As a student, I go there sometimes to pack lunch or dinner for my family from a particular hawker center. My dad had loved the chicken rice, cantonese and hokkien fried from the hawker center. After he passed away, I seldom go there anymore. I had thought the place has closed down in view of new restaurants or cafes that are opened in the area.
Then, a friend mentioned to me about the place- that he recommended the mixed rice (rice with dishes of your choice) gives a reasonable rate. I had thought that most of the food operators there would have left.
Just two days ago, I decided to the center again. I ordered the chicken rice from same stall that I used to buy a long long time ago when I was a secondary school student. The owner seemed to have lost a bit of weight- and his demeanor seemed to have tone down somehow. His chicken rice was once very famous and we would queue up to wait in the past- now, there is not many people going to the place because it’s not air conditioned and quite stuffy. In the past, when orders were too much to be processed, he would lose his temper and scold his wife and kids. His wife is walking with a bit of difficulty, to what looks to me like suffering from arthritis- probably a work hazard of standing and walking to serve customers day in and day out.
His chicken rice still taste as good as it was years ago. The portions are big and there is not much of a price increase. Sometimes I wonder why people will pay much more money to eat at air-con restaurants for food that taste bland, and sometimes not fresh (like the chicken is probably the leftover from last week). Before I left, I told him that I used to buy from him when I was younger and his chicken rice is still as delicious. He smiled and told me he honestly does not remember me but he said that he will always keep his food to good standards because it’s his ricebowl.
Well, I would think that he would have made much more money had he moved his stall to another more popular place. But I guess like the few other operators who I could still recognise their faces, they stayed because of sentiment and because of regular customers. Also, some hawkers just run the business to pass time- because like this chicken rice seller, his kids are almost my age- so he need not work to bring food to the family. Some of these people had done this business their entire lives and the word ‘retirement’ does not sound good to them- they could not live with being idle at home doing nothing.
Then there is this other lady who sold drinks- when she just took over the stall, I think at least 15 years ago, I used to buy ice kacang and all types of drinks from her. She still is slim and only looked slightly older.
Another guy is an ex-minibus driver turned food seller. I used to take the minibus to school when I was young and he operated one of this notorious dangerous driving, fully-packed-with-passengers-hanging-out-the-bus-entrance. Those were the days of the minibuses- yep, they terrorise people because the bus will move before you have fully go up or go down from the bus. The bus conductors would always yell, ‘masuk dalam, masuk dalam!’ (go in, go in!). Sometimes, you would hear a frustrated reply because there is no more space to squeeze anymore.
The peak hour trains also cannot compete with the crushing sardine effect of the minibus. If you happen to stand/sit in the middle part of the bus, good luck in getting out- especially if you are carrying a lot of things (those days, people buy their groceries and carry them using public transport, unlike the common luxury of having cars today). It took skills, very thick skin to push yourself in order to get out- for the bus driver would scold you if you cannot get out fast enough. Still, these buses were regular and ‘flowing like water’ and due to the dangerous driving- cutting lanes, forcing other cars to give way by moving closely near them– you can get to places faster than now.
Anyway, due to dangerous driving, the government had decided to discontinue mini buses and replace with the standard comfortable but non reliable and irregular buses.
So this particular bus driver had chosen to start his own food stall business- and I am surprised that he is still operating the business.
One thing that puzzled me is that these hawkers never seemed to age much- after almost 10years and they still look almost the same. There is a lot of physical labor and for some, days out in the sun- they need to either sleep late and/or getting early in the morning to prepare their food. It’s a tough way to earn a living- and yet, these people would not have it any other way.
Perhaps having mental stress is much more detrimental towards a person’s health than physical stress. I noticed that even though we work in air-con places, go around in nice cars (instead of motorbikes) and have access to the best skin care products/supplements available, we would look much older in the span of 10 years. The best make-up and concealer will never hide a tensed unhappy face.