Shentonista Seniors — The Iron Man

Stepping into Yeye’s house can be overwhelming. Almost every available nook and cranny is crammed with anything and everything you can imagine—ceramic figurines of Chinese deities; decorative trinkets for once-thriving fish tanks; a collection of ageing laser discs; chairs and sofas reclaimed from the void deck and given second life by Yeye’s deft hands. For Lesley, one of the members of our team, this house has been home to her Yeye, boisterous family gatherings, Chinese New Year lunches, and Qingming Festival rites for as long as she can remember.

For Father’s Day, we photographed her Yeye and father spending a rare moment together through the passing down of a family recipe—Yeye’s traditional sio bak, or roast pork. We also got to hear just a few of the many stories that Yeye has to tell—for example, how he used to be a weightlifter (the name ‘Iron Man’ was on his business card for his roast meats stall) and still regularly works out; how he converted his bedroom into his own private movie theatre, complete with a projection screen; or how he was quite a charming, motorcycle-riding, party-going youth. His affable, happy-go-lucky attitude, however, belies an entrepreneurial, innovative spirit—one that has helped him raise a family of eight children by sheer determination. In this feature, we celebrate not only that iron will, but also his caring heart.

Shentonista (S): Yeye, how and why did your parents come to Singapore?
Yeye (Y): I was born in Guangdong, China. It was hard to find jobs back in my parents’ hometown, so my father came to Singapore to find work. He ran a 洋货店 (‘Western goods store’, selling assorted home goods), and after the business was stable and he had found accommodation for our family, he arranged for someone we knew to bring my mother, my younger brother and myself over. I was five years old then.

S: What was it like growing up?
Y: We lived in an old shophouse on 豆腐街 (‘Tofu Street’, a colloquial term for Upper Chin Chew Street, located in Chinatown up until the late 1970s, so named for the beancurd sellers who plied their trade there). We would share one floor of the shophouse with ten other families, so it was very crowded. There was a common kitchen with four stoves, and the families would take turns to cook. We also had to take turns to shower and use the toilet. Some years later, when we were doing better financially, we moved out to a bigger unit nearby. Once, when I was 12, I went for an interview for an apprenticeship at a mechanical factory with ten other of my neighbours’ children. The rest of them got hired, but I didn’t because I was illiterate and couldn’t fill out a form we were handed.

Dad (D): We lived in a three-room flat in St. Michael’s Estate when I was growing up. We stayed there until 1968, when we moved to another three-room flat in Toa Payoh. There were 11 of us then—my father, mother and maternal grandmother, my seven siblings and myself. I remember that two of my brothers and I would sleep on mattresses in the living room, while the others would sleep under the bed.

Y: There wasn’t much space, so the children would be packed like sardines. I’d have to tiptoe over them when I left the house in the morning to go to the roast meats stall I ran.

D: There were enough of us to form a soccer team, and in fact we did—we played football in the house! (laughs) Every Sunday afternoon, the boys would move the furniture into the room and play football in the living room. We didn’t have much, but life in those days was simpler, and there weren’t many things that we needed to have. At the very least, we had three square meals a day, and sometimes we’d also have leftover food from the stall like roast pork and char siew, so all in all it wasn’t too bad. There was enough to go around.

S: Other than the roast meats, did your parents have any signature dishes that you liked?
D: My mother used to make a dish of steamed squid stuffed with minced pork. That was a real treat, but often we ate simply. We would just have salted soybeans with rice, and top it with soya sauce. On the children’s birthdays, the sibling whose birthday it was would get a chicken drumstick with their meal—the rest of us would just have to look on in envy. (laughs)

S: How was Yeye as a parent?
D: Both my mother and father were busy with the business, so we never got to spend much time with them. My grandmother was around, so she looked after us when we were younger. Later, when most of us were schooling, my elder sister took care of us. We learned to be independent, and fortunately we weren’t too naughty.

Y: I rarely got to spend time with my children. There were times when I would get up at 1 in the morning, and not come home until 10 at night. With my youngest, I remember just barely taking a moment to check on him when I left the house. I would just stroke their heads, checking to see if they were having a fever. It was because my own upbringing was tough that I wanted to make sure I could provide for my family and give them what they needed.

S: Did you have any childhood pastimes?
D: Most of the time, we’d play with our schoolmates who lived in the neighbourhood. We were taught that if we wanted something, we would have to make it ourselves, and so we used to make our own toys. My brothers made their own pinball machine from wood and rubber bands. When I was slightly older, one of my brothers and I liked to collect plastic model planes. We would save up whatever pocket money we had to buy the models, and we would assemble and paint them.

