Toh Ah Wat is 65 and runs a drinks stall at Ang Mo Kio market. He lives in a four-room flat in Yishun with two of his four children, and his wife. He takes only three days off a month. But his hard work earns him enough to be generous – any one who can’t afford a meal in the area gets a free breakfast from him – a hot drink and kaya and butter toast.
Each morning, I wake up at just before 4am, at the darkest hour. After 30 years, I don’t need light and I don’t need an alarm. Before 4.20, I am out of the flat. I need to be quick because there are people waiting by 5 am. I drive my old Mitshubishi to Ang Mo Kio. I don’t think I actually speed, but get to my stall no later than 4.40 am.
Then it’s like a race against time – boil the water, wipe down the counters, boil the cups. Heat, water, powder, milk, lights. In that order.
I need the water to be a rolling boil, and then when it’s steaming hot, it goes into the powder. This gives the best fragrance.
People tell me the ang mohs, they don’t actually boil the water until it’s 100 degrees, if it’s too hot, something happens to their coffee and it tastes funny. I’ve tried it, but it tastes funny anyway, even if they did it at the “correct temperature”. But our coffee is different you know – we have a different colour, a different flavour, composition and the powder reacts differently.
I have been roasting beans since I was 10. I don’t know chemistry but I know what I am talking about. Our coffee needs the water hot but you need to know when you take stop boiling it – just that little bit over and it’s sour.
I never did well at school, never wanted to stay in school beyond primary four. But I have a nose for coffee and for making tea. Well, tea is the hard one but I can’t tell you my secret. No matter how fast I need to make it, no matter how many people give me their orders, I carry it in my head, I don’t get it wrong.
From 5 am to 7 am, I hardly stop – people going to work, and they need breakfast fast and nourishing. I sell a basic set for $2.20 – two eggs, soft or hard boiled, kaya and of course tea or coffee. This is much cheaper than anywhere else – less than half the price you pay for those in air-con places. It’s nothing fancy but I make sure the coffee and tea are better than the usual. Each day, I sell between 70 to 100 breakfasts.
Then, from 8 am onwards, those who need a free meal come around. It’s nothing organised, just from the neighbourhood. They here, sit down, and I give them breakfast. I started doing this many years ago – because you know, as hawkers we know who are the poor people around us. When they pay, they will take the money out reluctantly, and even a $2 note is folded carefully. Some of us will say, “It’s ok, don’t have to pay.”
But actually, people have their pride. They don’t want to come to us and try for a free meal, and they are afraid because they don’t know which one can afford to give them a meal.
So, last October, I made it more formal. I went to the community centre and told them – look you must be helping lots of people. Anyone who needs a meal you tell them to come to me, and I will give them free breakfast. Just don’t come during peak hours if they can help it.
I told my wife: “We am not serving anything expensive, a few meals, surely we can treat people.” She agreed. She takes the afternoon shift – I get off at 4 pm and she takes over.
So the CC people, they made a simple printout with a picture of the breakfast and gave them to people who need a free meal. Each month, I give out about 50 free breakfasts. I didn’t set a limit for the CC, but this is the number that come to me, on the average.
I used to give eggs automatically, but some of them don’t eat it so it’s wasted – they are old and many have high cholesterol and they explain they cannot eat the eggs. So I only give when they ask for it now.
My wife says some people come in the afternoons for “breakfast” too, but it’s ok, whenever they are hungry, we will feed them. I am hoping that it will catch on among the other hawkers too, but so far, I don’t think anyone else has done it yet. But it doesn’t matter. I keep doing it and someday, others will do the same too, if they can afford it.
I usually try and sneak a lunch in at 12 noon – I eat from all my neighbours stalls, it’s a big market but over the years, I’ve tried everything. My favourite now is the fish soup stall.
We all eat from one another – all pay market price but we give each other more ingredients or a special cut of meat. I usually eat within 15 minutes because the lunch crowd comes out right after 12. I have four helpers – two in the morning, and two in the afternoon – all my relatives, or my wife’s family.
After lunch, it’s breakneck speed until 3 pm. Then I can sit down and talk to my friends, drink sugar cane juice, and finally talk to the customers. After a break, I drive home, take two to three hours’ nap and drive back about 9pm. to close up.
I do all the heavy lifting – getting the beer and drinks out from the store to the stall, clear the bottles, do the clean up and close the accounts.
I fetch my wife home, have a simple meal, and we are usually in bed by 11 pm after a bit of TV. We’ve done this together for decades so we have a routine like clockwork. Except for our off days – when we can do whatever we like. We take two full off days a month, and two half days. All of them are spent with our six grand kids – two of my four kids are married.
I don’t bring them any where expensive, or buy them anything, but we have a good time, just driving around Singapore, have meals at zi char stalls, and you know, just giving them a break from their parents! When they see me, it’s like a holiday for them – “Gong gong is here!” and they go wild.The oldest is in secondary school, and the youngest are in primary school.
When they were younger, my kids always offer to help me out at the stall but I forbade them to do so. It’s a hard life and I wanted them to do well, have a better life. Now all of them have good steady jobs, which is the best reward for me.