For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore. You can find the rest of my A to Z posts here.
U is for Uncle
They call me Uncle. And it makes me feel old. I’m only 41 leh. These customers of mine, office workers usually, are probably only a few years younger than me. But because I work in the hawker centre, I am ‘uncle’ to them. More specifically, char kway teow uncle. They see me in my t-shirt and shorts and think I am doing this because I have no choice. After all, who would want to sweat in this hot stuffy stall all day? And to cook for a living? And all that preparation every morning. Washing, chopping, cutting, stirring. No kidding, it is hard work. And man, all that standing up! It is laborious. They call it a labour of love and that is exactly it. My work is a labour of love.
But my work is also a big part of my family’s history. My grandfather made a living selling char kway teow. He didn’t make much but did well enough to put my father and his sister through school, to university. And my father, the university graduate, didn’t want to have anything to do with this dirty work. Yes that’s what he called it – still calls it – ‘dirty work’. He went to work at a bank, rising up through the hierarchy, doing well. He went on to buy a big house in the right district, his cars growing from small puttering Japanese models to stylish German speedsters.
I never saw him eat char kway teow.
He loved his hawker food. But didn’t want to step into a hawker centre. So I became his hawker centre gofer, as soon as I knew how to count money and ensure I had the right change. My father would park his car, give me his order and any special requests like more chili or extra fishballs, and I would scurry off into the hawker centre for his food and mine. I usually just ate what he ordered – chicken rice, fishball noodles, sometimes wanton mee. But one day I ran past the char kway teow stall which always had a long line of customers. There was no one waiting. So I quickly put in an order. When I returned to my father’s car, he sniffed the air and snorted, “char kway teow? That one not very good. Don’t know why always got such a long queue.” Later at home, he watched me eat it. He was right. It was a little too sweet, as if they had added some sugar to the sauce.
I went to university in England, where I soon figured out that cooking my own Singapore-style food was often better than the ‘Singapore/Malaysian’ restaurants there. Returning to Singapore a little fuller in the face and rounder in the stomach but more worldly wise and with a graduate degree under my belt, I somehow ended up in the banking industry, just like my father, whose legacy followed me wherever I went. I was known as ‘Mr Eng’s son’. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?
As you can guess, I grew tired of it all, of the long hours, the backaches from sitting too long at my desk, the eyestrain from staring too long at the computer screen, the throat strain from talking on the phone and at meetings. And so I gave it up for backaches from standing all day, pain in my elbows from stirring and chopping all day, and pimples on my forehead from all that oil I use when cooking. Some of my friends think I’m crazy. But you know what, it’s a good kind of crazy. I’d rather be out here doing something I feel passionate about. I am feeding people. I am making them happy with a good, albeit sinful, plate of char kway teow. Somehow that combination of rice noodles, lup cheong, fish cake, cockles, beansprouts, eggs, sambal chili, soy sauce, lard and more makes people’s eyes light up and their mouths twitch. It doesn’t make headlines or move world financial markets or anything momentous like that. But it causes cravings, and makes people form long lines and wait patiently (or not). It fills stomachs, makes lips smack. So being called ‘char kway teow uncle’ is a lot better than being known as ‘Mr Eng’s son’.
‘Uncle’ is used to politely address men of a certain age in Singapore. For women, ‘auntie’ is used. That doesn’t mean that everyone in Singapore is related. There’s no hard and fast rule on the use of ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’, but for instance, if I were to hop in a taxi, I’d probably say something like “Uncle, Bukit Timah please.” Or like in my story, telling a hawker centre ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie’ your order, “Auntie, two plates of chicken rice”.