Hawker Stories: How fishball noodle hawkers saved their struggling business with seasoning success


Back in the 1980s, competition was stiff with other hawkers also selling the same dish. With a baby on the way, it was crucial that Irene and Tan Lean Yong find the perfect balance. Today, their first child carries on the business. Here’s their story.

With their first child on the way, and their hawker business struggling, Irene and Tan Lean Yong knew it was time to make a change. 

This was in the 1980s, and Tan’s stall was one of several selling fishball noodles at Kovan 209 Market & Food Centre. Competition was stiff, and they often had the fewest customers. 

Tan, a second-generation hawker who took over his father’s stall after National Service, decided to revamp the family’s recipe. His strategy? Perfect the seasoning for his springy Mee Pok noodles.

It was crucial he find the perfect balance between the heat of his hand-made chili, with the textures and tastes of other ingredients like the juicy minced meat, chewy mushrooms, and crispy fried Ngoh Hiang. And that, he did.

Now, 31 years later, Yam Mee Teochew Noodles is one of the most popular stalls at the bustling hawker centre, occupying two units, with snaking queues forming as early as an hour before its 7am opening. They have also opened a second stall at Kaki Bukit 511 Market and Food Centre, helmed by their 31-year-old daughter, Anthea. Her brother, 29, also helps with the business. 

Sharing stories of her parents’ hard work – Mum wakes up at 2am and is at the stall by 3am. Dad takes the later shift to feed the dinner crowd. Laksa, soup, chili is all made from scratch. Anthea said she knew she wanted to be a hawker since her teenage years.

Then, she would help serve customers. Four years ago, alongside the opening of their second stall, she entered the kitchen and learnt to cook noodles from her dad. After graduating from university with a Social Science degree, she had briefly ventured into the corporate world before returning to her roots.

“My parents encouraged me to dip my foot in the corporate world, but I just found it more meaningful to be a hawker. Knowing that customers – new and regulars – keep coming back for more makes the long hours worthwhile,” she said.

Since taking an active role in the business, she’s introduced options for digital payments such as DBS PayLah!. It’s not only more efficient, she said, it’s given them a boost in their business on Fridays – with earnings at their Kovan stall increasing by up to 30% when PayLah! users can get an SGD 3 subsidy on their meal.

While she enjoys the flexibility of being her own boss, there’re trade-offs, Anthea shared candidly. Her long hours mean she has little time for friends. So it was all the more touching when her customers showered her with red packets and congratulatory presents, including a traditional Hainanese gift of eggs and a large can of Milo, when she gave birth to her daughter last month.

The first-time mum said she doesn’t expect her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but hope what carries on, is her family’s commitment to hard work and resilience. 

“My daughter may not see me much because I am working on weekends and public holidays. But she’ll know that hard work and perseverance run deep in the Tan family, and love, to us, is giving her the very best to forge her own path.”


DBS has extended our SGD 3 subsidy on hawker meals every Friday for the first 100,000 diners who 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.

Irene and Tan Lean Yong run Yam Mee Teochew Fishball Mee at Kovan Food Centre, 209 Hougang St 21, #01-35. Opening hours: 7am-9pm, closed on Mondays.

Anthea runs Yam Mee Teochew Fishball Mee at Kaki Bukit 511 Market and Food Centre, 511 Bedok North Street 3, #01-24. Opening hours: 9am-9pm, closed on Mondays.

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