Geylang might be (in)famous for its questionable roadside vendors, array of 24/7 eateries, and neon-lighted storefronts, but what most don’t know is that its outskirts house a hidden hawker find — Wang Ji Seafood Restaurant. Just a stone’s throw away from the Shentonista office, Wang Ji has been our go-to stall for a tzechar fix in the bustling area.
For the unfamiliar, tzechar stalls are commonly found in almost any neighbourhood coffeeshop in Singapore, serving up a plethora of dishes ranging from meats, seafood, fried rice, noodles, and much more. Tzechar’s your bourgeois version of a fancy restaurant, sans starched tablecloths, air-conditioning, and uniformed servers, and it’s a usual sight to see large extended families gathered for dinner, or old uncles reuniting over plates of chilli crab and mugs of beer.
Wang Ji’s not known for fancy creations, but instead, typical tzechar staples done well — think rich and luscious Salted Egg Yolk Pork Ribs, flavourful 3-Egg Vegetables, and a fiery Assam Fish Head. Food aside, it’s really the husband-and-wife duo behind the business that keeps us coming back: Mr. Tan, commonly sighted on his trusty, aging bicycle, making deliveries to customers in the vicinity, and Patricia, whose generosity, sincerity and welcoming smile never fails to brighten up our day. We speak to them in this edition of Shentonista Eats to find out more about their experiences as hawkers and business owners.
Shentonista (S): Could you tell us more about how Wang Ji Seafood came about?
Patricia (P): I started it with my friends and my brother. We initially wanted to do Thai food, but it was so difficult to get the Thai chefs, permits and all that, so we decided to switch to Chinese tzechar. After that, the rest dropped out but I continued.
Mr. Tan (T): We live just upstairs, and the previous boss of this coffeeshop told us there was a vacant unit. We said, since it’s so near, just right below us, why not give it a try?
S: Is this your first venture into F&B?
P: I ran the staff club in NTU when I was 21, so I’ve been in F&B for about 29, 30 years in all.
S: Why tzechar then, and not specialised food stalls selling fishball noodles or chicken rice for example?
P: I think it’s more interesting, because of the variety of dishes.
T: We love to eat tzechar, even before we started Wang Ji.
S: In your opinion, why do Singaporeans like tzechar?
P: I suppose it’s cheaper than eating out at a restaurant, and tzechar stalls are usually below HDBs, so it’s convenient for people to walk downstairs to eat.
S: How did you develop the menu? What’s the process like when creating new dishes?
P: We started with a standardised menu, and added on other dishes. The chefs would tell us “Okay, we’re gonna try this dish”, and before it’s out to customers we taste it first to see whether it’s good. On weekends, the chefs will just cook what they want. It may be dishes like claypot pork ribs, or duck, or crayfish.
T: Our chefs are really not bad — they told us that they are able to cook any dish we’d like!
S: What are your signature dishes/specialties?
T: We have a lot of signature dishes, like the Assam Fish Head, Curry Fish Head, and the Guiwei Chicken. The 潮州虾枣 (Teochew Shrimp Balls) and the 腐皮虾卷 (Fried Beancurd Skin Shrimp Roll) too.
P: Most of the people here will also enjoy our Salted Egg Yolk dishes, be it prawns, crabs, or pork ribs.
S: What’s a typical day like for you?
T: We start our day from 12 noon and work until 2.15pm. We’ll head upstairs to rest, come back down at 4.30pm, and work till 11.15pm at night. From the start of the day till the end it’s about 10 hours, but I won’t say it’s very long, because we rest in the afternoon.
S: So how did the both of you meet?
T: Many years ago already! We met when Patricia was working at a previous hawker stall. I ate at her stall, and I kept going back — that’s how I got to know her. That was over 20 years ago. I’m older than Patricia by 17 years. I’m now 67 years old.
S: What is one of your funniest memories from when you just met?
P: I was still working for my uncle at the yong tau foo stall, and at the end of every day ah, Mr. Tan would come and 打包 (takeaway) all the remaining yong tau foo, just so that I could go home!
