Last Updated: April 2, 2020
With more than 100 hawker centres housing over 6,000 stalls serving as ‘community dining rooms’, Singapore’s hawker heritage is one that distinguishes us from other countries. It is a place which unites Singaporeans of different ethnicity showcasing our country’s diverse culture and traditions.
Despite that, with the lack of ownership succession, our ageing hawker trade is said to be one facing a dire future. It wasn’t until initiative programs, such as the National Environment Agency’s Incubation Stall Program and NTUC’s Hawker Entrepreneur Program led to the current situation where a younger generation of Singaporeans set foot into the scene. Today, many of these first-timers are known as hawker-preneurs.
Reinventing traditional Hakka yong tau foo is Lee Lock Teng, founder of Ah Lock Tofu which first started at Yishun Park Hawker Centre as part of Timber+ Hawkerpreneurs Incubation Program back in September 2017. Since then, his business took off and to date, he has a total of five outlets including Ah Lock & Co., an establishment in Tanjong Pagar Centre, and Ah Lock Kitchen, a one-month-old coffeeshop space along Woodlands Drive.
Honing his cooking skills since the age of 10, helping his mother in the kitchen, Lock Teng’s passion for cooking sparked off when he was eventually passed with the baton to be in charge of his family dinner. “After a few rounds of cooking, my family accepted the food I prepared and even praised me for some of my dishes. That really boosted my confidence and pushed me towards the (F&B) industry,” commented Lock Teng.
When asked why he chose to start his first shop at Yishun Park Hawker Centre, Lock Teng told me that it all boiled down to luck and opportunity. “I saw an advertisement calling for hawkers and thought I should take my chance since there was an incubation program going on. It was to support young hawkers that are starting out,” he smiled, as he recalled on his first step into the F&B scene three years ago.
As part of Timbre+’s Hawkerpreneurs Incubation Program, first-timers like Lock Teng had to go through a round of evaluation on his food and assessment on his background before he was shortlisted for food tasting and an interview by a panel of judges. Successful applicants will then be contacted to participate in both pre and post-program surveys and be trained to learn the ropes of the trade.
“I had quite a lot of subsidies and incentives being part of this program. Rental was cheap and I was provided with basic equipment and utensils at my stall. This helped significantly in saving unnecessary costs which I was able to use for my running capital,” said Lock Teng.
Babysitting his newest Ah Lock Kitchen, Lock Teng currently spends most of his time at Woodlands overseeing kitchen operations and ensuring that everything runs smoothly. “I rarely have time for myself,” he mentioned. “Many people think opening a hawker stall is easy but the hours we put in behind the scenes are crazy. I don’t really have much social life and have to even squeeze Sundays for myself.”
These challenges, however, did not stop Lock Teng from bringing his business to greater heights. To him, it was satisfying to witness everything run smoothly at all the outlets without being physically involved. “This means that my staff are capable and are doing a good job,” he added.
Another reason that kept Long Teng running, was his returning customers. After trying his version of Hakka yong tau foo for myself, it was definitely not difficult to understand why people are making return trips for it. The signature Hakka Tofu Bowl (S$5) marries his grandmother’s decades-old yong tau foo recipe with elements found in a bowl of Hakka thunder tea rice, resulting in a modernised donburi (rice bowl) with a touch of tradition and familiarity.
Sitting on a bed of Japanese short-grain rice was a mixture of meatballs and stuffed tofu, accompanied by manicai (sweet leaf) and diced long beans—two of Lock Teng’s favourite vegetables which he has been eating since he was a kid. Stuffed with minced chicken, although the tofu was deep-fried, it remained soft to the bite, with a juicy meaty centre. On the other hand, I felt that the chicken meatballs were a little too dry when eaten alone. That’s when the mentaiko sauce came to the rescue, adding a layer of creaminess that balanced the texture and flavours of the dish.
“It heartens me when parents come and get takeaway for their kids. Some of them even mentioned that their children are eating vegetables because of this dish,” Lock Teng said proudly when he talked about his creation. “This is the kind of food that not only serves adults but also suits the young and the older folks.”
Beyond the likes of the Hakka yong tau foo, Ah Lock Kitchen also introduced a new dish, the Hakka Crispy Chicken (S$5) which consists of fried chicken cutlet, grilled broccoli, and a sous vide egg. Unlike the other outlets, his store at Woodlands will be the first that features a no pork, no lard menu, and I was told that he is slowly changing things up for all the outlets to eventually be halal certified. “We will need some time, but I also want more people to be able to enjoy all the dishes we serve,” Lock Teng mentioned.
Be it driven by passion or business, Lock Teng believes that maintaining a steady flow of customers and attracting new ones is ultimately a creative endeavour. Thus, he is constantly improving and inventing new dishes to add to his menu. That is also how min jiang kueh first came into the picture at their eatery in Tanjong Pagar Centre which eventually extended to all his outlets.
“I befriended the owners of Munchi Delights at Yishun Park Hawker Centre when I started Ah Lock Tofu. We grew closer and now, we are business partners. That was how the collaboration came about when we decided to open Ah Lock & Co.,” Lock Teng mentioned. “Yong tau foo and min jiang kueh might seem like a bizarre combination to some, but we wanted to open an eatery that has everything to offer to the CDB crowd,” Lock Teng added as he continued to explain about the concept behind his collaboration.
If you are looking for a sweet after-meal treat or a light bite to start the day, having min jiang kueh is certainly not a bad choice. Out of the three flavours—peanut, coconut and red bean (S$1.20 each)—my favourite was the Red Bean Min Jiang Kueh. The soft and chewy green tea pancake had subtle bitter notes that paired well with the red bean paste which was moist and not tooth-achingly sweet.
Helming five outlets at the age of 27 is not an easy feat and Lock Teng has definitely come a long way having started off as a hawker with no prior experience. When asked if he had any advice for new hawker-preneurs, he mentioned that perseverance and hard work are two virtues that one must have in order to survive in a tough environment.
“Most new hawker-preneurs give up very fast as we don’t earn big bucks and the work is tougher than what you can imagine. In order to succeed, you must be patient and continue to work hard even if you don’t see immediate results,” he advised.
It is heartwarming to see new waves of young hawker-preneurs breathing life and vibrance into Singapore’s hawker culture. Taking the first step is not easy, let alone enduring year after year. As fellow Singaporeans, let us show our support and appreciation to all our hawkers to ensure that this unique culture of ours lives on with the decades to come.
Expected Damage: S$1.20 – S$5 per pax
Our Rating: 3 / 5
Ah Lock Kitchen
573A Woodlands Drive 16, Singapore 738994
573A Woodlands Drive 16, Singapore 738994