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Nov 9, 2010

Wonton Mee Stall at Old National Library

Now 81, Madam Leong Yuet Meng is still putting in 10-hour days to sell her famous wonton noodles at her Far East Square stall.
ST PHOTO: NURIA LING

The photo above of the old wonton mee stall next to the old National Library.

Most visitors to the old National Library at Stamford Road, Singapore will remember the "wonton mee" stall next to a place of nostalgic memories young and old.

On this personal blog of new social media to share readers, the "Reminiscence of National Library at Stamford Road" was posted here .

In the "Life! Section" of The Straits Times, Saturday, November 6, 2010 by Senior Writer Mr Wong Kim Hon (kimoh@sph.com.sg), the interview of Madam Leong Yuet Meng who used to run the wonton mee stall next to the old National Library. Her life story is produced with courtesy of The Straits Times, as the complete article should not be excerpted or unjustifiably quoted out of context.

Very politely but firmly, Madam Leong Yuet Meng waves away my protest. The interview, she says, can wait.

She beckons over one of the helpers at her Nam Seng Noodles and Fried Rice eatery at Far East Square.

"Make this gentleman here a bowl of wonton noodles. Make sure that it's good," she instructs in Cantonese.

As the middle-aged assistant ambles off with a big smile, the 81-year-old says: "She's new, this one, but she's learnt very fast and is pretty good. Do give me your feedback, though."

I've not tasted wonton (dumpling) noodles made by the matriarch herself but the version I get is pretty darn tasty - firm noodles in a simple but delectable sauce garnished with lean char siew and blanched choi sum, with a side serving of scrumptious silken wonton. The sauce, I'm told, is her own concoction, and the noodles come from a supplier she has known for more than 50 years.

Madam Leong is proud of her wonton mee, and justifiably so. For more than 40 years until 1995 when the Government reclaimed the premises, she held court at a shed next to the old National Library in Stamford Road, serving up that dish as well as fried rice, hor fun (rice noodles) and other offerings. For thousands of Singaporeans, she was an institution.

The lament of foodies rang loud and clear when her outlet had to close. Many feared that this taste of Singapore had disappeared forever.

But to the relief of food-lovers desperate for this fix of yesteryear hawker fare, Madame Leong and her noodles resurfaced 10 years ago at Far East Square, where they have been satisfying hungry diners ever since.

"Many of my customers have been with me for years. Some ate my noodles when they were students, now they are grandparents," she says, her aged but winsome face breaking into a gentle smile. "I've been so lucky and so blessed," she says simply.

Hard work and dogged survival in tumultuous times have played their part, too, in the success story behind the delicious noodles that I made clean work of in less than five minutes.

Madam Leong is the adopted daughter of a domestic helper who came to Singapore from Guangdong province in China in the late 1920s.

"My mother came here after she was widowed. She adopted me and raised me as her own. I have an adoptive elder sister who lives in Hong Kong," says the kindly octogenarian who does not know who her real parents were.

She grew up in Chinatown and went to school for a few years but the Japanese Occupation put paid to her studies. But it instilled in her a love for Chinese literary classics which explains her melodiously Cantonese, often littered with piquant proverbs and truisms.

She had, she says, a sheltered upbringing. "My mother loved me a lot and doted on me. She didn't allow me to work although I wanted to," she recalls.

When she was about 20, an aunt match-made her with a relative who worked as a clerk. They tied the knot in the late 1940s after courting for a year.

Three sons came in quick succession. They are now aged between 55 and 58 and work as a pharmaceutical sales executive, construction supervisor and civil servant.

Madam Leong set up her famous wonton noodle stall next to the old National Library in 1958.

"I had a cousin who sold wonton noodles in Kreta Ayer. It looked like something I could do and I had long wanted to start a little business. So I just got her to teach me how to do it," she says.

Her husband, the late Mr Tang Leng Choon, was her financier. He died at 82 from lung cancer about 10 years ago.

"I paid $200 to take over the stall from a Hainanese man and spent another few hundred on equiment," she says.

She hired an additional cook and two dishwashers, and plunged straight into business. The name Nam Seng was contributed by her mother-in-law in the hope that the business would "thrive and grow in Nanyang".

