My name is Ai Leen. Yap Ai Leen. I grew up a hawker girl, helping my parents at our noodle stall.
Mummy and Daddy sold their signature char kuey teow in a busy hawker centre downtown. They had other fried noodles too, but it was the char kuey teow that customers kept returning for. My childhood was filled with wonderful scents of stir-fried flat rice noodles tossed with eggs, cockles, fishcakes, prawns, bean sprouts and chives, all deliciously seasoned and spiced. Chilli available on request, of course.
The hawker centre was open 7 days a week except for public holidays. Mummy and Daddy worked long hours cooking and running the stall. The hawker centre essentially transformed into my after-school retreat where I finished my homework before pitching in with orders and cleanup.
I wasn’t unsupervised though. My grandfather Kong Kong used to babysit me while my parents worked. But he’s since developed dementia and we couldn’t leave him at home by himself, so the roles have reversed with me keeping an eye on him as he sat alone at an empty table, humming tunelessly while staring dreamily at the flames dancing around Daddy’s cast iron wok.
As for me, I washed dishes for fun.
Collecting and washing dirty dishes was a rite of passage for any young child “working” in the hawker centre. It was easy enough to learn, but one needed many hours of practice in off-peak and busy periods in order to master it well. And lucky for me, I found the task of scrubbing plates in a tub of soapy water quite therapeutic. Mummy and Daddy always joked that it was a bonus their daughter enjoyed this measly job so much that I provided “willing free labour”. But that wasn’t the only positive aspect of the hawker girl life.
I grew up in a community of hawkers whose backgrounds, though diverse and distinct, melded together in a harmonious symphony of flavours, not unlike a good plate of char kuey teow. The kindly Malay Mak Cik (an affectionate term for an older aunty, pronounced ‘Mahk Cheek’) who ran the drinks stall would frequently make me an Ice Milo and Kong Kong a teh tarik pulled tea, occasionally slipping me a chocolate bar with a wink when Mummy wasn’t looking. The seemingly stern-faced, imposing figure of the Indian Mamak Boss taught me how to arm wrestle and entertained me with funny tales from his boyhood, in between breaks of making roti canai.
And like uncles and aunties, they were also nosy, much to my annoyance at times. I couldn’t get away with slacking in my homework or stall duty, without a chorus of “Girl, don’t be lazy-lah…” and “Later I tell your mother your father…”. Mummy and Daddy rarely had to nag and keep me accountable, when I had the whole hawker centre watching and raising me! Though thankfully, if I was struggling, whether with sums or student life dramas, there would always be someone to reach out to for help.
The simple hawker girl life was the only one I knew. And I was content. Mostly.
I sometimes wondered if I was missing out on opportunities my more well-off friends had. Don’t get me wrong; we were a decent middle class and certainly not impoverished. But I’d be lying if I didn’t feel self-conscious when my hands reeked of garlic and prawn while my clothes smelled faintly of grease. I kept quiet during conversations about overseas holidays and shopping trips because I didn’t want them to know that I worked extra hours cleaning and tag-team cooking with my parents during semester breaks. That was easy enough to do, since I hardly talked much anyway. I even silently prayed that my schoolmates wouldn’t see me at the hawker centre, or that they’d never find out that I was the char kuey teow sellers’ daughter.
So I did what any respectable person wanting to save face and a better life would do. I knuckled down and studied hard.
I was an average student, not particularly academic. Scoring straight As was slightly too lofty a goal, but with enough credits and a study loan application, my chances of attending university after high school were realistically more achievable. As far as I knew, nobody in the family made it beyond junior high..
Getting a university degree would open doors for better employment and a bigger source of income. We could have a nicer house, upgrade the beat-up secondhand car to a newer model. Maybe get more help for Kong Kong if he was still around.
But more importantly, Mummy and Daddy could finally retire instead of slogging it out into their old age. I’ve seen Mummy trying to massage her aching lower back and Daddy wiping the sweat from his grey, weathered head after the hawker centre has closed for the night. They deserved the luxury of comfort after all their hard work.
And that journey to comfort must begin with the first step of conquering my high school leaving examination.
The days of sitting subject paper after paper passed in an agonising blur. I was glad when the final day of my exams arrived. Freedom was near. Plus I had been saving for a graduation road trip around the country with my classmates. It took me a while, but I finally had enough funds for a holiday and to my great delight, Mummy and Daddy allowed me to go have fun with my friends for once.
