Friday, March 14, 2008

Itinerant food vendors of yesteryears

Scenes like the one above were a common sight in the Singapore that I grew up in. (Photo taken in Ipoh last year). Today, of course you won't be able to see hawkers on mobile stalls like this anymore. Hence, reading YG’s recent post about the roving hawkers from his kampong days brought back some fond memories. In my kampong we too had such itinerant vendors who came around regularly to peddle their foodstuffs to the delight of us kampong kids. Let’s see how many I can recall.

1) Roti (bread)

This guy came around in a bicycle with a huge wooden box mounted on the back (see photo courtesy of Flickr member Justin.z). The bread he sold was the traditional ‘chow tar’ roti with burnt top. You can still find some places in Singapore selling such bread; for example here and here. He would slice off the burnt portions on the spot and if requested cut the loaf into thin slices for the customer. We used to enjoy watching him deftly slice the loaf of bread and marvel at how sharp his bread knife was.

He also sold home made kaya. Unlike the modern versions that come in plastic or glass jars, his kaya was packed in recycled tin cans with a circular piece of banana leaf covering the top. His kaya was brown in colour. I never saw green colour kaya in my kampong days.

Oh yes; the burnt portions were not discarded but used to feed our dogs.

2) Ice cream

I think I blogged about this fellow before. He came around every afternoon, at around 2 o’clock. We would look out for the sound of his bell. He sold two types of ice cream. One was ice cream cut into rectangular blocks and sandwiched between 2 wafer biscuits. The other was two scoops of ice cream sandwiched between two small slices of bread.

Unusually one of us boys would take the orders from the other siblings and walk out to his tricycle along the main road, which was a dirt track, to do the purchase. Sometimes, on the way back, with both our hands full, we would encounter a passing car. We tried in vain to shield our precious ice cream from the cloud of yellow dust churned up by the passing vehicle.

3) Ham Chim Pang

Another sound our young ears were well tuned to was this cry; “Ham chim pang … pak tong koeeee…” We liked to imitate his cry, especially the way he dragged the last word. I guess there is no need for me to explain what this chap was selling to local readers. For oversea friends like Tom and Brian, it’s quite difficult to visualize anyway if you have never seen it before.

4) Nonya Kueh

There was also an Indian boy who came around, also in the afternoons, to sell home made nonya kuehs. I think I blogged about this Bartley School boy here where I described how we became friends with him and often exchanged stamps with him. The kueh I remember best from him was a banana kueh (photo on right is not banana kueh).

5) Yong Tau Hoo

I finally I come to the most amazing of the itinerant hawkers of all – the yong tau hoo seller. He was a young man who stayed not far from our house on a hillside. He did not come around in a vehicle but carried the load on his shoulders like what you see in this photo of a satay seller. Among the many things stuffed into his tiny 'stall' were a huge pot of soup, stove (and presumeably, charcoal), ingredients, bowls and utensils.

I remember how he would come to the front of our house, took the various orders and then proceeded to cook the yong tau hoo on the spot. Often he would take the opportunity to top up the soup by adding some water from our well. My siblings and I often found ourselves admiring this guy for his strength.

Besides the five vendors I have described above they were others; but I cannot recall much. For example, we had the popular tick-tock mee and an Indian guy who sold putu mayam. Although I don’t remember much about him, I enjoyed his putu mayam tremendously. Nowadays, when I get the chance, I would still like to order this item from the coffee shop near my house at Sixth Avenue; but somehow it doesn’t taste as nice as the ones from my kampong.

And even as I try to recall all the wonderful stuff that we ate in our kampong days, I simply cannot figure out how we were able to eat so much snacks in the afternoons!

For the benefit of Tom and other British friends, here is a photo of the Pak Tong Koe (白糖糕 for the younger Singaporeans who may not know) I mentioned. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any ham chim pang at the place where I took my lunch today. Maybe another time.


Anonymous said...

Remember "Ah Koh Kueh"?

There was a kid named "Joseph" who was a few years my junior in primary school. he lived in the chinese kampung near my house. He helped his fatehr sell "kurry pup" and "nasi lemak" at 5 cents and 20 centes respectively. The father was the one who shouted in the neighbourhood to announce his arrival whilst Joseph carried the rattan basket. When they passed my house, I rushed out to buy. Joseph was a bit embarress because he recognized me from school - i think the "feeling" of social-class distinction.

That event has stuck in my head for a long time. I learnt the what it is like to be "socially disadvantaged" and the importance of being humble. It has been my precept for my life. Why? U never know what it is to be poor unless you had been through it before.

Lam Chun See said...

Oh yes. Of course I remember the Ah Kor Kueh. But that one was usually sold at the pasar malams and during the 7th month festivals along with the wayangs. Maybe it's because this food requires contnuous steaming. I simple love the aroma of steamed Ah Kor Kueh.

