Shentonista Eats — In Good Company

When it comes to longevity, few stalls can claim to have the heritage that Hong Guan Cooked Food has. The first stall opened in 1986, and for three decades, they’ve been serving up tze char classics for the hungry hordes in Jurong West. There’s been a wind of change lately, however; the stall relocated to its current premises in 2005, and there’s been talk of a changing of hands at the helm.

Hong Guan started out with humble origins; like many of the hawkers in earlier generations, the stall was set up by Mr. Ong, who, with no education and no prior experience, decided to earn his living in the kitchen. The first incarnation—a fish soup and pork trotters stall—didn’t fare too well, but like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, Hong Guan soon thrived as a tze char stall. They might just be getting second wind, too, if Mr. Ong’s son, Keith, takes over the business. Keith represents a new generation who has come to realise the value of hawker culture, the importance of keeping a family business going, and a family together. His mother, Mdm. Toh, and Hong Guan’s chef, Mr. Tan, are all of one mind as well—being a hawker is no mean feat, with the gruelling hours and labour, but this is a family that believes it’s the people that make a difference. They understand that most times, it’s not so much what you do, but who you do it with, and it’s this mindset that will take Hong Guan into the next 30 years and beyond.

How did Hong Guan come about?

Keith: We used to be villagers from the rural area in Lim Chu Kang, rearing pigs to sell, but we had to relocate to the city when I was 12 years old because of urbanisation. My father had no skill or education, so he decided to start a hawker business. We started off by selling food that was easier to prepare, like fish soup and braised pork trotters. Business was not good, so we got a bit worried after a few weeks. But one day, a retired cook happened to ask if my father wanted to start a tze char business, so Hong Guan began from there.

Besides Mr. Tan, who cooks, what are your main roles at Hong Guan Cooked Food?

Mr. Ong: I am the stall owner, lah. (laughs) I cut the meat and vegetables inside the kitchen. In the past it was the same; I’d prepare the ingredients for the chef. Now I’ve hired Mr. Tan as well, who has been with me for over 20 years.

Mdm. Toh: I just help with the preparing the ingredients. (Mr Ong chimes in: “Pao tai, lah.” Pao tai (跑台) directly translates to ‘running the stage’, which means to serve food to customers.) (laughs) Yes; at night when the shop opens, I’ll help with serving the food to the customers.

Keith: For now, I just come down over the weekends to help out. I help with the cooking, occasionally. When they want to prepare a dish, I go around and pick ingredients from each corner. My wife and sister help out with my father’s role. We have no experience as cooks, so one of us would man the counter while the other would be on clean-up duty in the kitchen. We’ll also help monitor the fire for the claypots.

How was the menu developed? Has it been modified over the years?

Mr. Ong: We didn’t really create any dishes, it’s mostly what we’ve learnt. We’d see that other people have a certain dish on the menu, and we’d learn how to prepare it.

Mr. Tan: When Hong Guan started, there weren’t so many dishes. We expanded the menu based on what I knew and could cook when I joined them.

Mdm. Toh: The Curry Fish Head was created by the first chef in 1988, and at that time we did not put in assam. The assam was Mr. Tan’s idea.

Mr. Tan: We found out that our neighbouring stall sold assam dishes, so we thought that the customers here might come looking for that. We decided to follow suit! We have to adapt. There was also a period of time when there was an epidemic and the authorities stopped pork imports into Singapore. Poultry was not affected, so we improvised and decided to use chicken thigh for our gu lou yok (sweet and sour meat, usually prepared with pork), and it’s been prepared that way ever since then. Generally, we don’t really modify the dishes, because the customers will make a fuss the moment you charge a higher price. We like to make dishes which can be prepared fast, because the lunch crowd here are all workers from factories with an hour of lunch time.

Hong Guan has been around for over 30 years. How have you seen the environment and business change?

Keith: There used to be four to six stalls selling curry fish head at our previous location. But when we shifted over to this area, the older generation started to retire; stalls closed down. Unless it’s in a good location, people will not rent the stalls, and if the stalls are not taken over by the younger generation, most of the stalls would disappear. That’s why the government was thinking about knocking down one part of the market, shifting the stalls backward and putting more seats in the front. We’re pretty much against the idea, because to us, it’s like a matter of feng shui. If you knock something down and build something else up, things might be different and may in turn affect our business.

How was it like growing up with a family in the hawker business?

Keith: I studied in a secondary school located in town. My peers were all children of engineers and businessmen, so I felt different from them. Of course, there’s nothing to be shameful about. Over the weekends, we would go over to help out at the shop. But my father thought that we should concentrate on our studies instead, so we only helped out when there were no exams or unless absolutely necessary. After we completed our degree studies in the universities, we started going back to help over the weekends. At that time, we didn’t have any hired cleaners, so most of our jobs were to clean tables and collect dirty dishes. Then once we moved to this current location, we hired some helpers so our roles changed.

How do you feel about Keith wanting to take over the business?

Mdm. Toh: If he wants to do, then he can go ahead. Then I’ll retire! (Mr Ong adds: “He wants to do it, but I don’t know if he can.”) It’s a very tough business!

Mr. Ong: It’s not that I don’t want him to take over, but I told him that he cannot do it alone. If he wants to do it then I’ll just let him. Once he gets older, his company won’t want him anymore either. People have been telling me that having your own business is better than working for others, but I think if you want to have your own business, you’ll need to hire a worker whom you can get along well with.