Last minute scribbling. Pages shuffling. Then the sweet parting words of the invigilator: “Students, you may now leave the examination hall.”
I almost ran out of the school gate in excitement, before skidding to a halt.
Mak Cik stood before me at the gate, clutching her motorcycle helmet tightly, her mustard yellow tudung headscarf slightly askew. She bit her lip and winced when she saw me, squinting her eyes tight as if bracing herself for some invisible impact.
“Ai Leen...Girl…” Mak Cik managed to croak. I saw a tear trickle down her wrinkled cheek.
“What’s the matter, Mak Cik?”
“There’s been an accident…”
Another blur, this time a numbing one. I couldn’t tell you if hours or days or weeks passed. All I felt was a dark stillness.
Mummy and Daddy had left the hawker centre to pick me up from school. They were going to surprise me with a family lunch, cake and Ice Milo before we went back to our char kuey teow stall.
An intoxicated driver. An acceleration at the red light. A T-bone collision at a cross junction.
None of them survived the impact.
Mak Cik sped away to find me when she heard the crash and saw the wreckage not far from the hawker centre, while the others watched Kong Kong. She and Mamak Boss accompanied me to the hospital to identify the bodies. Then to the funeral parlour, to the cemetery, to the bank, to the…...
I didn’t know how I went through with it all. Neither did Kong Kong. Frankly, I doubted that he realised that both his son and daughter-in-law were gone.
But I didn’t expect to be orphaned and financially stripped, caring for a senile grandfather with no income, all before the age of 18.
So I did what I think a bereaved girl trying to survive would do. I knuckled down and fired up the wok.
Business was a bit slower, given there was only one third of the workforce. I didn’t say much to anyone, or make much eye contact, for that matter. I vaguely heard a couple of customers ask “Eh Girl, where your parents?” before being violently shushed and tutted at by an angry Mak Cik as my spatula clanged and the wok sizzled with batch after batch of char kuey teow.
Kong Kong sat with one of Mamak bosses’ nephews by the table, eating roti canai. He stared at the sputtering fire under the wok, brows furrowed in confusion, no longer humming to himself.
I wanted to power on, but by evening my shoulders were sore, my hands reddened with heat and back drenched with sweat. I forgot to place a tea towel around my neck to wipe the perspiration, like how Mummy and Daddy...did.
“Sudah-lah, Girl. Boleh tutup-lah,…” Mak Cik gently told me that it was enough to call it a day.
I sighed and began washing the dishes accumulated over the last hour.
I was engrossed in wiping down the stall that I didn’t notice a stranger dressed in a black business suit sauntering up to the stall, reaching into his trousers pocket.
Mamak Boss’ firm “Oi!” and scuffling, hurried footsteps made me look up in curiosity. The other hawker sellers had formed a loose ring around the man. I noticed their backs protectively shielding me. Mamak Boss casually held a cleaver while Mak Cik pointed a threatening finger.
“You! What are you doing here? After all that Kit Hua and Michelle have been through and you have the cheek to show your face here?!” She blustered. I’d never seen Mak Cik so angry before.
The man held up his hands calmly. “I’m here to speak with my father and niece.”
“She doesn’t know you. And the old man’s probably forgotten about you too.” Chicken rice seller Uncle Lee said in clipped tones. “You should leave.”
“At least let me extend my condolences and give the white gold.” The man pulled out a bulging white envelope and placed it on the shiny surface of my stall. I didn’t know who this man was, but it would appear that he wasn’t lacking in cash.
“Yap Ai Leen...you’ve grown so much, young lady. And you have Kit Hua’s eyes-”
“How dare you speak to Ai Leen like that?! How dare you show up thinking you can be a hero and win her over with money?! Where were you when Kit Hua and Michelle were still alive, you family-disowning, money-hungry, no face pig?!” Mak Cik unleashed a surprisingly extensive vocabulary of English and Malay cuss words that made the man bristle in anger. Mamak Boss stepped in between them, cleaver still in hand.
“Look, Kit Hian,” Mamak Boss’ voice boomed authoritatively over the crowd even though he wasn’t shouting.
“You showing up here has caused enough distress and confusion. I suggest you say what you have to say quickly and leave immediately. And for goodness’ sake, introduce yourself properly to Ai Leen instead of making comments about her appearance off the bat!” He growled menacingly as Kit Hian shrunk slightly under his stern gaze while cautiously eyeing the cleaver glinting in the evening light.
