Singapore’s ‘Ah Beng’ hawker serves up a dash of creativity and attitude

|     Toh Ee Ming     |

SINGAPORE (Xinhua) – Singapore’s rich hawker culture has recently come into the spotlight, following its nomination to be inscribed onto the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The new breed of young and daring hawkers are reinventing the concept of the traditional Singaporean hawker fare.

Hawker centres are open-air complexes that house many stalls selling a wide variety of affordably-priced food, and are often located at short distances from people’s dwellings. They are an important place for social interaction and community bonding, and are considered a unique aspect of Singapore culture and lifestyle.

Jason Chua became a hawker despite his father’s disapproval.

Chua’s stall is crammed among the maze of hawker stalls within Hong Lim Market and Food Centre in Singapore’s Chinatown. Each day, Chua is on his feet for 12 hours, selling some 30 to 70 bowls of dishes daily.

One of Chua’s most vivid childhood memories involves his father driving him to school one morning, when he suddenly noticed that his father’s hand was wrapped in a big plastic bag and blood was dripping out from it.

His father, a hawker who worked at a fruit and dessert stall, had sliced the skin off his hand while cutting some pineapples.

Beng Who Cooks founder Jason Chua at his stall at Hong Lim Market and Food Centre in Singapore’s Chinatown. – XINHUA

“He said he had no time to see the doctor and needed to go back to the stall to work. I never forgot that incident. From then on, I really respected my dad a lot,” said Chua, who grew up helping his parents at the stall and cooking from a young age.

When he grew up, the hardships of the trade and his parents’ disapproval did not stop Chua from pursuing his passion for cooking. He went on to a culinary school and eventually set up his own hawker stall Beng Who Cooks in March last year.

Today, Chua has sustained so many knife cuts and washed his hands so frequently that he has “no more fingerprints left on his right hand”.

“This is why my parents didn’t want me to work in this line, because they know how tough it is, how scary it is,” he said.

True to his namesake as the Singaporean ‘Ah Beng’, Chua is loud-mouthed and full of cocksure swagger. The 27-year-old’s arms are inked with tattoos and he constantly peppers his speech with profanities.

In Singapore, an ‘Ah Beng’ is a local slang to describe young Chinese men who are usually associated with street gangs, not highly educated, and wear loud fashion.

To most people, an ‘Ah Beng’ is just someone with tattoos, but Chua argued, “The meaning of my ‘Ah Beng’ is more than being honest and vulgar… It’s more like I don’t want to obey anything. I just want to have my own rules.”

It’s clear that Beng Who Cooks is unlike the typical hawker stall. It operates on an unusual model of a changing menu every three months. Calling it an “experimental kitchen” of sorts, customers can choose from a variety of carbs, proteins, sides for their Beng Bowls, or Singaporean-style poke bowls.

Season one was all about the “classic” flavours with its Beef Stew, Sweetheart Chicken Thigh, while Season two packed a spice-filled punch with the Paprika Dory, Kung-Fu Chicken and Fiery Sauce. Most recently, Season four conjured up the taste of home and a mother’s cooking with dishes like the Heartwarming Chicken.

Chua derives inspiration from every place imaginable, from sampling eels and snakes in night markets in Taiwan and Thailand and talking to street vendors there, loading up on Indian spices that he was clueless about and “trying funny things at home”, but nothing ended up being edible.

Once, after watching the Japanese anime Food Wars, Chua tried freezing five eggs and frying them but “got scolded by his mother” after the recipe did not work.

Most of the time, Chua simply improvises with the ingredients he has on hand. After discovering that a supplier had been selling him sea salt instead of the usual salt, Chua renamed the fried broccoli to the Sea Salt Broccoli, which became one of the stall’s top-selling dishes.

Already, Chua has earned a name for himself with his unique branding and quirky antics. His social media is filled with videos of silly pranks, and beside the stall, there is a fake movie poster of Chua and his staff pictured in the 1990’s Hong Kong crime film Young and Dangerous. Chua joked that he is so used to being called the ‘Ah Beng’ that he often forgets his real name.

Chua dreams of one day taking over the world stage. He has already been approached a few times to open a franchise, but turned them away as he felt it was still too early.

For now, the Hong Lim stall is a “gold mine” for him to dabble with new creations, while he concurrently manages its sister brand, an event-based business called Monkey Nutz that sells coconut shakes. It was named as the rest of the team are born in the year of the Monkey.

“I’ve pledged to myself that no matter how tough it is, I will keep forcing myself to get out of my comfort zone and express my creativity,” said Chua.

“After all, there’s no limit to ideas.”