Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hawker Legends - Sheng Cheng Char Kway Teow

Behind that tough exterior, there is a gentle soul that has a sense of compassion well beyond the average man on the street.

Uncle Tan is 67 years old, and for most of his life, he knows little else besides the art of making a great plate of char kway teow.

He was born at a time when Singapore was a more turbulent place. Where riots were prevalent and gang fights were a commonplace event.

He was brought up in a family of ten siblings, and during those days, it meant that money was hard to come by and going to school was a privilege.

In fact, he was enrolled into Anglo Chinese Primary School for only a year before he had to drop out. You see, he was the eldest of the children. He needed to contribute to the family household earnings and did so by working in a hawker stall operated by his father's friend.

And that is where he picked up the precious skill of frying char kway teow, at the tender age of seven. For the better part of the last six decades, he has mastered that skill to an art from.

But things did not come easy. By the time he was eighteen, he managed to work out a professional license to run his own tall at Wayang Street, also known as Teochew Street. It was there that he and his dad ran the original Sheng Cheng Char Kway Teow outlet.

And boy, they were popular then. So good that they attracted the envious attention of gang members and other jealous stall holders. Fights were common, but the Tans strived and endured to eke out a living to provide for their sizable family.

As Uncle Tan found and married his life partner and settled down to a married life in the early 70s, things were starting to look up when the government decided to relocate some of the old hawkers to Ellenborough Market. That was the place to be, especially for the Teochew community where other famous luminaries like Ah Orh would reside for decades.

Then the great recession came in the mid eighties and two of Tan's brothers were desperately out of a job. Being the responsible brother that he was, Uncle Tan decided to hand over his preciously procured stall to his younger siblings and his dad to operate. They needed the money more, was his thinking.

As for himself, he made do with a tougher task of being a labourer to earn his living for a couple of years. Thankfully, this would not last for too long. An old friend who owns a coffeeshop in Bukit Merah came to the rescue.

With his savings of $2000, he set up Sheng Cheng Char Kway Teow at 132 Bukit Merah and has been there for the last thirty years. The initial years were, however, not as smooth sailing as initially thought.

Gangs used to patronise that kopitiam and gang fights broke out at an alarming rate during the mid eighties. Uncle Tan himself would be involved in some of these skirmishes and has the battle scars to show. Visits to the local police station were not infrequent, as well as trips to the nearby hospital.

But his survival instincts prevailed, and the determination to create a better future for his fledgling children proved even stronger. Over time, the gangs faded away and he and his wife began to have a stable life and income.

Yet, till this day, not many people know of Uncle Tan's incredible resilience and his tasty plate of fried noodles. Mainly because he has been situated in a rather obscure location that has escaped the radar of the food media for many years.

Uncle Tan

During the old days, Uncle Tan and his wife would tirelessly shuck the cockles required for this dish. But now, it makes little sense to go through this labourious process as Uncle Tan complains that the cockles these days are far too small to warrant this effort. Instead, he uses pre-shucked ones instead.

Otherwise, his original recipe and technique is unchanged from the days at Wayang Street. Uncle Tan uses less sweet sauce and the colour is less pale in appearance. He also insists on frying each plate one by one, and that takes time.

His wok hei is also less significant, but what comes through are his flavours that are finely balanced like a knife's edge. In fact, the first few mouthfuls may prove less stellar than you would expect. But give it a few more rounds and then, the brilliance of his char kway teow starts to engulf you like an old friend.

Just the ideal amount of savouriness and sweetness, and the bean sprouts giving the requisite crunch. His crispy lard is perfectly fried and gives it that porcine injection of greasy tastiness. Finally, his kway teow is beautifully handled and presented. Each strand of flat rice noodle looking glossy, relaxed and smooth, displaying the extra effort here in preparing the kway teow.

The story does not end here. Over the years, Uncle Tan has a similar reputation as Sheng Kee Cooked Food's Mrs See. He has a compassion that requires attention too. At Sheng Cheng, there is a budget priced plate for the elderly.

But often, it has been observed he would waive any charge for those who are simply too poor to afford this tasty plate of Singapore street food. Yet, he remains grounded and has little need for attention.

He and his wife make such a lovely sight, working together on a lazy Tuesday afternoon when the golden haired one and I were there. Each plate has that lopsided plated look that is required of the greatest of char kway teow renditions.

Without a successor in sight, and his advancing years threatening a retirement in the near future, it is imperative to have a taste of this legendary plate of char kway teow today. And get up close to a man whose sense of responsibility, self sacrifice and compassion can be palpably felt in each plate of this illustrious dish.

There are simply not many like Uncle Tan anymore.

Sheng Cheng Char Kway Teow
132 Bukit Merah 

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