Friday, October 17, 2014

Former China Street Fritters

The former China Street Fritters stall is presently located at the Maxwell Road Food Centre.

Ng Kok Hua

Ng Kok Hua remembers the days when his family's business comprised a pushcart with a canvas roof and two square tables in front of it.  Those were the humble beginnings of China Street fritters, one of the most popular stalls at Maxwell Road Food Centre today.  

It was started by his father and uncle in the 1950s and has remained a steadfastly family-run business since.   

Their traditional fritters, known as ngoh hiang in Hokkien, are aromatic rolls of spiced minced meat wrapped in soft beancurd skin and then deep-fried.  These are sold alongside fried bee hoon and other items like fried tofu, fishballs and century eggs.

"In the early days, cars would stop right in front of  our stall along China Street and people would buy their food without getting out," Kok Hua recalls fondly.  "We could only operate between four and nine in the evening as the fritters were all handmade, which took a lot of time.  Without a fridge, the food couldn't last very long either."

The stall was run by Kok Hua's father, mother, grandmother and sister.  It fed people from all walks of life - "from tycoons to coolies" as he put it - but in particular, workers from the nearby shipping companies.  "Sometimes we'd get bullies who pretended to pay on credit, but who were really looking for a free meal," he added.

Kok Hua and his elder brother Richard began helping out at the stall in 1972 when their father fell and dislocated his arm.  The patriarch passed away three years later and Kok Hua took over the running of the business.  

In 1979, the Ngs moved to a different space on the same street, but this time with a real roof over their cart.  They peddled their popular fried fritters there till 1987, when the government relocated them and their fellow hawkers from China Street to Maxwell Market.

The simple set-up of their new space fostered both camaraderie and conflict between the hawkers.

"In those days, the chairs and tables were portable, so some hawkers pooled together a sum of money to buy more tables and stools for their customers," says Richard.  "But this often caused arguments because the customers would sit at those tables but order from the stalls that didn't contribute to them."  

Still, the open concept meant that the hawkers could communicate easily, which for the most part helped to build good relationships.  Richard says that the vibe has changed now that the centre has been renovated.  With each stall confined to a nine-foot-square space, there is little opportunity for the hawkers to chat throughout the day.

Nevertheless, for patrons, it is all about the food, the familiar favourites that they return for year after year.  China Street Fritters is still as popular as it was in the 1950s.  It consistently receives accolades for its good food and was even invited to cook at the presentation of the President's Award for the Environment, held at the Istana, the official residence of the President, in 2010.

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