Anonymous said...

When I stayed in my garndparents' house at Eng Hoon STreet in the 1960s, there was this "Lor Kai Yik" seller on bicycle. He had a aluminium0clad cupboard at the back of his bicycle. There was this dark gravy filled with chicken wings, kangkong, tau-pok, pig skin. Shiok to slurp the gravy and wipe your mouth on your collar.

In the old People's Park open-air hawker center (before the fire in 1968), I loved this street hawker who sold "dip dip". he had squid, fish-ball, tau kwa, ngoh hiang, etc. You choose a stick and dip into a glass which contained the sweet sauce or chilly sauce. The same glass was shared by different people. UnHygienic? No worry? Never die what!. Then wipe mouth on collar again.

Lam Chun See said...

I guess that's one thing that hasn't changed over the years - 'chor lor' (uncouth, rough) boys wipping their mouths on the collars.

Anonymous said...

Chun See, you forgot the same long knife used by the roti-man was also used to scoop margarine from a yellow tin-case to go with the kaya? When I was small, I thought that was butter, so I asked "Uncle" to give me more. No wonder got high cholesterol now.

I also thought putum mayam was also kutu ayam. I liked the brown sugar, so eat more and more until now got diabetes.

I also like chee cheong fun, the one with the veggie inside, not the plain one. Very tasty with plenty of chilly sauce. Now my libido very high.

yg said...

yes, i am reminded of the quite enterprising malay boys who came around to sell nasi lemak in the morning and 'epoh, epoh' in the afternoon.
nasi lemak for 20 cents, it came with fish, a slice of plain egg omelette and the heavenly chilli. the epoh2 was usually piping hot and you could ask for chilli, which was dished out from a bottle with a long metal spout.

yg said...

hi chun see,
to get a taste of the good old days, you can go down to maxwell market in the afternoon and pay to fry your own hum chim peng.

Victor said...

We city folks had a different mix of itinerant hawkers from the kampong people. Most memorable was this Indian mee-goreng seller who pushes his big stall around. The stall had a shelter made of canvas to shade him (and waiting customers) from the elements. He would come into my street (Cheng Yan Place) and then announce his arrival by hitting his heated wok repeatedly with his spatula, making loud clanging sounds. We would then know that mee goreng would be served at 30 cents a serving, I think. Of course, you could also bring your own eggs to be fried with the mee goreng at no extra cost.

Then there was another Indian guy who sold muruku (a tasty and spicy snack that looks like fried worms) and kachang puteh (various types of nuts). He carried all these stuff in a huge round wooden tray (about 3-foot across) on his head!

Yet another Indian guy sold a very thin flat pancake-like crispy snack which came with a game of chance with every order. (Will describe this game in a separate post in due course, hopefully.)

Hmm... looks like the itinerant hawkers in my neighborhood were mostly Indians. But wait, there was a Chinese old woman who sold malt candy on a stick. She would twirl a lollipop onto the stick from the malt in her pot right before our young fascinated eyes.

Then there were those whom I would call "semi-itinerant hawkers". These hawkers have mobile stalls but they would park their stalls at the same spot every night and sell their food there until they close for the night.

Boy, there are so many memories of food hawkers that I think I should write a separate post.

Anonymous said...

Last time, "Muruku" made in Singapore. Today Made-in-Malaysia. 1 packet selling in singapore cost S$1.20. In Malaysia, it is M#1.20/-

There were also two chinese desert" Hung Yan Woo" and "Town Suan". As Victor said most of these deserts found in town area. I remmeber the "Tow Suan" stall parked in Eng Hoon Lane in front of a provision shop. i always follow my garndmother to market so that I could persuade her to give me a treat at this stall.

There was also another street hawker. First must BBQ dried squid and then use a malet to whack the thing. Then he uses his hands to stretch the thing to "thin it". Nowdays must find chinese rojak man then can find this food.

Anonymous said...

Mama also sold "vadai", a deep-fried flour with prawns still in the shell. I tried many but there's one best at this small food court oposite Jalan Tua Kong (next to NTUC fairprice).

For our ang-mo readers from Britain, "Ah Koh Kueh" = English muffin

Lam Chun See said...

I am afraid some of the non-Chinese snacks you guys mentioned are new to me; e.g. 'epoh, epoh',
muruku, and vadai. But I suddenly remember the hei-piah (prawn cake), circular shape, deep fried with a prawn and a few strands of bean sprouts on top. Used to order them the kampong lasses during our army daze when having night training in places like Sungei Gedong, Marsiling and Hong Kah.

Anyway, nowadays have to avoid oily stuff for health reasons, so won't dare to try the hum chim pang YG mentioned.

Lam Chun See said...

