Those of you familiar with my habits and my passion for cooking may realise that I try not to eat out. On Friday night 6th Nov 2015 after work, I decided to revisit a zer cha stall at Hougang that made pretty good beef hor fun. There was no crowd that night. I happily placed my order and waited. After about 25 mins and seeing people who came later getting their orders delivered, I cast a very polite questioning glance at the helpers at the stalls. Instead of giving me any reassurance, they “replied” with a cold look from the corner of the eye. To increase productivity, they waited for a few people to order the same dish before they started cooking. A customer who placed his order for beef hor fun at 10.00pm may have to wait for another customer to place his order at 10.30pm. A few other customers who ordered takeaways were equally anxious at first, milling around the counter. When one of them (obviously not a regular) enquired about his orders and received that “death glance” at first then finally getting snapped at, he kept quiet and meekly waited for his food!
They need the insensitivity of a block of wood not to know that I was displeased. Instead of apologising for making me wait for 30 mins, the lady just shoved the dish on the table and snatched my money off my hands. No thank you, no sorry. Well, I’m certainly not going back, but I can’t say the same about the flock of sheep still meekly waiting at the counter for their takeaways. There’s something I can’t understand and I’ve thought long and hard about it – the ruder the hawker, the more people queue up for his/her food. Even after getting snapped at, the customers still wait meekly for their food. I guess the key to lording over people is to get them addicted to something you provide.
I went home and for a long while, bewilderment and frustration gnawed at me. Presently, I fell asleep and had the strangest dream. I was back at the eatery at Hougang. The meek downtrodden crowd was still there, patiently queuing for their orders. I decided to wake them up.
“Friends, Romans, hungry men, lend me your ears.” I began. “I cam here to bury this stall, not to praise the arrogant, insolent people running it. Many of us have been patronising this stall since they first started 50 years ago. Back then, they were very focussed on customers. They started cooking the moment an order was made. They didn’t keep us waiting. For the sake of the customer, they sacrificed their own convenience. Above all, they treated us like their valued customers. Indeed, they had many loyal customers and the bottomline took care of itself. Every single stakeholder at the stall became a millionaire.”
A siting and standing crowd was starting to form inside the eatery.
“But things have changed.” I continued. “The founder of this zer cha stall is dead and his successors have a very different management style. They take orders, cook and serve customers at their own convenience. They use only one kind of vegetable and one kind of seasoning for all the noodle dishes. They consolidate orders so they can use the minimum amount of gas for cooking and water for washing. By cutting costs and cutting corners, some of us who have ordered dishes which nobody else ordered had to wait for 30 minutes or more. Their attitude has changed. They treat as if we’re addicted to the food they provide and can’t live without them. Have you noticed the difference?”
“Yes!” the crowd shouted. By then, the crowd was growing outside the premises.
“They have forgotten that we the customers are their bosses. Not only have their business model changed from a customer-centric one to a self-centred one, the price of one plate of char kway teow has gone up 5 times. But the quality of the char kway teow has gone down. Every single dish is a watered down version of yesteryears’ signature dishes. Can you taste the difference?”
“Yes!” came the crowd’s deafening roar. By then, I could no longer see where the crowd ended. I had a sea of supporters.
“The folks running the zer cha stall need to be reminded who pays for their Mercedes and BMWs – their bungalows in Johor Bahru. We are the ones paying for them. It’s only right that they work hard for us. Why are we bending over backwards to accommodate them? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Why do so many of fellow hungry men accept all this insult? Don’t we have pride? Don’t we have dignity? Don’t we have choices?”
“Yes!” the crowd applauded. By then, the riot police should have arrived, but this was only a dream.
“Friends, Singaporeans, hungry men. What say you, we terminate their tenancy and welcome a more responsible and customer-centred new management?”
“I’m sure my hor fun, yee mee, fried kang kong, butter prawns, prawn paste fried chicken, fish curry and tom yam soup are just as good if not better than the incumbent’s. Kick them out and let me take over.”
The crowd went crazy, jumping, clapping, shouting.
Suddenly, the zer cha stall’s owner stood on a chair and waved wildly to the crowd to get their attention.
“My dear customers …”
“Boo…” the crowd jeered.
“Listen to me. Whoever runs this zer cha stall must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this stall and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down. Don’t be fooled by this wannabe. We are the ones with any track record around here.”
“Boo…” the crowd jeered even louder.
“I think I’ve heard that one before. I’m not sure about you, but personally, I’m not very impressed by their recent track record.” I said smugly.
“Don’t listen to this dreamer. He’s just full of rhetoric. He has absolutely no experience running a zer cha stall. It’s not as simple as you think. Our team may not be perfect, but we’re the only ones who have proven that we won’t screw it up so badly that you won’t have anything to eat. If you allow him to seize the tenancy from us for a two-year term, you’ll have two full years to repent. The entire food business in this area will tank if you allow people like him to take over.”
“The people have heard enough. Let’s put it to a vote.” I said brimming with confidence.
And the crowd started casting their votes. I was excited. Judging from the crowd sentiment, I was very confident. The results were shocking. 70% voted for the incumbent. I stood there in disbelief.
“Why like that?” I asked.
No answers. All this cheering had worked up a healthy appetite for the crowd and they started queuing meekly for their food with track record. A few were so relieved that they wiped perspiration off their foreheads. Some attached speakers to their thoughts.
“Heng ah! I thought everyone would vote for that dreamer.”
Time to wake up. My dream was a lot like reality TV. It was a game to outwit, outplay and finally backstab. In this game, the crowd may cheer for you, hug you, shake your hand, share food with you and then vote you out at tribal council. It would be a mistake to think that they have been misled by the lack of alternative sources of information. Their conservative public image and abhorrence for decadent lifestyles of people like Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee are not predictive of whether they would vote against bullying and other unfair practices.
© Chan Joon Yee