"Things were cheap then. I paid the cook $2.50 a day," she reminisces. "A bowl of wonton noodles cost just 30 cents and a place of char siew rice 50 cents."

"It was like walking up a flight of stairs, you go one step at a time. But I was determined to make it work. Without determination, there can be no success."

And she made it work.

"I would wake up at 5am daily and my husband would drive me to the wet market because I liked to choose the ingredients myself," say Madam Leong.

"I needed at least 15kg of pork a day to make char siew (barbecued pork)," she recalls.

Her dishes, especially her wonton mee with its al dente noodles and silky meat dumplings, won a huge following.

"On weekends, there were long queues and I could easily sell more than 500 plates a day," she says.

An enterprising soul, she branched out into "tingkat" catering, supplying lunches with "rice, two dishes, one soup" in tiffin carriers to scores of residents in the area. "I charged 75 cents for the meal, and every day, a trishaw man would help me deliver them. They were very popular," she says.

Her mother-in-law helped to mind her children when they were young.

"When they started going to school, I'd get a taxi to fetch them after school to the stall where they would have their lunch.

"After that, they went for tuition nearby. I always told them their studies were very important. They are very filial," says Madam Leong who now lives with her second son in Toa Payoh. She has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

She had to close her stall in 1995 when the Government repossessed the land.

"I had no choice. The Government wanted the land back. Many people came to say goodbye and gave me a lot of presents - from little momentoes to jewellery. I was so touched," she says.

After closing the shop, she and her husband took a trip to China, visiting the counties of Sansui and Shunde in Guangdong province to trace their roots.

Retirement did not sit well with her, and Madam Leong soon started operating a little stall out of a coffee shop in Joo Chiat.

However, she did not count on the resilience of Mr Chia Boon Pin, president of Far East Food Concepts.

A fan of her wonton noodles since his student days, he tracked her down in 1999 and persuaded her to move to Far East Square where she now operates out of a corner-shop unit.

Although she has five workers whom she graciously refers to as colleagues, Madam Leong still puts in 10-hour days. Her second son still drives her to the wet market every day to do the day's purchases.

"I open the shop myself, I'm here before any of my colleagues arrive at 8am," she says. Throughout the day, she oversees the operations, take orders and occasionally rolls up her sleeves to make her famous noodles.

"Some of my customers want me to do it personally. They have been with me for so long, how could I refuse them? says Madam Leong, adding that her fame has spread to Hong Kong.

"A lot of Hong Kong tourists come armed with their guide books, asking to take photographs with me."

That she has earned the affection of many of her customers is obvious. Several well-dressed Shenton Way types cheerily greet and ask after Ah Por (grandmother) in the course of our two-hour chat.

"Life is not all about making money. You have to have good relationships with people and treat them well," say Madam Leong who has trained many "disciples" over the years. One of them, Ah Chan, is a grandmother who started working with her before she got married.

"I've been very lucky with people, especially customers. Every festive season, I get inundated with gifts and goodies from my old customers," she says, adding that many of them take their children and grandchildren to her stall.

An optimistic soul who enjoys watching Hong Kong drama serials and playing mahjong with friends in her free time, her favourite phrase is "wan hoi gin yuet meng". The Cantonese proverb preaches patience and forbearance, it means "the clouds will part to reveal a shining moon".

She has, she says, lived a great life. Her only wish is to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up, and for her second son to take over the business.

"He's a good cook and he will be retiring soon from the construction business. And a lot people have told me that it'd be a shame if the business is not passed on."

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3 Comments:

Blogger Ivan Chew said...

Nice post. A heritage story within a heritage blog post. I've never been posted to work at the Stamford Road National Library. Colleagues who used to work there -- particularly the older ones -- seem to have fond memories of the food and drink stalls. I had the impression that the food stalls were very much part of the National Library, in a way.

November 9, 2010 at 9:59 PM  
Blogger chinatownboy said...

Wah, nostalgic tale. I must go and get my bowl of wanton meen!

November 9, 2010 at 10:48 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thanks Ivan.

Those who missed Grandmother Leong Yuet Meng's "wonton mee", pls check it here .

I missed Grandmother Leong for her kindness and compassion much more than her "wanton mee". With fond memories of her whenever I visited the old National Library in my young days.

November 10, 2010 at 12:59 PM  

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