Hawker Stories: How a nasi lemak hawker gives back to the community


Jackie Tham could easily order ingredients from large suppliers for cheaper, but she chooses to buy from the market vendors who helped her while she was starting out. Customers are also her “boss”, and she must do her best to take care of them. Here’s her story.

In the quiet of the very early morning, 61-year-old Jackie Tham starts her work day. At 2.30am, she begins the intricate process of preparing her famous nasi lemak. The rice needs time to meld with the coconut milk to bring out its signature fragrance, chicken wings are cooked to a crispy crunch in fresh oil, and then, there’re the trips to the nearby wet market to buy the fresh produce she needs.

She could buy her ingredients from wholesale suppliers and enjoy a bulk discount, but it’s more important to support her community, Jackie shared. After all, these were the same people who kept her afloat 22 years ago when she first started her hawker business. Then, cash was tight, so nearby market vendors allowed her to buy their ingredients on credit, trusting she would make good on her promise to pay them back at the end of each day – which she did. “We must always remember our roots,” Jackie said, quoting a Chinese proverb.

Jackie preparing her signature ayam (chicken) otah.

Running a hawker stall has been Jackie’s childhood dream. She studied for six years and worked in a factory for a decade before eventually starting her own stall selling Nasi Lemak, inspired by a small Ang Mo Kio stall that served this local staple. Of course, she’s developed her own unique spin on the dish: her specialty, Ayam Otah. The chicken paste is mixed with spices beforehand, then grilled fresh on the spot.

Jackie’s food now draws snaking queues from as early as 5am, when she opens for business. The lines are especially long on Friday mornings, which is when customers can enjoy up to SGD 3 subsidy when they pay using PayLah! as part of a DBS initiative to give back to the community by easing cost of living pressures.

“The SGD 3 every Friday may seem like a small amount, but don’t look down on it. It all adds up and helps customers. I’m happy that DBS is extending the programme,” said Jackie, who quips that customers are her “boss” and she must do her best to take care of them. She is particularly glad to see more seniors using digital payments like PayLah! since the programme was introduced.

Jackie’s stall helpers include her former mentee from Singapore’s Hawkers Development Programme. He taught her and fellow workers how to use PayLah!, and they often teach seniors in the queue how to use it as well. In fact, he used to work in cybersecurity!

For Jackie, the increased use of digital payments means less fumbling for loose change while serving food, fewer trips to the bank to deposit cash and the security of having less cash at the stall (there was a theft many years ago).

“For us hawkers, we shouldn’t be so conservative and should keep up with the times. We should learn from young people and keep the hawker culture going. Innovate, blend modernity and tradition, create new recipes and keep up with the digitalisation wave,” she said, cheerfully.


DBS has extended the SGD 3 subsidy on hawker meals every Friday when diners pay with DBS PayLah! till 26 July 2024. DBS is committed to helping our customers reduce their rising expenses, against the backdrop of ongoing economic uncertainties and inflation.

Jackie Tham runs Hon Ni Kitchen at Blk 216 Bedok North Street 1, #01-07. Opening hours: 5am to 1pm (or when sold out), closed on Sundays and Mondays.

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