken into pieces in less than a minute.  ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

When The Straits Times visited him on a Sunday earlier this month, Mr Chan had already been at the stall since 5.45am, chopping chickens and talking to customers. He sells about 40 chickens a day on weekends.

What are your memories after selling chicken for more than 60 years, this reporter asked.

After a brief pause, Mr Chan said he feels sad that some people look down on hawkers. "They feel it is a job that uneducated people do."

He also recalled a government leader making critical remarks about hawkers not keeping their stalls open the whole day.

"They do not know that being a hawker is hard work too. We wake up very early and are on our feet all the time when selling," he said.

"My hands are soaked in water contaminated with chicken innards for so long that, sometimes, my skin peels away and my hands swell up," he said, holding out his hard and rough hands. "Do they know what we go through?

"We contribute to Singapore in our own way. Without us, who is going to sell the food that feeds Singaporeans?"


THE LIVES THEY LIVE: Know of a Singaporean born before Dec 1949 who has lived a storied life? E-mail us at stnewsdesk@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2018, with the headline 'Tiong Bahru Market's 'chicken boy''. Print Edition | Subscribe