Yes Victor. Pls do blog about your memories of these people who brought much pleasure and colour into our young lives. I am sure your city boy experience is quite different from mine. For sure, I know you paid higher 'CBD' prices for the same stuff.

Anonymous said...

"vadai" looks like doughnut. Only difference made by mama. You know the joke how the mama makes this type of doughnut?

Lam Chun See said...

If it is 'humsup' joke, pls don't post. Thank you.

yg said...

the vadai that peter referred to is gordon's katong vadai at a small food court along east coast road.
there used to be another very good vadai - gina's vadai - along upper east coast rd. gina's original stall was at geylang bahru, across the road from where victoria sch used to be. then she moved to bedok before shifting to upper east coast. i think today her stall is at suntec city mall and she has a branch at takashimaya basement 2 food court.

Anonymous said...

There used to be a man selling 'arh bak' (duck meat) and other parts of the duck (blood, etc) near by grandma's place sometime in the late 60s to early 70s. He carried the stuff like how the man in the yong tau hoo picture did.

In the late 70s, when she lived in another place, there was this guy who came round every night with a van of goodies, ranging from tapioca chips to ice cream.

Anonymous said...

I mean 'near MY grandma's place'

Anonymous said...

I think as a young Brit in Changi Village in the 1960s we were probably warned off buying stuff at these stalls and traveling hawkers. My only memory of regular visits is to a stall in the street in Changi which used to sell very sweet fruit juice. It was displayed in a large glass tank with a huge block of ice in it. It was delicious to drink but was so cold it used to 'freeze your brain' - giving the drinker a sharp pain in the forehead for the pleasure

Tom said...

Tom said,
Chun See I was searching to see what,(Ham Chim Pang) was, and I think I have found it, is it Red Bean Paste???.I remember the Food I use buy of the Hawkers , I would
ask for King prawns, the man who did the cooking put the prawns in red sauce that was at Bedok corner,and Fish soup, And one of favorites was Nasi goreng fried rice.

Thimbuktu said...

It was a good morning today and the first thing I thought of was what to have for breakfast, the first meal of the day.

So I thought, what about the Good Morning of Yesterday (not the day before, literally, but during the kampung days). What sort of breakfast do we have before the Happy Meals at MacDonald, KFC, Long John Silver and other fast food became the staple food of kids today?

The Chinese have a saying:


A nutritious meal for breakfast
A full meal for lunch
A light meal for dinner

In bygone days, an egg cost only 2 or 3 cents. So 2 half-boiled eggs, roti or "yu chia kueh" and a cup of black coffee was a good morning breakfast at home for me.

Interesting GMY topic about the hawker food on wheels or 'shoulder-carried' of yesterday. Thanks Chun See.

Lam Chun See said...

Tom. I don't think that's the correct one for the Ham Chim Pang. Never mind, a picture is worth a thousand words. I will try to get one when I go for lunch afterwards.

Anonymous said...

Your food at Bedok Corner was Indian Rojak which comes with a red spicy dipping sauce. Chun See's Ham Chim Pan referred to "English pancake" but the salted version.

Somes the Malay man also came around carrying two wooden cupbaords with a pole over his shoulders. There was the satay man and also the mee rebus man. Satay being an expensive delicacy, so more times we saw the mee rebus man. I know a mee rebus stall in Bedok South Hawker Center (opposite TJCollege). The man opens on Saturday mornings, sells one plate for S$2/- SEDAP!

Kef said...

i think you miss out one of the kid's favourite: Ice Ball! Everytime sure will have your hand covered in syrup..

Lam Chun See said...

Ah zfek. You must be new to GMY. How can we forget ice ball. In fact I have already blogged about it here. And so has my friend Victor.

In fact, the ice ball seller was not an itinerant hawker in our kampong because he operated from a shop was directly opposite our house.

Anonymous said...

The quality of the ice-ball is measured not in terms of the # of customers it attracts but the bees.

have you heard about the ice-ball "ah pek" at the former NLB canteen in Stamford Road. For most people, watching the bees buzzing on top of the jars of syrup can be quite daunting. BUT we know that means the syrup is of good quality. This is the reason why I went to the National Library (not to borrow books) but to eat the ice-ball. I think my knowledge-base on local food is much better than on books.

Victor said...

Chun See - Let me help you out with a photo on ham chim peng. With the Internet, you don't have to go buy the real stuff just to show to your friends and then waste it all by throwing it away, or giving it to your dogs, hee.

Lam Chun See said...

Thank Victor. I couldn't find it on Flickr. But the Pak Tong Koe was not wasted. Being quite plain and not oily, I was not afraid to eat it. Guess how much it cost?

40 cents per piece.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter. Your description of that
itinerant "lor kai yik" seller brought back nostalgic memories to me when I was staying in Guan Chuan Street in the 60s. I never failed to patronise him whenever he came calling in the afternoon. His tau pok, pig intestine and kang kong were my favourites. Nowadays it seems difficult or even impossible to relish such food as I do not know where to get it.

