By Emily Ni (20S03C), Kelly Leong (20S07C), and Ng Ziqin (20S03H)
Friday, 31 May 2019. The school was teeming with the restless energy of staff and students who were counting down the minutes to (relatively more) freedom. This very date marked two lasts. For the staff and students, it was the last day of school (until Term 3 started in a month’s time); for the RI Yong Tau Foo aunties, it was their last day of operations.
Like most RI students, the writers of this article were devastated when we found out that the Yong Tau Foo stall was closing. One rapid cycle through the five stages of grief later, we made the journey down to the Yong Tau Foo stall on its final day of operations to speak to staff, students, and of course, the Yong Tau Foo aunties.
“你们吃了吗?” (Have you had lunch?)
This cheery question was posed to us in Mandarin by Auntie Ah Kiao (as she’s affectionately known as to her canteen colleagues), one of the four aunties running the Yong Tau Foo stall. Even on the last day of their operations, the aunties’ commitment to a singular mission was clear: feed the students.
Almost guiltily, one of our reporters, Emily, admitted she had not. But Auntie was quick to remedy the situation, despite having closed shop.
“I’ll cook for you! I have one tomato left, half a cabbage and some noodles. Hold on ah.”
She sprang into action, busying herself as she prepared what would be the last meal to emerge from this kitchen.
This stall has had a long history in RI. Started in 1982 by our interviewee’s eldest sister, it has witnessed the coming and going of almost 35 batches of RI students, all the while remaining true to its humble roots as a family business. With such a long tradition of filling the hearts and minds of the masses, the stall holds a special place in the hearts of students: it has gained many ardent supporters, teachers and students alike, who have eaten here for years.
Indeed, staff and students alike turned out in droves to support the Yong Tau Foo stall on its very last day. Even at the odd hour of 10.05 a.m., a snaking queue had already formed in front of the stall, where students waited in line for their orders to be prepared.
The yong tau foo stall’s menu on their last day of operations: Laksa and Prawn Mee.
One of the students in the queue was Kenneth Poh (20S03O), a long-time supporter of the stall. Since Year 3, he had made the trip over from the Y1-4 campus at least once a week for his Yong Tau Foo fix.
“I found out about the closure from my Biology teacher last week, and since then, I’ve been eating this every day. I’m quite sad, because right now I have to wait an extra 30 minutes in the queue, and I won’t get to eat this again anymore after today.”
Ms June Tan from the PE Department was less fortunate. “I only found out that the stall was closing from the Friday morning announcement and tried to eat there one last time. But when I got there at about 12pm, they had already closed for the day.”
As it turned out, we arrived on scene at 1.30 p.m., just in time to witness a mini surprise celebration which several councillors had planned for the aunties. The aunties were presented with Griffles plushies and a board of well wishes penned by students as the councillors swarmed the stall, sweetly serenading the aunties with a kazoo rendition of the Institution Anthem. A rendition we never knew we needed—until now.
But the aunties were a tough audience to impress. “We want to hear you sing it too!”
Gamely, the councillors complied (much to the aunties’ glee).
All in all, it was about 1.45 p.m. before we were finally able to sit down with one of the aunties for our interview, with the final bowl of yong tau foo steaming by our side. Even then, this was interrupted by teachers who came to speak to her, pass her tokens of appreciation, and pose with her for photos.
During the course of the interview, the auntie revealed the answers to the million dollar question on everyone’s mind: Why was the stall closing? One of the primary reasons that the stall had ceased operations was because two of the aunties had been looking to retire, and with no successors to be found, working without a full team of four would be tiring. “Hiring others is hard, [because] they don’t know what to do,” lamented the auntie.
The fact that the aunties are getting older also played a part in their decision. While they typically rotated in shifts, this arrangement offered scant comfort against occupational hazards like backaches from standing up for too long, or steam from the hot soup which can damage the eyes. However, it was their dedication to the job and their love for the students that kept them in business, despite the numerous challenges. One of the aunties even continued working despite having had a stroke a few years back.
I enjoy cooking for students. It makes me happy when they tell me they enjoy my food, and that’s all the satisfaction I need.The Yong Tau Foo auntie
While staff and students officially begin their day at 7.40 a.m. at the parade square, the canteen stall owners go through a very different routine. Like clockwork, the aunties arrive at 6.30 a.m. to start preparing chilli, sweet sauce, and soups for the day. This is followed by a visit to the nearby wet market at 7.30 a.m. to purchase fresh ingredients, which are washed and prepared after returning. Only after all these steps have been completed can the aunties put their food out for students to select and begin their sales.
“So you see, that’s why we don’t sell very early in the morning. Because we’re still cooking. We prepare [the ingredients] fresh every day,” she elaborated. When asked why they take such great pains for ingredients alone, the auntie fixed us with a stare and responded steadfastly: “The food that I give people must be of good quality.”
From fresh, handpicked yong tau foo to daily brewed soup, it is evident that plenty of heart and effort went into each dish. When we spoke to a student, Cherilyn Chia (19S06S), she recalled that the aunties were always meticulous and thoughtful—one of them had even asked if she wanted her vegetables to be cut into smaller pieces because of her braces. The thoughtfulness of the auntie was definitely a moving gesture for Cherilyn, and one which she remembers even more than a year later.
But even without this heartwarming anecdote, something else the auntie mentioned suggested to us that she thinks of us as not just customers, but family: like a concerned grandmother, she’s been keeping track of our eating habits!
Auntie remarked that the eating habits of RI students have shifted dramatically compared to when she had first started working here 40 years ago. Her eyes glazed over as she reminisced when the aunties could count on steady streams of hungry students patronising after school. But business started to steadily decline in the 1980s, possibly due to the accessibility of alternatives to canteen food at nearby malls like J8 and NEX. Students themselves have also developed strange food preferences and eat at odd timings.
“You all must remember to eat more regularly!” she quips.
Nearing the end of our chat, Emily finally tucked into the meal specially prepared for her, and a look of great satisfaction rose on the auntie’s face. This was not, however, without some tinge of sadness—the auntie stared at the food wistfully, the rising steam evoking a heavy sense of nostalgia. This bowl of yong tau foo had been the auntie’s final labour of love, something that had been a defining characteristic for a good number of years in her life. Watching it disappear, then, was nothing short of bittersweet.
“It’s a pity. My heart is still here,” she finally said, a phrase that encapsulated the melancholic mood lingering in the air. When we told her that students had been lamenting the closure of the stall, and that their food had been greatly enjoyed by many, she gave us a bright smile.
That’s all I needed to hear.The Yong Tau Foo auntie
We may never fully understand the extent of their love and consideration for us, but we can understand that it must be hard to let go of the many bonds and memories formed over the years; it was a definitely a bittersweet ending to the term. Nevertheless, the closure of their stall also signifies a new beginning for the stall owners—as a retiree, the auntie hopes to interact more with nature and volunteer to fill the time she now has to herself.
“Please say hi if you see me outside school next time!” Auntie said cheekily when we asked if she had any parting words for the readers of Raffles Press.
Thank you, aunties, for all your time and effort! We wish you a happy retirement, and hope that you will find as much joy as you have brought to the RI canteen in the last 37 years.
Update: This article was corrected on 11 July 2019 to include the name of our interviewee, Auntie Ah Kiao.