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The Remarkable Female Trailblazers in Singapore’s Hawker Scene

By Sng Ler Jun

68-year-old Madam Lai Yau Kiew is the maternal figure to the family-owned and female-led Ji Ji Wanton Noodle establishment. She runs the business with two of her daughters.
 
Tung Pham
68-year-old Madam Lai Yau Kiew is the maternal figure to the family-owned and female-led Ji Ji Wanton Noodle establishment. She runs the business with two of her daughters.

If women were supposedly meant to take charge of the kitchen, why are there so few female faces in the culinary world?

Across the world, women have long been celebrities in the kitchen, whipping up scrumptious dishes — of soups, rotisserie numbers, pastries and desserts — and fuelling up hungry souls at home (and professional kitchens, too). Yet, in the foray of celebrated male chefs, who front the covers of food magazines or culinary journals, the sparse adulation of female chefs has become increasingly palpable.

Leafing through the pages of history, it is almost as if the culinary world is nothing but a boys’ club. The Time magazine’s “13 Gods of Food” controversy, which featured only four women and none of them were chefs, in 2013 is a testament to the dearth of media coverage on female chefs in the kitchen. While it is gratifying to bear witness to more female chefs voicing out over the years, cultural tastemakers, like food writers and food critics, are often known to diminish or sensationalise the achievements of those few who managed to break the mould.

Diving deep into Singapore’s vibrant hawker culture — where affordable, comfort food is a go-getter, and where heritage and gastronomical wonders coalesce — female figures are as much the trailblazers as their male counterparts. These are women who grew up amid the tight heat of a hawker stall, who gave up their comfortable white-collar jobs to carry on family legacies, and who move the needle to bring sumptuous food to the table.

Speaking to three locally-owned establishments whose kitchens are spearheaded by such female trailblazers, it would not take long for one to be admired by their unabashed furore for preserving their predecessors’ craft.

Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff

Tung Pham Madam Ow Siew Kheng, second-generation ex-owner of Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff, kneading the shortcrust pastry together in the kitchen along East Coast Road.
Madam Ow Siew Kheng, second-generation ex-owner of Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff, kneading the shortcrust pastry together in the kitchen along East Coast Road.
Tung Pham Tay Mui Lan and Madam Ow Siew Kheng, the mother-daughter duo who runs Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff. Tay, who has had to give up her full-time secretarial role to take over the store from her mother, has been running the outlet for a decade now.
Tay Mui Lan and Madam Ow Siew Kheng, the mother-daughter duo who runs Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff. Tay, who has had to give up her full-time secretarial role to take over the store from her mother, has been running the outlet for a decade now.

“The real chefs in life are the women. Look at our childhood, we have always been fed by our mother or grandmothers. No matter how good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant the food is, women are often seen feeding us,” says Tay Mui Lan, the third-generation owner of Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff.

As a teenager, Tay and her sisters would return to the confines of the kitchen at Eunos Crescent after they were dismissed from school, where their mother, Madam Ow Siew Kheng, and grandmother, Madam Lim Sai Hong, were. There, they rendered their assistance and cut their teeth to create the popular short-crust pastry.  

“There are many things to do in the kitchen. Potatoes need to be peeled, diced and steamed. Chicken meat had to be fried and added to our homemade curry. Dough needs to be rolled out, filled, and kneaded together,” she explains.

For Tay, her foray into the family business was a conscious and pragmatic decision. Hearing Madam Ow’s contemplation to shut its doors due to manpower shortage eventually spurred her to quit her full-time secretarial position and manage the family business in 2009. 2019 marks her decade-long commitment in the business.

“[Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff] was established in 1992 by my late grandmother. My mother succeeded my grandmother, and I took over from my mother. The recipe we use has yet changed over the last 27 years,” says Tay. “My late grandmother and mother are my inspirations. They had put in so much effort. Since so many people enjoy eating our curry puffs, it would be a waste if we stopped altogether. I don’t want that.”

