While most people are getting ready for bed, 25-year-old Delonix Tan and his father are getting ready for the day ahead at their fishball and yong tau foo stall in Toa Payoh, also known as SanDai Fishball.
The backbreaking process involves making fishballs by hand from 1am all the way to 6am, before they open up for the day, serving the morning wet market crowds in Toa Payoh.
For around six years since his National Service (NS) days, Delonix Tan has been helping at his parents’ fishball and yong tau foo stall Heng Kee, which has been around since the 1960s.
The work is exhausting, and in his words, “brutal”.
But he continues to help on Sundays even as his parents get older and consider retirement.
On one such Sunday, MS News came down to the family-run stall to watch them in action as a steady stream of customers, mainly from the nearby estates, ordered their yong tau foo – which has to be re-cooked before consumption.
As a third-generation (san dai) hawker who previously had to close down his own hawker stall, Mr Tan knows how difficult it is.
But still, he entertains thoughts of taking over the family business when his parents retire, even though they are against it.
His father even refused to teach him how to work at the stall until Mr Tan learned on his own and proved himself capable.
Mr Tan was not always into running a business.
In his teenage years, he got in with bad company and ended up in fights, eventually being expelled from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) for fighting in school when he was 17.
But after he was given a second chance by the police in the form of a conditional warning, Mr Tan decided he didn’t want that life anymore, and cut ties with his former friends.
Helping out at his family business seriously came about as he became interested in running his own business.
“To be honest, when I first started, I couldn’t really take it because the environment was really harsh – it was smelly and hot, and I didn’t think I could do it for a long period.”
But time passed, and Mr Tan became more used to the environment.
The bigger challenge, however, was not the environment but his own parents.
“My parents weren’t very supportive, and my dad was reluctant to teach me how to make fishballs,” he shared.
This was for a few reasons, but one major factor was that his father was too busy at the stall. MS News observed how lines would quickly form in front of the stalls, leaving the hawkers barely any time to even breathe.
Instead, Mr Tan learned how to prepare ingredients at home while he went to his uncle’s stall – which also sells fishballs – to learn the art of fishball making on Saturdays.
As his uncle’s stall mainly caters to the afternoon crowd, the pace is slower, and he was able to learn from his uncle.
Mr Tan’s family makes traditional handmade fishballs from scratch with 100% yellowtail, which is time-consuming and more expensive.
To prepare the ingredients, Mr Tan’s father wakes up at around 11pm while Mr Tan wakes up after midnight. Both work throughout the night while most of the population is asleep.
Making ingredients requires chopping and grinding fish fillets as well as handmaking fishballs by hand – a painstaking process that results in calluses on his hands.
The stall then opens at 6am.
As Mr Tan’s parents are already fairly old, they only open the stall four days a week. Once sales are done for the day – sometimes 10am or 11am – they close up and go home. They’re all in bed by 3-4pm, ready to wake up again.
Imagine doing this for decades, and it’s no surprise that Mr Tan’s parents aren’t so keen on him taking over when they retire.
Mr Tan describes many hawkers at the market as “bow-legged” because of how much they stand, even in their advanced age.
As you’d expect, not many people Mr Tan’s age would consider such job in the first place.
Mr Tan saw ways to grow the business, wanting to try new things that the traditional family business was not so open to.
Hence, he joined the NEA incubation program and passed, becoming a hawker at 21 and setting up SanDai Fishball in 2020. He wanted especially to set up a stall outside of the ‘old’ Toa Payoh estate and serve cooked food.
But it was the wrong time, as he opened right before the Circuit Breaker period. Without any idea of when the Covid-19 restrictions would ease, he decided to close SanDai Fishball after just a few months.
For now, Mr Tan has no plans to return to being a hawker, and currently works full-time as a regional salesman.
Yet, he still carves out time on Sundays to help with his family business, even though some of his friends laugh at him for working in such an environment.
“Friends ask me to go out, but I cannot because I know how tough it is [working at the stall]. When I’m here, they’re already struggling. Imagine if I’m not… wah, intense,” he mused.
I feel guilty if I never come . . . I would say I come to help out almost every Sunday, unless I really got something important, like dinner.
Though Mr Tan has set up a Facebook and Instagram page since SanDai Fishball opened in 2020, it wasn’t until this year that he began experimenting with TikTok.
One of his influences is entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, who always encourages leveraging free social media platforms for marketing.
Mr Tan also noticed that there weren’t many wet market stalls that showed the behind-the-scenes.
To his surprise, his videos have picked up views on social media, to the point he gets some customers through his videos.
To help them find the stall, which admittedly can be rather difficult, Mr Tan hung up his SanDai Fishball signboard beside it.
Though creating content on top of his two jobs is stressful, Mr Tan ensures he gets as much sleep as possible and carves out Saturdays as his off-day to maintain a social life.
Sleep is the least of his problems as he’ll “just crash or hibernate” after he’s done with his Sunday shift and then wake up at 5am on Monday for the work week ahead.
He’ll meditate, then go for a jog, and journal. It’s a far cry from the life he used to lead, and he finds more purpose and fulfilment these days — that time he spends on tracking his progress helps, especially when he gets demoralised or stressed due to his sales job.
He also tries to eat healthily and get plenty of sleep.
“It keeps me on the right path, rather than going drinking or doing other weird stuff,” he shared.
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Featured image by MS News. Photos taken by Iskandar Rossali.
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