T: I didn’t like the food, so I bought it for other people to eat! But I wanted to support her, and when the business was doing well she’d be happy.
S: Patricia, is there one thing you’ve learnt about yourself after working in F&B, and working with Mr. Tan?
P: Must be patient. (laughs) He is very uptight and can get he’s very mang zang (Cantonese for “distressed, flustered”) when there are a lot of people, but he is also very willing to cycle out to deliver food to people.
S: Yes we’ve noticed that Mr. Tan personally delivers food to the nearby area. Why did you add that service?
P: This is an old estate, so there are a lot of old people. Some can’t walk, sometimes they’re sick and have no food, so they’ll call me and say, “I’m not feeling well, can you help me to deliver my food?” We decided to do it because they’re our customers, and we see them all the time, so why not provide this service to all in the area?
S: We also notice that you serve fruits to your customers. Why do you do so?
P: Over here, everyone works throughout the afternoon, and they might lack fruits when they’re working. So instead of giving the usual desserts after their meals, we decided to give them something healthier instead.
S: Have you been doing this from the start?
T: Yes, because we want to make sure our customers are happy every time they visit us. Whether they order a lot or even if they’re just having a plate of $3.50 河粉 (Stir-Fried Rice Noodles), they’ll also have fruits to eat.
S: What do you think is the most essential quality a hawker should have?
T: It’s most important to be polite to customers. The food must also be okay of course, cannot be too terrible. But I think being polite still comes first.
P: Some hawkers can be very rude, and it makes customers feel very irritated.
T: No matter the situation, we still have to be tolerant. We can’t get upset even if customers are impatient. In this line, you need to have a high level of tolerance. Anyway, the customer is always right, to be very honest.
S: What kind of challenges do you face as a hawker?
T: Hmm, because I’m not the chef, it’s not very difficult on me. (How about challenges you may face as a boss?) It’s also never been very challenging because all our workers are very happy working with us. They do their jobs well, and we’re happy too.
S: Have you had an encounter with a customer that’s been memorable to you, in a good way?
P: For most of our customers, we try to remember what they like and what they don’t like. There are certain people who don’t take certain things, so whenever we bring it up they’ll say, “Wah, you remember!”
S: What’s your favourite part about being a hawker?
T: I like to watch the crowd.
P: Meeting people, actually, and talking to them. You meet people every day, you talk, and you have different kinds of food to try — it’s quite interesting.
S: Was this something you always wanted to do?
T: I’ve never thought of doing this before; it was very sudden. And time has passed very fast.
P: It’s a passion for food; the first time I opened a restaurant was because of a cook. His food was very good, so we decided to hire him and start a restaurant.
S: If you weren’t working as a hawker right now, what do you think you would be doing?
T: I was already retired before we started this business.
P: I was in the golf industry for about 10 years, but if I could do anything, I would want to be in fashion. I always ask my daughter to study or work in fashion. (Like becoming a fashion designer?) Anything, you know. I find it very interesting, the process of making the clothes and making pretty things. (laughs)
S: What do you do on your days off?
T: We don’t have off-days, because the workers insist they don’t need any. Instead, they rotate amongst themselves and take turns to rest.
P: We like food, any kind of food so long as it’s nice. So sometimes, on weekend afternoons for example, my kids and I will go out to try different types of food. From French, to Japanese, to Korean. (Does Mr. Tan join you?) Uncle only likes Chinese food, so at night when we go to Korean BBQs he doesn’t like it!
T: I know it’s nice, but I don’t dare to eat it.
P: He’s very weird lah!
S: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the hawker business?
P: Well, there’s no holiday. (laughs) You can’t take an off-day during a public holiday because that’s when the crowd comes in. You also need to know how to keep your customers, I suppose through good customer service, talking to them and getting to know them.
Wang Ji Seafood Restaurant
Block 45 Sims Drive, #01-180, S 380045
Opening hours: 12–2.15PM, 4.30–11.15PM
Update: Wang Ji has shifted to a new location since we last spoke to them.
Wang Ji Seafood Restaurant
45 Syed Alwi Road, #01-01, Wangfa Coffeeshop, S 207636
Opening hours: 3PM-1AM