Kit Hian drew himself to full height and looked at me. “Ai Leen, I’m Yap Kit Hian, your father’s younger brother. I’m sorry for our loss. I regret not being able to reconnect with him and your mother earlier.”
Mak Cik made a derisive noise but was abruptly silenced by a serious glare from Mamak Boss.
“But I would like to make it up to you, for my brother’s sake. I’ve been looking for a cook and caterer for my family. And we believe you might be good for the job. We do enjoy the family char kuey teow after all, just with a few adjustments…”
Something clicked in my head. I remembered the countless, almost daily takeaway orders for a significantly adjusted char kuey teow. Packets labeled “less oil”, “no egg”, “no chilli”, “no chives”...The list of ingredient restrictions was endless. One might as well have added a “gluten-free” or “vegan” option while we were at it! It used to drive Mummy and Daddy up the wall because having to adjust ingredients for so many simultaneous orders disrupted their service for the other customers. Somehow we managed to get all of them correct. And the takeaway orders were always collected by a man in black sunglasses who said he was the “driver”.
And now I’ve met the driver’s boss.
“We’ll pay you well, which will provide for your higher education, should you choose to go further (like I did). And if you like, you can move into one of our spare rooms. We have a comfortable house, state-of-the-art kitchen. Oh and don’t worry about cleaning up, we’ve employed a housekeeper who can take care of that.” Kit Hian continued.
It seemed laughable, yet too good to be true. My uncle was living the dream that I wanted for myself and my family. I wondered what he did to reach that dream though...and at what cost.
“You don’t have to give me an answer now. But let us know soon, alright? Here’s my number.” Kit Hian handed me a business card which I wordlessly accepted.
“I’ve said what needed to be said. Thank you everyone for allowing me to extend some filial and family loyalty. Bye.” He smiled a little too brightly and turned on his heels. We quietly watched as he got into a black Mercedes parked outside and drove off.
I noticed that he didn’t acknowledge Kong Kong in the corner at all the whole time. Some filial son he was!
“I don’t trust him, Mak Cik.” I finally managed a whisper.
Mak Cik enveloped me in a hug as my shoulders shook. “I don’t either. You don’t have to go with him. In fact, don’t even think about it. He might be related to you by blood, but he has not been involved in any of your lives before showing up now and throwing money about.. He can shove his money up his - “
“But I need money too.” I mumbled against her tudung headscarf.
Uncle Lee gingerly touched the white envelope and whistled. “He’s really gone all out with money, alright. Girl, it’s a tough situation. True loyalty cannot be bought by money, but at the same time money’s a necessity you can’t live without.”
“Regardless, whatever choice you make, remember that you still have a family here.” Mamak Boss concluded while everyone murmured in agreement.
The sombre atmosphere was interrupted by a wheezy giggle. Kong Kong started humming tunelessly again.
You might be wondering which option I chose eventually. I’d tell you, but promise me you wouldn’t judge me.
I decided to work for my uncle as his cook and caterer. The pay I received was an insane amount compared to what we earned in the hawker stall. It covered my and Kong Kong’s expenses, with extra to spare. However, reconnecting and reconciling with him and his family was another matter altogether. Hence, I decided to keep my distance and stay at home with Kong Kong, only using their kitchen for “work” purposes.
There were hurts and unresolved conflict from the past, way before my time. Kong Kong, the only one around to know of those issues, sadly could no longer inform me of them. And I was too awkward to ask my uncle. I wasn’t sure if or when the relationship would mend, but hey, anything could happen in this life.
On the bright side, Kong Kong would now sit in the corner of a modern kitchen, humming tunelessly while watching his granddaughter toss and fry. I insisted that he come along with me to work. Besides, it would be good for my uncle’s children to meet their grandfather before it was too late.
I just received my offer letter for culinary school. Mummy and Daddy would be proud. Mak Cik, Mamak Boss, Uncle Lee and the rest of my hawker family certainly were.
And even though the char kuey teow stall was closed indefinitely for now, I still washed dishes. By hand with a tub of soapy water. Reminding myself of where I came from, of the life I so desperately wanted to escape, but now am wistfully cherishing and longing for the loved ones lost.
My name is Ai Leen. Yap Ai Leen. I was, but still am, a hawker girl.