Tung PhamMadam Ow placing a wedge of hard-boiled egg into the curry puff.
Madam Ow placing a wedge of hard-boiled egg into the curry puff.
Tung PhamThe flaky and crispy curry puff exterior is a signature that sets Soon Soon Huat’s apart from the traditional epok-epok variant.
The flaky and crispy curry puff exterior is a signature that sets Soon Soon Huat’s apart from the traditional epok-epok variant.

With influences from the Portuguese empanada, Indian samosa, and British Cornish pastry, curry puffs are no foreign snacks in Singapore. The pastries at Soon Soon Huat Curry Puff is made from two different doughs, which gives them the brand’s signature flaky and layered exterior. Each curry puff is freshly made and fried every day by Tay and Madam Ow. Its flavour range spans across the traditional curry chicken, spicy sardine, and sweet custard to list a few.

At a time when no other staff were hired in the kitchen, the mother and daughter duo used to run the bulk of the kitchen operation themselves. While Tay has hired an extra staff or two over the years, the situation today still hasn’t changed much. The duo still subjects themselves to menial and taxing labour, including cleaning toilets, hoisting 25-kilogram sacks of flour and lugging 16-kilogram tins of oil about. “We do everything. There is no scope in the kitchen. There are no bosses; we are one family. When we work together, we are like a family,” says Tay matter-of-factly.

Recalling a time when the three-generation pastry makers spent in their old kitchens, Tay reveals, “One of us would roll the dough, another one would add the fillings, and finally my grandmother would be the one who kneads the curry puffs together.”

Wistfully, Madam Ow adds, “We chat in the kitchen. We don’t do things quietly. In doing so, we bond as a mother and daughter.”

Ji Ji Wanton Noodles

Of the encyclopaedic selection of food within Singapore’s hawker centres, some of the loveliest dishes are often the simplest. The traditional bowl of wanton noodles is one of such effortless delicacies. A dish of versatility, a bowl of wanton noodles — which comes in both dry and soup variations — often makes a fitting choice for a hearty breakfast, a light lunch bite, or even a nourishing dinner for the weary soul.

Given that there is already an abundance of stalls proffering the Cantonese dish, few can boast to be like Ji Ji Wanton Noodles, who has had half a century worth of history and had even been invited to operate a booth at the prestigious “The Michelin’s Guide’s Street Food Festival”.

Tung PhamKristen Choong manning the counter at Ji Ji Wanton Noodles’ stall. She is the elder of two sisters, both of which are third-generation hawkers.
Kristen Choong manning the counter at Ji Ji Wanton Noodles’ stall. She is the elder of two sisters, both of which are third-generation hawkers.
Tung PhamJill Choong is the younger of the two sisters.
Jill Choong is the younger of the two sisters.

“Our stall name translates to ‘Remember Foundation’,” says Kristen Choong, the third-generation owner at Ji Ji Wanton Noodles. “My grandmother termed it. She wants us to remember that no matter what we do, there are foundations and roots that we have to remember.” She whips out an old photograph of her grandparents manning the booth by the streets in the early ’50s.

Choong, who is joined by her younger sister, Jill Choong, and her mother, Madam Lai Yau Kiew, are the three female hawkers behind Ji Ji Wanton Noodle. Together, they own three consecutive outlets at Hong Lim Market Food Centre and another standalone eatery along Kreta Ayer.

Madam Lai, the second-generation owner, began her culinary journey as a helper to her parents, who peddled by the streets. She was in her teenage years then. “There are many wanton noodles stores around Singapore. I wanted something different,” says Madam Lai, who now has over four decades of experience. “I wanted my dish to be special. I wanted people to come back.”

During an epoch when authorities began evicting street peddlers to hawker centres, the two sisters, like her mother, began learning the ins and outs of the trade as teenagers. Reminiscing her earlier years, the younger sister Jill recounts, “As children of a hawker seller, we would head straight down to the stall after we were dismissed from school. We would help to serve the food, keep, clean and wash the plates and bowls.”

