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Food

Inspiring Heroes: One-Handed Hawker Sells Bak Chor Mee With Handmade Noodles & Meatballs For 24 Years To Support Family

Last Updated: May 2, 2019

Written by Gillian Lim

At a young age of 21, freshly discharged from the army, Mr Yee Meng Yong lost his right hand because of an industrial accident involving a cement mixer. “From then, I had to force myself to use my left hand — even for the simplest things like writing and everything else,” he recalled.

Despite being handicapped, he took on the responsibility of running his father-in-law’s bak chor mee stall, Punggol Noodles, together with his late wife 11 years later, in 1995.

Running the stall included the tedious task of making its signature meatballs and noodles from scratch. He also had to actually man the stall for six to seven hours a day without a single break in-between, churning out about 200 to 250 bowls of bak chor mee a day. He was 32-years-old then.

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Mr Yee’s daily routine goes about something like this.

“Usually, I wake up at 2.30am and reach the stall at 3am,” he said. “I start to prepare all the minced meat and fish paste, and mix them together and start making all the handmade meatballs. That’s when I also start braising the mushrooms and pork intestines.”

The preparation work takes three to four hours. “At 7am, we open the stall for business,” he shared. He personally cooks each bowl of handmade bak chor mee for six to seven hours on end, without a single break in-between. “Not even a toilet break!”

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Talking to Mr Yee felt like I was talking to an old friend. He was constantly laughing and smiling, inserting little jokes in-between his answers to our understandably sensitive questions.

Looking at his cheerful demeanour, it’s hard to tell that Mr Yee has been through a whirlwind of challenges, tough days and demoralising moments.

“The lowest point of my life came when I lost my wife in 2008,” he shared. That fateful morning, his late wife, Madam Joanna Law, had taken longer than usual to get ready for work. When he got out of the car to check on her, he suddenly saw something falling to his left. There was a loud thud.

When he went closer to take a look, he realised it was his wife, who had fallen to her death from their seven-storey flat. Rushing forward to hug her, Mr Yee performed CPR, but it was too late. She let out her last breath in his arms.

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Overwhelmed by debt to multiple loan sharks, Madam Law grew tired of working to pay off the family’s growing debt. She felt she had no choice but to ‘pay for the remaining debts with my life’, wrote Madam Law in the three-page suicide note that was addressed to her husband and three children.

As if losing his arm wasn’t enough, it was tough enough for Mr Yee that he had to take over his father-in-law’s business when he was only 32-years-old. And now, he had to single-handedly take care of his three teenage children and mourn the loss of the love of his life.

“My eldest son helped me to run the business during that tough period. I really appreciate him very much for helping me — he had to face his own mother’s passing, work with me, wake up at 3am in the morning to prepare all the ingredients, and then go off to work himself,” Mr Yee said.

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When asked about his own emotional and physical state during the tough period, Mr Yee let out a chuckle. “Myself? Of course, I was very tired and sad. But I had no choice. That’s life. We have to face whatever situation we’re in heads on.”

In fact, Mr Yee had zero experience cooking noodles when he took over his father-in-law’s stall, Punggol Noodles. “I had to hire people to cook for me,” he admitted with a laugh. “I really didn’t know how to cook until I was forced to learn due to manpower shortage. Then, I had to learn for myself.”

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Mr Yee’s Signature Noodles (Dry) (S$3.50) came with a generous pile of handmade mee kia (thin egg noodles), handmade meatballs, mushrooms and vegetables. For S$3.50, the portions were super huge!

I absolutely loved how springy the handmade noodles were. Despite being thin, it wasn’t too soft nor too hard and had a really nice bite to it. Tossing it in the handmade spicy soy sauce mix made each bite completely slurp-worthy.

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Punggol Noodles is famous for its handmade meatballs, which are made fresh every day.

Mr Yee pointed out that it was only in 2004 when pigs became infected with a deadly virus did Mr Yee decide to make its meatballs from scratch, rather than import them.

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Mr Yee’s handmade meatballs were really, really good. Springy and juicy, my teeth sank into them easily. Flavour-wise, it was naturally sweet but still slightly salty, with a nice balance from the added pepper and spices.

It definitely wasn’t like your regular fish paste-based or minced meat-based meatball you can find at supermarkets, which are usually hard and firm despite being already cooked.

Each meatball was shaped uniquely, a definite sign that it had been shaped by hand.

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Another thing I was really impressed with was the pig intestines at Punggol Noodles. Each batch was prepared fresh daily and had been braised for six to seven hours before being served.

What I loved was that each serving was only cut into individual servings prior to being served. This means I got juicy, thick cuts of pig intestine that had soaked up all that umami flavours throughout the entire morning.

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If you’re a fan of pig intestines or innards, be sure to give the Intestine Noodles (Dry) (S$3.50) a try. These pig intestines had no gamey or ‘smelly’ taste, which I was really surprised by. This was proof that it had been washed really thoroughly prior to being cooked.

Pairing it together with Punggol Noodles’ savoury soy-based sauce made for a really tasty meal, and I unabashedly slurped up the springy and flavourful noodles.

After tasting Mr Yee’s noodles, I was no longer surprised by the snaking long queue that never seemed to end throughout the two hours that we were there. Mr Yee’s passion for life, determination, and skills at cooking are evident through his food, and it doesn’t hurt that each bowl of handmade noodles is absolutely delicious.

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When asked if he ever thought of giving up throughout his tough ordeal, Mr Yee remained silent for a long time.

Then, he said: “No. I’ve never thought of giving up. A lot of customers have given me feedback that they like my noodles. I’ll continue cooking until nobody likes it. Then, I’ll stop.”

Now, Mr Yee is supported by his current wife, who has been helping him man the stall for the past five years. “She’s like my right hand,” he joked. He cooks the noodles while she handles the ingredients, plating and customers. Together, they work like a well-oiled machine, dishing out bowl after bowl to the never-ending line of customers.

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Often, Punggol Noodles sells out early, way before its designated closing time at 1.30pm.

When asked what he was going to do after he closes the stall for the day, Mr Yee chuckled and said: “I’ll go home and have a good rest. Then, I’ll spend some time with my grandchildren.”

“After that, a new day starts again.”

Price: $

Our Rating: 5 / 5

Punggol Noodles

Blk 105 Hougang Avenue 1 ,#02-24, Hainanese Village Centre, Singapore 530105

Price
Our Rating 5/5

Punggol Noodles

Blk 105 Hougang Avenue 1 ,#02-24, Hainanese Village Centre, Singapore 530105

Operating Hours: 7am - 1.30pm (Mon - Sat), Closed on Sun

Operating Hours: 7am - 1.30pm (Mon - Sat), Closed on Sun
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