Sharing a table with strangers

Hawker selling hor fun, fish porridge, and other Singaporean food at a hawker centre at Holland Village | ShopkeeperStories.com

The aunty in pink has been working as a hawker for over 40 years! As I sat near her stall chowing down a delicious plate of “hor fun” (flat white noodles), a man in his 70s came by with a bottle of beer and asked if he could sit at my table. I said: sure. Hawker centres can get incredibly crowded and it’s common for strangers to share a table over a meal or drinks.

The man’s name is John — the American kids call him Uncle John, he said, when he plays his guitar for them in the evenings. He used to be a pork butcher in this hawker centre – very good pork, he says with obvious pride in his craft – and cooked seafood in the afternoon.

His friends taught him how to cook delicious seafood. “Today, not many people know how to cook,” he despairs, “Not like the aunty. Wah! Watch how she cook.” He gestured the dramatic wok-action. “Wah!”

Hawker selling hor fun, fish porridge, and other Singaporean food at a hawker centre at Holland Village | ShopkeeperStories.com

His stint as a hawker was short-lived when the government confiscated all his stuff because he was operating without a license. In Singapore, you cannot sell raw food and cooked food at the same stall. This rule is meant to avoid food contamination.

Another rule in the public market is that the hawker has to be personally present at their stall (to do away with landlords who sublet and raise the rents). However, John would need to rent two stalls (in different parts of the market), and be present at both places. Since he can’t do that, he would need to choose: pork or seafood.

He told me had cancer and lifted his shirt to show me the massive scars across his stomach and chest. He had gone for chemotherapy, and was better now.

He kept asking me how my plate of “hor fun” was– ” is it good?!” Absolutely. The hawker had personalized her recipe for me when all I said was: “No need to add any meat”.  She went beyond my expectations and whipped up a delicious mushroom soya sauce on-the-spot.

This is one of the things I love most about hawkers: they are the business owners and the head chefs, so they have the autonomy (and talent) to tailor the culinary experience to your delight.

John insisted on treating me to rice with salted fish to sample its deliciousness. It’s not on the aunty’s official menu, he says with conspiratorial delight, and she only cooks it when he requests it. I pleaded and protested. “After this hor fun, I can’t eat another bite!” He insisted, and told me to pack it up to take it home to eat later…

… but I told him I needed to run around for errands, and we could share a plate of rice with salted fish another day. And, hopefully, we will!

Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners with their trades around the world. You can catch all the posts on Facebook and Instagram @ShopkeeperStories. See you there!


 

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