Anonymous said...

U think we r referring to the same Lor Kai Yik seller. he used to peddle his food among the garages between Eng Hoon Street and Eng Watt Street. R u still staying in Guan Chuan Street Blk 81 or the 5 storey block? when I was young my grandfather took me to the air-raid shelter somewhere where u lived.

i have good memories of the Tiong bahru area before the govt sold the flats in 1966.

Zen said...

When we bring out the topic of food I am sure it will bring back fond memory of genuine hawker food of the past. There is no question from the older generation point of view that the hawker food then could easily beat the present one 'hands down'. To be fair to the present public health authority, there is a better control now than before in term of hawker food that can affect public health. Here is a story to divert a little attention. I had a chance once to converse with an endocrinologist who used to frequent, with his fellow undergraduates, at the famous Outram Park 'char kway teow' stall during his houseman years at GH on regular basis. With great surprise I asked him: "Aren't you not afraid of getting hepatitis or other ill effects?" He replied: "Oh no problem, we all have anti-bodies. so not to worry"
Basing on this type of logic, it may explain why we older fellows can 'polish' up the delicious former hawker food safely, all because we had stronger anti-bodies 'then'.

Anonymous said...

Peter-Yes you are right, we were referring to the same "Lor Kai Yik" food seller who as you said used to peddle his food around Eng Hoon Street and Eng Watt Street. I used to stay at the higest floor in Guan Chuan Street near where the Big Clock was. When the Block was repainted the big clock was removed. When the Japanese attacked
Singapore during the war, I remembered very vividly the roof top of our flat was burning furiously as a result a stray bomb dropped from one of the attacking planes. We, the occupants together with the occupants of other flats rushed down the back staircase and dashed into the air-raid shelter located at the basement. We only emerged from the air-raid shelter when the siren stopped.

Anonymous said...

U must be in your 70s now if u remember WW2. Drop Chun See your email addrr. Sure like to link-up with anyone from that place. Yes I remember the clock - was called in Cantonese "Tai Chung Lau" or something like that. My late uncle lived to the left of the clock (it has red brick facade) before he moved out in 1966 after the govt sold the SIT flats to the residents.

My grandfather was in the Tiong Bahru ARP unit and he told us stories about what happened in the early days of WW2. My father also told me of unexplored bombs landing on the rooftop of some SIT homes and the exact spot where the Japanese rounded up Sook Ching victims. I think it is still the bus stop facing the new Tiong Bahru hotel.

Anonymous said...

What you say about doctors eating at Houseman Canteen in SGH is not surprising. Even till the day the Houseman Canteen closed down in ealry 2008, medical students and doctors also eat the oiliest mee pok at one of the stalls. Even the killer laksa stall does not frighten doctors. Houseman doctors doing their surgery postings have to buy kopi for their seniors at this canteen - all part of ragging I was told. The reason for the canteen popularity is the price. Back in the 60s, I used to see doctors and nurses heading towards the corner kopi tiams in Eng Hoon Street to eat chay kway teow and lor mee, so I am not surprise what you say. anyway sometimes difficult to believe doctors' words on healthy living when they also eat unhealthy food.

Zen said...

Peter - I have this little story to tell. My mother who had some digestive problem went to see her family doctor at Armenian Street. He was a stern person and used to lecture (or scold) us to be careful on what we ate - "Don't eat oily and fried food" - his usual medical sermon". After precribing medicine to her, he casually admitted of having serious food poisoning the previous night after eating satay and that was quite contrary to what he preached.

Anonymous said...

This might sound disgusting. U know surgeons also eat Mee pok or chay kway teow inside operating theater (of course not during actual surgery but breaktime)? Maybe this explains why surgery so many hours huh...what u say?

Zen said...

When I was a kid my grandma wisely advised us to eat rice as a meal in place of others. Her logic was eating rice would keep a person from hunger pang. Testifying to my grandma's wisdom, recently a Indonesian maid from my estate complained that her boss gave her small portions of rice to eat despite knowing that she has heavy housework to perform. From my personal observation people from farming background need at least three solid rice-based meals, notwithstanding Indonesians, to get going. I know I am off the subject somewhat. In fact I was trying to comment on a type of local pancake called mee chian Kueh.

Anonymous said...


im andrew, a scriptwriter, working on an upcoming drama about friendship amongst three boys who lived through the sixties.

i would like to know if you remembered anything about catching spiders? like special technqiues? etc etc? and how to best catch them? and what to feed them? and where in singapore to find them? and what were they called?


Lam Chun See said...

Sure Andrew. But a bit difficult to describe in a few sentences. Maybe, if you can wait, I will post an article on it, complete with pictures and so on. Otherwise you can email me at: