91-year-old peddler behind historic wonton noodle stand is calling it quits

SINGAPORE: For nearly six decades, hawker Leong Yuet Meng, 91, has been up six days a week before dawn to prepare her old-school wonton noodles.

One of Singapore’s oldest hawkers, if not the oldest, this Cantonese chef is known as the founder of the Nam Seng Noodle House which was located just outside the Old National Library on Stamford Road.

But she has closed her only stall, in Far East Square along China Street, to which she had moved 20 years ago. It is a victim of the COVID-19 crisis, where the standard of working from home has eroded the Central Business District.

“The company fell dramatically from one day to the next. It was very difficult to get back to where we were before, ”she said.

“Ideally I would like to continue … I hope to keep my brand (Nam Seng) – I have built it through a lot of hardship.”

Took Seng noodle shop from Hawker Leong Yuet Meng on China Street before closing.

Mdm Leong’s store on China Street before it closed.

In the Belly Of A Nation program, hawkers like Leong share their fears and dismay during the pandemic, and how making ends meet became increasingly challenging.


It was in 1962 when Leong opened her stall – funded by her late husband – in a small food center across from the old National Library.

Her first foray into the trade was selling chicken porridge and macaroni at a school on Queen Street, but she was introduced to wonton by her cousin, an amah who also sold this dish in Chinatown.

The stall’s name was suggested by her mother-in-law. “Nam means Nanyang (the region that includes Malaya and wider Southeast Asia) as we did business in Nanyang, and Seng represents a successful company,” said Leong.

Her menu featured many other dishes, such as chow fun, fried rice and chicken with soy sauce.

Her menu featured many other dishes, such as chow fun, fried rice and chicken with soy sauce.

During the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore later in the 1960s, her husband, who worked as a clerk for the British, was given the opportunity to move his family to the United Kingdom.

‘I said,’ Please don’t make fun of me. Go overseas? I don’t know any English word. I’ll stay here, ” she recalls.

At the time, they were selling their signature dish for 30 cents a bowl.

“You would have had wonton, noodles and char siu,” she said. “I started at 30 cents and increased it to 50 cents (and then) to 70 cents; then from a dollar … to today’s S $ 5. “

Before the library was pulled down, she moved to Joo Chiat and then accepted an invitation to open a stall in Far East Square, where they also sell fried rice, game hor nice and seafood hor nice.

Hawker Leong Yuet Meng in action at her Nam Seng Noodle and Fried Rice store before closing it.

Mdm Leong in action.

Although she had a small team of helpers, Leong was still very involved in running the stall, including getting up early in the morning to pick up fresh produce from a wet market in Toa Payoh, where she lives.

Her second son, Michael Tang, would send her to Nam Seng where she would spend the day making the wontons and taking customer orders.

“I like to be hands-on … People must be able to do everything. I don’t trust the workers, ”she said.

If you want to make money, don’t complain about hardship. Return home to sleep if you are concerned about hardship. “

For two decades she witnessed life on busy China Street, but that came to a halt when COVID-19 struck.

Pre-Covid.  the line at her Nam Seng store "went all the way back"said peddler Leong Yuet Meng.

Pre-Covid the queue went “all the way back,” said Mdm Leong.

At her age she belongs to the high risk group, and with people who also stay away from the CBD, she has temporarily closed the stable. But the restless matriarch complained of boredom during the “circuit breaker” period.

“I just stayed home for two months,” she said. “I read the newspapers and sometimes watched television.”


For 22-year-old Delonix Tan Wei Jie, on the other hand, he couldn’t have picked a more inopportune time to enter the peddlers trade.

After applying to the National Environment Agency’s Incubation Stall Program, he opened his fish ball stand, SanDai Fishball, at the Amoy Street Food Center as the number of COVID-19 cases increased.

Delonix Tan Wei Jie opened his booth just before the "fuse".

Mr. Delonix Tan Wei Jie.

“After four days of operation, the government announced that there would be a circuit breaker on April 7,” he complained. Yes (Hokkien for bad luck).

Although he had little experience in cooking, he had helped his father make yong tau foo in a wet market in Toa Payoh, and thought he would like the hawker’s “hectic” lifestyle.

When he started, he did a double duty: he was at his stall during the day and at night he helped with his family’s food business.

Given his schedule, his girlfriend initially helped him with his stall.

“She knew I was very stressed, short on cash, and so on, so she offered to help,” said the novice, acknowledging that his cooking “took some time to develop.”

Delonix Tan opened SanDai Fishball, in Amoy Street Food Center, just before the "fuse".

This was after he closed his booth during the circuit breaker, as it was in the CBD, and realized there would be almost “zero pedestrians”.

After reopening it in June, he found that during the lunch hour that used to be at the food center, the crowd still hadn’t returned.

“We spoke to … our customers, and they told us most of them wouldn’t be back until next year,” he said. So after a few months he decided to quit and help his father in the wet market.

“Rather than keep throwing money into this black hole, we decided to just cut it off,” he said. “(Being a peddler) … is very, very hard work, and the (profit margins are) very, very thin.

“After this experience I don’t think I want to be a hawker.”

Delonix Tan noticed that after the circuit breaker, customers had not returned to the Amoy Street Food Center.

He is left with pictures of his booth.


Leong also resumed the business after the circuit breaker measures were lifted. “I did it immediately, if only to meet people,” she said.

However, as her clients were mainly office workers in the CBD, it was quiet. In July, it closed its Far East Square facility for good due to dwindling crowds and lease issues.

“When I started renting there 20 years ago, the people (building management) were nice. Who knew they would change this year and become difficult to talk to? ” she said.

One of her employees has returned to China, another has gone to work in her brother’s restaurant and the latter “wanted to rest”.

WATCH: Ancient Flavors – Singaporean Hawkers Serving Traditional Asian Recipes (46:25)

At her age, Leong should comfortably retire, but she is adamant about keeping the Nam Seng brand alive.

“I’ve worked for so many years. My focus and dedication over the past 60 years has been for my brand. How can I bear to let it go? ” she said.

‘We’re taking our time, and we’ll find a new place. We will make a comeback. I will inform you all through the newspaper, internet and telephone when we reopen. ‘

Watch the Belly Of A Nation program here.

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