SINGAPORE — Unlike his peers who value work-life balance and working in a comfortable environment, 27-year-old Chew Zhi Jie gave up a cushy nine-to-five job in an air-conditioned office to slave over a hot stove for 13 hours a day.
Since September last year, Mr Chew is the proud owner of Jiao Cai Hotplate BBQ at Yishun Park Hawker Centre. Like any traditional barbequed seafood stall, his signature dishes include stingray and clams, topped with sambal (chili in Malay), made with his family's secret recipe.
But on his menu are also donburi (Japanese rice bowls) — with a twist. Instead of the common ingredients like beef, pork or seafood, his are served with smaller portions of the popular sambal stingray or squid, and a sous vide egg.
Priced at S$7 a bowl, they are his "unique selling point" to draw the working crowd who are unwilling to fork out S$12 for a full hotplate stingray, and have no wish to clean the sambal splatter off their office wear.
Though his rice bowls are popular among the younger set, the older customers give them a wide berth. "They will ask me what the 'white coloured thing' is and I am unable to translate 'poached egg' into Chinese," he said.
To cater to the older crowd who are used to the concept of economy rice, he offers his rice bowls — served on a plate — with sambal kangkong and a more familiar fried egg.
Mr Chew is among a small, but growing number of millennials, who are hoping to breathe new life into the hawker trade.
Jiao Cai Hotplate BBQ's "Hotplate Sambal Stingray" and "Sambal Lala". Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY
FINDING HIMSELF AGAIN
A former personal loan executive with DBS Bank, the Ngee Ann Polytechnic alumnus had no intention of being a hawker, even though his mother, Madam Neo Siew Huay, has been hawkering in Jurong since 1982, and his father used to run about a dozen hawker stalls.
He started working at DBS in October of 2013. Of his former life, he said: "It was a satisfying job — the pay was good, the working hours were very flexible, it was just a very relaxed job."
But during those years, he took up a part-time economics and finance degree. Studying and working concurrently started to take its toll. When he completed his course work in December 2016 he felt "very tired" and needed a break.
"I felt lost … I already had a degree, and I was heading towards a bank-related job, which was what I wanted all along. Then I started to think — is that the kind of life that I really want?"
So, in the same month, he quit — without securing a new job. To kill time, he decided to help out at his 61-year-old mother's hawker stall at Yuhua Market and Hawker Center in Jurong East.
The transition from working in air-conditioned comfort to sweating it out at a hawker centre, however, was not easy. "It was very hot and sweaty, and very rushed. It was very uncomfortable," he admitted.
But his youthful presence at the stalls turned customers' heads. The regulars started telling him: "You're so filial to come and help your mom." Then when they told him the food and service was good, he started getting a deeper sense of satisfaction.
"As I worked with my mom, I realised I was doing the kind of things that I liked: sales, interacting with customers, cooking. It was all quite fun." So after six months of working under his mum's wing, he decided to take up his own stall in Yishun,
LEARNING ON THE JOB
"I was very confident when I started my own shop," said Mr Chew. But Madam Neo had her doubts. She felt he was "too eager" as he lacked the experience, having worked a mere six months in an industry that usually takes years to master.
With the help of some friends — who would visit three times a week— and the hype surrounding the newly-opened hawker centre, business was teeming for the first month. Madam Neo's doubts seemed to be unfounded.
"I had 30 to 40 tables to serve, and that was really crazy," Mr Chew said. "The wait was sometimes as long as 2 hours and 45 minutes."
But his joy was short-lived. After a show stopping two months, business fell flat.
Whether customers were turned away by the long waiting times, or that the novelty had worn off, Mr Chew could not say. "Customers did not come back in the fourth or fifth months," he said. "It came to a point where my weekday sales could be as bad as S$160 per night, and with that, I couldn't even pay rent, or my workers."
He started to lose faith. He wondered if the sheer volume of customers had caused him to go slack on food quality. He also had some older patrons who questioned his decision to become a hawker. They asked him: "Why did you study so hard for?" or "Why let your degree go to waste?"
Despite his burgeoning doubts, he decided to press on. He became stricter with his food preparations, and more conscious of the way he interacted with his customers. He even got Mdm Neo to check on the stall.
He also contacted several marketing companies, such as food blogs and lifestyle sites, to help promote his store. Though he didn't pay a cent for marketing, he offered them a free meal when they came down.
"Only after I did all this for a month did business become slightly better," he said with a mix of relief and trauma.
FUN BEING HIS OWN BOSS
Even though business has improved, the new hawker is not sitting back. He told TODAY he had not taken a day off over the last month, preferring to keep an eagle eye over his business.
His work days are long — he opens his stall around 11am, but closes it around midnight. His social life has also grounded to a halt.
"It's been a few months since I went out with my friends," he confessed. "Usually they're out during weekends, but weekends are the most tiring days of the week for me."
Instead, his closest group of friends swing by after work to spend time with him — at his stall.
Still, he told TODAY these are sacrifices he is willing to make, for he sees hawkering as not just his passion, but also fulfilling his duty as a son.
"My reason for entering this industry is because I want to continue the family business, which is something that my mother has worked very hard on," he said. He added that his mother could also retire early if he were successful.
"I told myself the moment I stepped into this, I'm not going to leave, that I'm going to go all the way … Being a hawker is never easy," said Mr Chew. "You have to work as hard as you can."
Despite all the naysayers, he remains optimistic about the hawker culture in Singapore.
"A lot of people think that being a hawker is very tiring, that the hours are long and you cannot earn money." Though he admitted that some of these perceptions are true, he still finds a certain joy and ownership in hawkering that he cannot find anywhere else.
"It's your own shop and everything is up to you," he said. "You get to meet different kinds of people, face different challenges. Every day is different. And it is fun."