The journey as a hawker is far from being a bed of roses: Injuries, in varied forms, are common occurrences. Unfortunately for Madam Lai, she had drawn the short end of the stick. With excruciating hours, standing and jostling about the tight confines of the booth, and little rest in between — the stall operates daily with no off days — the cartilages around her joints had worn out and a major knee operation left the 68-year-old sapped of energy. Once, her varicose vein ruptured while she was working, leaving the hawker floor stained with blood.  

Tung PhamStanding and jostling about for long periods, Madam Lai Yau Kiew's cartilages had worn out and a major knee surgery left her sapped of energy. Nonetheless, the 68-year-old still returns to help her daughters out every day.
Standing and jostling about for long periods, Madam Lai Yau Kiew's cartilages had worn out and a major knee surgery left her sapped of energy. Nonetheless, the 68-year-old still returns to help her daughters out every day.
Tung PhamThe stall’s award-winning wanton noodle is known for its springy noodles, rich sauce, and of course, the pork dumplings. Devoid of shrimp and water chestnuts, the dumplings may not be as crunchy as other wantons, but they are nonetheless chewy and hold a satisfying peppery kick.
The stall’s award-winning wanton noodle is known for its springy noodles, rich sauce, and of course, the pork dumplings. Devoid of shrimp and water chestnuts, the dumplings may not be as crunchy as other wantons, but they are nonetheless chewy and hold a satisfying peppery kick.

As Madam Lai was forced into semi-retirement, the two sisters took over the reins at Ji Ji Wanton Noodles. Despite having worked in the same kitchen together for the last two decades, they, too, encountered some basis of discrimination.

“People would tell us, ‘Why are the women cooking? Or are you the daughters of the previous owner? Can you cook as well as your mother?’,” says Jill, the younger of the two sisters. “There are times when we are stressed and tired, we put on a long face. Some would say, ‘You guys are rude.’ But we cannot help it. Maybe they thought it wasn’t okay for women to not put on a smile and be nurturing everywhere.”

It has been six years since the sisters took over the operation at Hong Lim Market Food Centre. Nonetheless, Madam Lai still returns to offer her assistance, albeit a recently fractured wrist rendered her incapable to conduct strenuous chores. Where food on the table come from or how they have come to be conceived is something few people ponder about. For the women behind Ji Ji Wanton Noodles, the narrative is one that goes beyond just preserving traditions. It is predominantly one about seizing the day and to live in the moment.  

Kristen adds, “Every day is memorable here. We’re doing this for our mother. A day more I spend with her is a day lesser she has left to spend with me. I want to be with them. I only have the two of them, so every single second counts.”

Tong Heng Egg Tarts

The making of traditional Cantonese and Chinese pastry is a serious business. From baby showers to marriage rituals, festive treats to birthday celebrations, ceremonious Cantonese and Chinese pastries are ubiquitous and pervasive in many Southeast-Asian countries. Singapore, too, has a fair share of bakeries which proffer these traditional pastries.

Yet, in an era so focused on relying on machinery for mass production, many have veered away from the revered tradition of hand-making these traditional pastries (or any pastries for that matter). Those who are adamant about sticking to its roots are far and few between. Long-standing pastry shop Tong Heng, whose egg tarts remain as perennial favourites today, is one of those who relied on few types of machinery.

With roots that go as far back as the early 1920s, Tong Heng was once a pushcart hawker selling beverage and pastries. It wasn’t until 1935, when the founder, Mr. Fong Chee Heng, founded a brick-and-mortar outlet along Smith Street in the Chinatown district. Today, the outlet is manned by the third and fourth-generation owners.

