Spurred on by the need to carry her family’s prawn noodles recipe into a new generation, Li Ruifang juggles the tough job of being a hawker with building a young family of her own
Often wearing an impish grin on her face, 33-year-old Ruifang appears to be your average young Singaporean wife and mother. But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a proud and determined 3rd-generation hawker within, one who seems to balance being woman, wife, mother and entrepreneur as handily as she wields her prawn mee soup ladle.
Any hawker will tell you that it’s no cushy job. We were really curious about Ruifang’s story, why she chose this (sweaty!) career path and how she handles being away from her 15-month-old baby girl for up to 14 hours each day.
Origin Story of 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles – Tekka Food Centre Branch
Not your typical prawn mee auntie (Source)
“I’ve wanted to sell prawn noodles since I was young. I feel sad to continually see hawkers and hawker food disappear from the local scene. Having the opportunity to take hold of such an old recipe in my family means that I can serve the same food for another generation.
My grandfather used to sell it along the streets in Balestier. Later, they relocated to Whampoa Hawker Centre, where my grandmother and dad ran the stall. I began helping out during school holidays when I was in primary school. I started off collecting used bowls, moving on to serving bowls of prawn noodles to customers during secondary school. By the time I was in university, I was taking orders as well.
After graduation, I worked in the corporate world as a settlement officer. Close to four years into the job, I realised I was in the wrong industry. Feeling no sense of achievement or pride in my work, I decided to call it quits. Unemployed, I returned to helping out at the stall in Whampoa. A busy but rewarding year flew by.
I was so happy working there and that made me set my mind on getting into the business. My father was initially against it as he understood the pains of being one and had always wanted his daughters to make the best out of the education he sponsored. Still, I felt that I needed to continue his and my late grandparents’ legacy and bid for a hawker stall at Tekka market. I won the bid by just $12 from the next highest bidder – it was really meant to be! That was in 2014 and I’m now into my fourth year of selling prawn noodles.
Pregnant Mum on the Hawker Block
A quirky prawn-themed maternity shoot when Ruifang was five months along. Credit: Melvin.Ho.Photography
When I first opened my stall, other stallholders and some customers would remark on how I was wasting my degree and my youth. It is probably fair to assume that lots more was said behind my back. Thankfully, there were also many who showed tremendous support, offering great advice along the way.
Then I discovered that I was pregnant. I’m really grateful that my husband continued to support my decision to keep working. Which I did, for 36 weeks of my pregnancy.
The worst thing about being a pregnant hawker is the heat. I would sweat more than usual and my belly would get extremely itchy if I wore the wrong type of clothes. I didn’t have much morning sickness throughout my pregnancy which was super lucky! However, I got hungry every two hours during the first trimester. Luckily my dad was there to fill in whenever I took a snack break.
My gynae diagnosed me with gestational diabetes during my second trimester, so I had to watch what I ate. With a low-carb and no-sugar diet, my weight actually dropped. Baby was growing fine and I became slimmer – which is a good thing! I gained 6 kg in total throughout my pregnancy. It was tough initially because I really love to eat. But health is more important than anything.
My body was already used to the long working hours, so I was fine working until towards the end of the pregnancy. My baby bump got really heavy and the baby was pressing on my nerves, leading to sharp pains around my crotch. I also saw a chiropractor weekly to relieve pain in my left buttock caused by the repetitive motion from cooking the prawn noodles.
A usual work day involves waking up at 1.30am and sweating over the stove till 2pm. I typically reach home around 4pm, six days a week. After I got pregnant, I decided to reduce it to a five-day week to get more rest. It has stayed that way ever since. During the final stages of my pregnancy, my dad took over the cooking completely. My aunt, who used to help at the Whampoa stall, was also there to give my parents a hand.
My Second Labour of Love
And then there were three! Credit: Melvin.Ho.Photography
It felt unreal to be a mother initially. This was compounded by the fact that I needed to be bedridden for much of my confinement month as I suffered from really bad pain in my tailbone after a natural birth delivery. Unable to sit up to carry and nurse my baby, I missed out on the “love at first sight” that most mums experience. I could only concentrate on pumping milk.
Hoping to make up for it, I took four months of ‘maternity leave’ to give my baby girl breast milk. So it was really quite frustrating when my supply wasn’t enough. I tried my best, eating everything that supposedly boosts milk supply but to little avail. I even went for a lactation massage twice – it cost me over $300 and intolerable pain – but that didn’t help much either. My husband kept assuring me that it’s ok, that I did my best. That formula milk is still milk, and what’s most important is that our baby is well-fed.
My breastfeeding journey ended after 3.5 months as it was time to return to work. It wasn’t possible to pump at the hawker centre due to hygiene reasons. I came to terms with the fact that I had done my best and at least gave her some breast milk. As if to make me feel better, Kyra grew well and only fell sick twice within her first year.