S: Do you have any childhood memories of Yeye, or the business?
D: On weekends, my brothers and I would head to the stall and help out with preparations. Business was hectic especially during the lunar 7th month, because people would order roast meats for Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations. He would roast the meats at the kitchen, while my mother tended the stall, which was a distance away. I remember loading up the meats into the baskets of our bicycles, and racing as we took the meats to our mother.

S: Yeye, how did you learn to make roast meats?
Y: It really happened by coincidence. I opened a convenience store at first. Later on, government regulations meant that we had to obtain licences for businesses, as well as take up a stall in a market instead of operating a business off the street. I applied for a licence for a convenience store, but on the day I was supposed to collect it, I was told that I hadn’t been issued one. The clerk told me that there was a licence available for a roast meats stall, and I took it, despite having no knowledge on how to make roast meats. I had to learn everything from scratch and get ready to do business, all in two weeks. I visited other roast meats stalls to observe the way they worked and sample their food. After tasting it, I would try to recreate the taste by trial and error. It was a process of continually experimenting and improving.

S: When did you start and why did you stop?
Y: I started the business when I was 20 years old. I would supply roast meats to other food stalls, like wanton noodles and chicken rice. The business ran for more than 30 years—it closed down in 1990, because my business partner gambled our savings away.

S: Was it your goal to have all of your children attend university? What did you hope they would do?
Y: In some way it was, since we had the means to allow them to attend university. I didn’t have a formal education, so it was important to me that my children had that opportunity—it’s hard to achieve anything without qualifications. If they hadn’t gone to university, I’d have wished for them to take over my business. Of course, no one wants to manage a hawker business now; it’s too difficult. Young people now have it much easier, you’re more highly educated and you work in comfort in air-conditioned offices.

S: Has your childhood shaped the way you brought up your children?
D: Yes and no. I think that back in the day, our parents wanted us to go to university and become doctors and lawyers. As we grew older, we started pursuing our own paths. My parents didn’t influence us all that much in what they hoped we would do. Of my siblings, five of us went to university, and we’ve done quite well. Times are different now. I don’t have many expectations for my daughters, other than wanting them to be able to attend university and do well in their studies. As for my hopes for them, I just hope that they work in professions they enjoy, that they’ll hopefully settle down and that I’ll have grandchildren. (laughs)

S: You have family gatherings at least once every two months—did you all consciously decide that it’s something you want to do?
Y: We didn’t have time for regular family meals back when I was still running the business. The regular gatherings only started taking place after I’d retired.

D: We started having gatherings before my mother passed away. She was ill, so we made it a point to meet up every month at our siblings’ homes, so the family could spend more time together.

S: What are your hopes for your kids, grandkids, and greatgrandkids?
Y: I just want them to be in good health.

S: What’s something you’ve wanted to tell each other but have never found the chance to?
Y: It’s enough that my children are filial, and stay healthy.

D: We don’t really have conversations like that as a family. For us, we express our closeness through the gatherings and having dinner together.

Yeye’s Sio Bak
2kg of fresh pork belly—if not using immediately, refrigerate
Five spice powder
Salt & pepper

When you’re ready to cook, use a knife to pierce different parts of the meat.
Steam for about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the meat, until the skin is cooked (it should harden slightly). Remove.
After the meat has cooled, prick the skin with a meat poker/tenderizer. This allows moisture to escape, making for crispy skin after it’s roasted.
Rub a mixture of five-spice powder, pepper, and salt into the meat, and pierce with a knife again. Rub a small amount of the mixture onto the skin as well.
Wrap the meat in a plastic bag, then in newspaper, and put the meat in the freezer, skin side down. After two hours, turn the meat over so the skin side is up, and continue freezing until the next day (or a few days later, when you’re ready to cook).
Take the meat out of the freezer and put it straight into the air fryer or oven with the skin facing up, and roast it at 250°C for about 45 minutes.
At this stage the meat is 75% cooked; remove, let it cool, wrap in newspaper, and freeze overnight.
For the final roast, the meat goes straight into the air fryer or oven once again, skin side up. Roast the meat once more at 250°C for about 1 hour, till skin is brown and crispy.

Lesley says:
Yeye always makes his roast pork for family gatherings; it’s one thing we always look forward to, and it’s usually the first dish to be wiped clean before the meal properly begins. It’s quite different from the typical roast pork you get from a regular store—much meatier and heartier, with a subtle aroma from the spices, skin that crackles as you cut into it, and juicy layers of sinful fat. The best way to eat it: with your fingers, and while it’s still warm. It’s the dish that we always take photos of to send to envious family members who are studying or working abroad, and I think my dad is only the second one in the family to attempt to learn how to make this dish. I never knew how much work and preparation went into the making of this until now, and the fact that Yeye uncomplainingly, painstakingly takes the time to make his sio bak for every gathering only makes it that much more precious—something that I hope our family can continue to make for years to come.

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