The Lives They Live

Working the wok as heat dies down on char kway teow

While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series, The Lives They Live.

He is a familiar face in the coffee shop at Block 132, Jalan Bukit Merah, and part of a shrinking group of masters skilled in whipping up char kway teow.

Mr Tan Teng Mui first learnt to cook the popular hawker dish as a 12-year-old. At 17, he set up his own stall to help support his family. Today, the 67-year-old still works the wok behind Sheng Cheng Char Kway Teow, where he sells the flat rice noodles and Hokkien mee.

In many ways, the father of three daughters is representative of the many unapplauded and unknown hawkers here, with no Michelin stars or major TV appearances.

Like many Singaporeans of his generation, he hails from a large family. He is the eldest of eight boys, with two older sisters and a younger one.

As a boy of seven, he enrolled in Anglo-Chinese Primary School but dropped out after a year as his father, a char kway teow hawker, and his housewife mother had a large family to take care of. To earn money, he helped his older sisters pick out good peppercorns from bad ones in warehouses .

He did this till about age 12, when he started working at a stall run by his father's friend. There, he learnt to fry char kway teow. He did not work at his father's stall as it was not doing well. "There was no choice about whether or not to learn how to fry char kway teow. I was asked to learn, so I learnt. I didn't think about whether I enjoyed cooking," he told The Straits Times, speaking in Mandarin.

Hawker Tan Teng Mui with a plate of his char kway teow, which he fries portion by portion. His stall, Sheng Cheng Char Kway Teow, where he sells the flat rice noodles and Hokkien mee, is at a coffee shop in Jalan Bukit Merah. The 67-year-old learnt how to prepare the dish at 12, and started his own stall when he was 17 to help support his family as his parents had 11 children. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

In 1967, when he was 17, he started his own stall under an overhead bridge near the former Thong Chai Medical Institution in Wayang Street, now Eu Tong Sen Street.

It was not just his wok that grew heated, but also the relationship between him and a stallholder nearby who sold the same dish.

"He saw that my business was good, so a dispute arose," he said, without giving details as he said he did not remember the incident well after some 50 years.

After nearly two decades in Wayang Street, he had to move in 1985 when the authorities decided to redevelop the area there.

In the 1970s, hawkers such as Mr Tan sold their food under the overhead bridge in the centre of the photo (above). The white building nearest to the bridge is the former Thong Chai Medical Institution. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAN TENG MUI

Along with other hawkers, he was relocated to the then Ellenborough Market, which has since been replaced by the Clarke Quay Central shopping mall and the Swissotel Merchant Court hotel.

But business was poor, he said. "It was bad. I couldn't even cover my capital costs. I just collected $20 to $30 each day."

He said his stall's location was probably one reason for the bad business - it was on the second level of the market, but the third level had more food stalls. Singapore was also in a recession then.

After a few months, he handed over his stall to his father and two younger brothers so they would continue to have a source of income, while he took on odd jobs. He worked as a helper at a chicken rice stall, a coffee stall assistant at Lau Pa Sat and a job at Lam Soon Group to help produce cooking oil.

Above is a photo of Mr Tan at his Jalan Bukit Merah stall in the late 1980s. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAN TENG MUI

In 1987, a friend told him of an available stall at a coffee shop, now called Fu Zhu 132, in Jalan Bukit Merah. With his savings of about $2,000, he set up his stall there and has stayed on ever since.

While business is not fantastic, given the low human traffic in the area around the coffee shop, which is far from the MRT station and bus interchange, he prefers to stay put as rentals elsewhere are higher.

But one thing has remained constant in the five decades that Mr Tan has been selling char kway teow - his original recipe and frying technique.

He fries the orders one by one. The noodles with crispy pork lard and fried egg are fragrant, the sweet and savoury flavours are well-balanced. He and his wife used to laboriously shuck the cockles, but he complained that cockles these days are too small, so he uses pre-shucked ones instead.

Food blogger Leslie Tay, who wrote a book titled The End Of Char Kway Teow And Other Hawker Mysteries that was published in 2010, said the dish has declined in popularity among hawkers and consumers.

"A good plate of char kway teow is difficult to replicate because producing it is largely dependent on the frying skills, and you need to fry each plate one by one for the dish to be tasty. Young people won't sell that dish when they can cook pasta more easily and sell it at higher prices," he told The Straits Times.

The ingredients needed are simple and relatively cheap, and are perceived to be cheap too, so customers are unlikely to buy a plate that costs more than $5, he added.

Asked to compare his business now with that 10 years ago, Mr Tan said it has worsened slightly, with profit margins narrower as costs have risen faster than the prices of the dishes he sells. He said he earns about $1,000 a month.

For instance, he said his stall rent has risen over the years, from about $550 a month when he moved in 30 years ago, to about $1,600.

"Prawns used to cost about $6 per kg; now they cost about $14 per kg. Sotong (squid) used to cost $3 to $5 per kg; now they cost $13 to $15 per kg," he said.

Thirty years ago, each plate of char kway teow was sold at $1.20 or $1.50. Now, a plate costs between $2.50 and $5.

"I can't increase prices further. If I raise prices, nobody would buy the food," he said.

Times have changed, he noted.

"Old customers pass away, some young customers work late and don't come by to eat, so there are fewer customers too," he added.

Meanwhile, Mr Tan said of his plans for the stall: "My daughters won't take over the stall lah. Two of them are already married and need to look after their kids."

He has four grandchildren, aged three months to 15 years.

He added: "For a rich man, no matter how much money he has, he can't take it with him when he dies. So I don't care too much about having a successor to improve the business, and I'll just continue working until I can't continue anymore."