The stall has moved
Douglas Ng (23) loved fishballs, especially the ones that his grandma makes. But the problem was that grandma only makes them twice a year and he wanted so much to eat them more often! So, soon after NS, he started his own fishball stall after a short stint doing fusion Cze Char.
If there is one thing I like about Douglas, it is his commitment to authenticity. He makes the fishballs without the addition of any flour. It is just yellowtail fish meat, salt, water and msg. That is why his fishballs are a little firmer and less spongy as the flour laden type that the majority of the population are used to. Now, that is a risky move as you need to re-educate the general public who might otherwise complain that the fishballs are a tad too tough! But five months into the business and he continues to stick to what he believes.
For all the Gen Y hawker considering-to-bes out there, the life of a hawker is far from glamorous. But I am sure most of us knows that. What you may not know is how challenging it is to be able to build the business. The work is not easy. Douglas has to get up at 4am, be at the stall at 5am and start making fishballs, frying the lard and shallots and getting the chilli ready so that he can start serving at 10am. And there is no day off.
But what is even harder is when you are putting in so much effort and business just isn’t picking up as quickly as you expect due to external factors such as location and price. Being situated at the wrong side of Golden Mile Food Centre has meant that he doesn’t get much traffic and with the recent en bloc of Keypoint, the office crowd is also down. He recently decided to increase his bowl of noodles from $3 to $3.50 and that resulted in a 30% drop in business. Five months in and he hasn’t been able to breakeven! So, it really does take passion and determination to soldier on!
Now, I have made this argument countless of times. If we want to get more young hawkers to go into the business, we need to make sure that they can earn a good income so that it is better for them to do what they are passionate about then to always be tempted to go into real estate or sell cars. It is my conviction that a bowl of fishball noodles like this should be $5 not $3. Now, a lot of readers may cite those who cannot afford to pay $5 for a bowl of noodles and I am sympathetic to the aunties and uncles in the Pioneer Generation who can’t afford to pay more for their food. But, consider this. They will always have Pioneer Generation hawkers who already have their homes paid off and who are enjoying Pioneer hawker rentals in the range of $200-$300 a month serving a bowl of noodles for $2.50. So, they are putting pressure on our young hawkers to sell their noodles at the same price level even though they are paying $2000 for their rentals and they have to think about raising a family.
So what is the solution? I don’t have the whole answer but I can tell you part of the answer. And this part of the answer is relevant to us new generation Singaporeans.
If I can get enough working Singaporeans who are able to afford a bowl of ramen to understand the economic reality of the Gen Y hawkers and be willing to pay a little more for their effort, then I think we can still eat good hawker food in the future. For those who understand economics, you know that in a free market economy, the price of goods is determined by demand and supply right? So in a nutshell, if fishball sellers push up prices, demand will tend to fall and it will reach a steady state where the price is at an equilibrium. Now, the whole problem is that our hawker economy is NOT a free market economy. It is not a free market because there is government intervention. By subsidizing Pioneer Generation hawkers with low rental at hawker centres to provide cheap hawker food for the general public, our government has unwittingly created the dilemma which we are facing today with the dearth of Gen Y hawkers and a skewed public perception of the real price of hawker food!
Bottomline: Let those of us who can afford a bowl of ramen play our part in preserving hawker culture by being willing to pay young hawkers a little more for their effort. Let us recognize the fact it takes a lot more effort and cost to produce a bowl of handmade fishball noodles for $3.50 than it is to make a plate of Aglio Olio for $6! And let us stop comparing the young hawker’s prices to those of the Pioneer Generation hawkers! Young hawkers like Douglas just need a little encouragement and they can produce a bowl of noodles as good as, if not better than the generations of hawkers before them!
Now back to the food.
The handmade fishballs (They are really beaten by hand) are perceptibly different. They have a firmer bite which you can expect from a fishball made from pure fish meat. The noodles are nice and QQ and the homemade chilli is not overly spicy. A bit of ti poh (dried solefish) would have given it a bit more oomph. Otherwise, it is a brilliant effort from a young hawker! 4.25/5
Young hawkerpreneurs like Douglas are what we need to preserve our Hawker culture. But they do need our support and understanding in order to produce a GOOD bowl of fishball noodles rather than be tempted to submit to price pressure and produce a CHEAP bowl of fishball noodles. The (fish) ball is really in our court to ensure that we have GOOD Hawker Food in the future!
Congrats to Fishball Story for being awarded the Bib Gourmand 2016!