I also feel really blessed that I’m surrounded by really supportive family. Rather than pressuring me to quit my job, they have rallied around me in support of my passion. My husband and I decided that he would be Kyra’s main caregiver when I’m at the stall, since he works from home as a digital marketer. During our days off, my mother helps to take care of the baby so that we have some couple time too. Even my mother-in-law offered to help take care of her, but as she would have to commute quite a distance, we talked her out of it.
Postnatal Depression of Another Kind
A playful day out. Credit: Melvin.Ho.Photography
Leaving my baby at home while I returned to work on that first day was easier than I had imagined. To be honest, I didn’t suffer any separation anxiety. Maybe it’s because I was confident she was in good hands under her daddy’s care.
My husband, on the other hand, had a tough learning curve. He began learning how to take care of a newborn from the confinement nanny. From washing bottles and breast pump parts to bathing the baby, changing poopy diapers, the whole nine yards. But that was the straightforward part.
I first began noticing that something was wrong when I would come home and he would be in a bad mood for no apparent reason. He kept insisting that he was fine when I asked him about it. It went on for a few months and he seemed to be on a downward spiral. I kept probing until he finally opened up to me.
My husband was actually struggling with depression. Having to take care of the baby alone while juggling his work was taking a toll. He felt isolated and stressed, then guilty for feeling that way.
I promised to help lighten his load whenever I can. What he needed was time away from the baby and possibly on his own, so I do my best to give him that opportunity on my days off. While he hangs out with friends or does errands, I will sometimes bring Kyra out on my own – which is great for me to enjoy bonding time with her too! I did urge him to seek professional help but he insisted on working it out on his own and without medication. He said that talking to me openly about his feelings helped a lot, and things have been going well since.
Baby (Kyra) Led Weaning Recipes
Another thing we both agreed on was to practise baby-led weaning (BLW) with our little girl. Instead of feeding her porridge and purées, we let her explore solid foods and learn how to chew. The difference between BLW and traditional weaning is that babies learn how to chew before swallowing, while the latter teaches swallowing first.
(See also: Weaning: Let Baby Lead)
Kyra started BLW when she was six months old. It was scary to see her gag on some foods initially but with practice, she quickly learnt to always chew her food well. Her first food was steamed broccoli and since then, we’ve been documenting her eating process in videos. It’s really fun to watch how she explores and improves on chewing before swallowing.
Due to my long working hours, my husband learnt how to cook breakfast and lunch for her. I prepare her dinner when I get home. There is no added salt or seasonings in her food except for some mixed herbs. Here are some recipes she loves:
Steamed chicken and veggies meal (Kyra was eight months old)
Method: Season chicken drumstick with goji berries and a dash of sesame oil before steaming. Steam broccoli and carrots.
Breakfast pancakes with yoghurt and strawberries (Kyra was 10 months old)
Method: For the pancakes, mash up a banana and mix into a beaten egg before pan-frying till golden brown. Layer with plain Greek yoghurt and berries.
Sushi with assorted veggies and pork rib meat (Kyra was 13 months old)
Method: Roll up cooked rice in seaweed sheets. Air-fry pumpkin. Boil spinach, cauliflower and pork ribs.
Pan-fried salmon, pasta and veggies meal (Kyra was 14 months old)
Method: Pan-fry salmon in a little olive oil. Boil pasta. Steam cauliflower, broccoli and carrots.
For updates on Kyra’s BLW journey, follow Facebook page Just an Ok Dad that Kyra’s daddy, Kris, specially created.
Celebrity chefs visit Tekka Market to try Ruifang’s prawn noodles! (Source)
It’s true that the job of a hawker is tiring, often dirty and not glamorous at all. But I’ve no regrets choosing this ‘unusual’ career. For one thing, it gives me a sense of satisfaction seeing regular customers coming back day after day. In September, I was really honoured when CNN Travel invited 3-Michelin-star chef, Massimo Bottura and his wife, and 2-Michelin-star chef Julien Royer to try my prawn noodles. They seemed to really enjoy it. It was extra affirmation that I had indeed chosen the right path!
(See also: 10 Time Management Tips for New Mums)
My fellow hawkers have grown to be very supportive as well. Although Kyra doesn’t visit me while I’m working as her daddy has to work at home while looking after her, we sometimes take her to Tekka Market during my days off. They adore her and often shower her with gifts. My husband and I keep our social media platforms updated with Kyra’s antics, and they keep track of her that way too!
As much as I take pride in my work, it is even more rewarding to watch Kyra grow up healthy and picking up new skills. And one is definitely not enough! I originally wanted to have four kids but that may be unrealistic. Maybe two will be just nice. Both my husband and I don’t believe in stressing children academically. We hope our children will enjoy their childhoods and learn through play.
Oh, and love ‘hae mee’!
Visit Ruifang for a piping hot bowl of prawn noodles:
545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles – Tekka Food Centre branch
Where #01-326 Tekka Market & Food Centre, 665 Buffalo Road
Opening hours Mondays to Fridays: 6.30am-2pm (or until sold out); Closed on Saturdays & Sundays
Featured image courtesy of Melvin.Ho.Photography