What are your thoughts on being a hawker, or hawker culture?

Mr. Tan: If you really want to be a hawker, you need a lot of patience. It’s a tough job with the heat and long hours. You can’t start a hawker business and expect people to stream in immediately, you have to wait for them to slowly appear. It’s like growing crops—you have to wait for the vegetables to be ripe to harvest them. If still nobody comes around, you’ll know that there’s an issue with your food. After you work for a while, you will naturally grow a customer base. If you can’t retain customers, you’ll eventually die out.

Keith: Hawkers are what we grow up with; it’s a place where we go to have simple and cheap food. It’s not expensive and fancy, but it’s like home-cooked food, especially for tze char. It’s not like a posh restaurant where there are people to serve you; you can get together and enjoy economical food in a very authentic setting. Being a hawker is tough work that not many people are willing to do. Take a look at the stalls here—most of them are from the older generation and eventually, I believe something uniquely different will happen. I hope that this will continue. It’s our lifestyle.

Mr. Ong: The hawker centres over the years haven’t changed much, but the people have. Nowadays, you ask them to wait for a bit, and they will start to make noise! That’s why we don’t work on Sundays—there are too many people and they keep asking us if the food is ready; they don’t want to wait.

Left: Hong Guan was previously located at Corporation Drive Market and Food Centre.
Right: Their previous chef Ah Shui (阿细).

Why do you continue doing what you’re doing, then?

Mr. Tan: It makes me happy when the customer comes back and says the food was delicious. I didn’t have an education, and at my age, if I can just continue working here, why not just carry on with it? Every one gets along well, and we’re happy working together. Ultimately, it’s best when you can get along well with the people you work with.

Keith: I feel that the hawker trade is dying. Most of the hawker centers around Singapore are mostly run by foreign workers, but I feel that this is part of our Singaporean culture and I would like to continue it. On top of that, my father has created an established business, and I feel that it’s my duty to continue after they decide to stop working. My parents have laid down a good foundation for this business; it’s not a big or fantastic business, but it still has a good foundation. Aside from that, I want to do something that is my own, and be able to run it the way I want. Not everyone has that opportunity, but I do. In my current job, I’ve been travelling around for work. I always believe that going overseas is to ‘earn a living’, while coming back home is ‘living’; to live a life, so to speak. Wherever else I work, I feel like I’m just an employee, and there’ll be a day when I’ll be out of a job. Being a hawker, although it’s not a glamorous job, is still our family business.

Keith, what are your plans for the stall?

Keith: There’s no plan for me to take over just yet as my parents still want to continue working. They are 74 years old this year; usually people want to rest at that age, but my parents, though they have started to slow down, have no intentions to stop working. They believe that if they stop, they’re just waiting for things to happen. We are Chinese, and the Chinese don’t sit down and plan for things. (laughs) I’ll just help out till the day that my parents decide to stop working, then take over. My sister is helping out too, because our parents are old, and it’s difficult to find workers. We have professional jobs now, and my sister doesn’t have any intentions of working in the family business, but when we get on with life, I hope to eventually rope her in to work on this together. I initially said I’d take over when I was 40 years old, because that was the age that my father started out at as well, but it’s not realistic in the sense that times have changed and our needs are different—we have our own kids and families. Money is still an important factor in sustaining a family.

What are some challenges that you foresee for Hong Guan?

Keith: It’s partly tough to continue because we have a dwindling fish supply. We prefer to use fish that’s caught from the sea, as opposed to those reared in farms. We realised that as the hawkers grow older, so do the fishermen, and there’re lesser fishermen now, and hence lesser supply of those fish. It’s difficult to continue the business because of that, as well as the long hours, and how difficult it is to find someone to work with you. We were lucky that after our first cook retired, we were introduced to Mr. Tan. It’s a matter of fate. I have yet to learn anything about cooking, but I feel that it’s important to learn how to order and prepare the ingredients and sauces. We currently don’t have a recipe or a systematic way of doing things, because they cook based on their experience. Mr. Tan, for example, uses a big spoon to scoop the assam for our Curry Fish Head, but he doesn’t have a specific amount which he adds. He has amassed so much experience that he is able to gauge the amount of seasoning to perfect the dish. However, when we come in, we’ll want to have a system so it’s easier for us to take over.

How do you think your work experience and background will help in taking over the stall?

Keith: I work in engineering for a consultancy. Although my work now is in a totally different industry, ultimately I believe everything will be digitised, like those e-commerce companies such as Foodpanda. Businesses will develop to include electronic order and delivery systems. We will eventually be bringing these things into Hong Guan. The food and ingredients will remain the same, but the way we sell it will be different —like putting up Facebook advertisements and all sorts of other channels. We can also catch up with all the electronic stuff, which would affect how we manage our resources, such as procuring of ingredients. If there are technological advances, we cannot remain the same. The preparation, look, and taste of the food should be the same, but the business side, comprising of the selling and serving, should be a little different.

If you are going to take over the stall, how do you plan to grow it or keep it going?

Keith: I want to remain as authentic as possible. I don’t have any plans to make it big, or open an eating house. If it’s possible to continue, I want to continue working at this very shop.

Hong Guan Cooked Food
3 Yung Sheng Road
#03-139/140 Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre
Singapore 618499
Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11:00am–01:30pm & 04:30pm–09:00pm

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