Tung Pham Ana Fong, fourth-generation worker of Tong Heng, preparing the dough for a small batch of pastries on the kitchen's iconic metallic table, where staff members and herself would eat, celebrate and toss yusheng on together.
Ana Fong, fourth-generation worker of Tong Heng, preparing the dough for a small batch of pastries on the kitchen's iconic metallic table, where staff members and herself would eat, celebrate and toss yusheng on together.
Tung Pham Keeping true to its traditional roots, Tong Heng workers use an old-school kettle to fill the tarts with egg. To date, Tong Heng has had close to a century worth of history.
Keeping true to its traditional roots, Tong Heng workers use an old-school kettle to fill the tarts with egg. To date, Tong Heng has had close to a century worth of history.

My great-grandfather was the one who started Tong Heng. The wives and daughters (and sons) often worked in the kitchen. We were a big family and we didn’t need to engage everyone,” says Ana Fong, the fourth-generation family member who operates the present-day flagship store on South Bridge Road. “When the third-generation — my aunties — wanted to take over, my grandfather, who had taken over, was against it. It was tough work and my grandfather wanted my aunties to get married.”

People back in the days, Fong says, knew their food well. “They were very thrifty and they would not pay for things that are not tasty,” she says as she nimbly kneads the dough onto the rhombus mould, cautiously thumbing down on uneven surfaces and spreading excess dough towards the edges on the kitchen’s metallic table. “This table is where we eat every day. During Chinese New Year, we would pull a huge cling wrap over and toss our yusheng [a festive salad comprising raw salmon, sliced vegetables and different sauces] here. This table is where we work, celebrate birthdays and eat together,” says Fong.

For the third-generation owners of the time-honoured brand, sisters Madam Rebecca and Madam Constance Fong are innovators at heart. Displaying the steely virtues of the fairer sex, the sister-duo transformed the former cha shi (or traditional Chinese café) into a full-fledged pastry shop while expanding the brand’s menu over the years. “People know about us,” Madam Constance Fong declares in Cantonese. “They know that we have been helping out for the longest time, and they know what we can do with our egg tarts. We even have people singing praises to us that we do it better than our dad.”

Tung PhamMadam Constance Fong (left), one of Ana's aunties and mentors, is the third-generation owner of Tong Heng. The aunt-niece partners now run the flagship outlet at South Bridge Road. The outlet has since undergone a major facelift, the first in three decades.
Madam Constance Fong (left), one of Ana's aunties and mentors, is the third-generation owner of Tong Heng. The aunt-niece partners now run the flagship outlet at South Bridge Road. The outlet has since undergone a major facelift, the first in three decades.

For decades, Tong Hong continues to become a brand synonymous with retaining traditions and heritage. And perhaps it is in this spirit of continuing the family’s legacy that spurred the niece of Madam Rebecca and Madam Constance Fong to learn the nuts and bolts of the trade.

“I decided to return despite having turned them down once. I have seen that they have aged and that no one is keen to learn the craft. And I guess, that was what my bosses wanted. They wanted someone to know the craft like the back of her hand,” says Fong. “But words are cheap, actions need to prove it. So, for the first three years, I committed at least 10 hours daily. I started from scratch and placed a lot of effort.”

Like her female predecessors, Fong is both inquisitive and ambitious. Noticing how Tong Heng’s customers belonged to the older generation, she proposed a facelift, aimed at targeting the younger generations with modern-day designs, for the brand. When her predecessors eventually came to an agreement, the bakery underwent a five-week long renovation, the first in three decades.

Now equipped with a white terrazzo island counter, which displays a selection of pastries on polished marble, several cushioned seats and table, and sparsely adorned with brass elements and motifs from the brands’ signature pastries, stepping into the brightly-lit bakery is akin to stepping into a hipster café. There is a sense of duality in this space, one steeped in tradition and imbued with modernity. “I did not anticipate I would get the green light to do the rebranding. I regard this facelift as an achievement,” says Fong.  

If there is anything that can be learnt from observing Fong’s interactions over the island counter, it is that locals return not only because Tong Heng’s confections are delicious, but it is because Fong, her aunties, and their workers are constantly reminding customers of their roots, and perhaps a memory of their mom feeding them egg tarts.

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