I tracked down the woman who made the signature food of my Singapore childhood
The word wonton translates to “swallowing clouds” because of the billowing shape of the dumplings floating in soup. Wonton noodles date back to the Qing dynasty, and came from the Cantonese people of Guangzhou, according to this Straits Times article. During World War II, the invading Japanese army triggered a mass exodus of Chinese people to Hong Kong, where wonton noodles became a staple. Into the ‘80s, Chinese migration continued to spread the dish throughout Asia and the rest of the world.
When wonton noodles came to Singapore, they were sold by vendors with pushcarts who’d beat bamboo sticks in a distinct “tok tok” pattern like an old-school version of an ice cream truck jingle. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Singaporean government moved these roving vendors into open-air food markets that still line the streets of Singapore.
For me, the food that’s inextricably linked to my memories of growing up in Singapore is wonton mee, a Chinese dish of wontons over noodles that requires a perfectly coordinated dance of carefully timed cooking to get just right. My family and I have been eating at the same wonton mee spot for as long as I can remember. My parents used to stack plastic chairs into a makeshift highchair tower when I was too small to reach the table. It was a humble stall around the corner from my grandmother’s place, the kind of roadside joint you could easily miss if you cruised by too quickly in your car. It was helmed by a petite Chinese woman with a toothy grin who everyone simply called Aunty.
There are plenty of more famous places to eat wonton mee in Singapore, but my loyalty has always been to this Aunty, whose perfectly al dente noodles came steeped in a potent sauce blend of chili, vinegar, and ketchup, topped with delicate wontons, thin slices of roast pork, and boiled leafy greens, with a bowl of clear soup on the side.
My family moved to Tokyo when I was 10, and I’ve spent the intervening decades shuffling between cities, but every time I flew back to Singapore, my first stop, often straight from the airport, would be to eat this bowl of wonton mee. Except this year, when my mom gravely broke the news that the Aunty had gotten too old and sick to work, and the stall had been closed for months.
Visions of her sick and slowly wasting away filled my head. Was she on her deathbed? Who was taking care of her? How did I not even know her name? These gnawing questions grew into an urge to track her down.
So one morning, I stopped by the stall. A young man at the neighboring drinks stall told me he’d grown up eating her noodles too and scrawled her phone number and address onto a piece of paper. “I don’t know her apartment number,” he said. “Just that it’s on the second floor.”
The phone number he gave me was dead, so a few days later, I headed to a public housing estate on the east side of Singapore. I knocked on every door on the second floor. One creaked open to reveal a living room strewn with trash and men’s slippers, while another neighbor said she knew no one who fit my Aunty’s profile. Most of my knocks weren’t answered at all.
Running out of options, I decided to try the third floor. That’s when I saw her, through an open door, sitting in front of a table lit with red candles and figures of Chinese gods with her eyes closed, head bowed in silent prayer. Sensing my presence, she looked up, her eyes wide with confusion, then softening into a smile when she recognized who I was. She shuffled to the door and asked, “won’t you come in?”
As we sat side by side on the couch, she told me her story: Born in Indonesia, she moved to Singapore with her husband when she was 35 years old, opening the wonton mee stall in 1982. At first, her husband ran the business with her aunt, and she worked in a factory. But after a few months, he got sick, so she learned how to cook.
Her voice dropped to a near-whisper. “My husband died on July 1, 1989, of a heart attack,” she told me in Chinese, leaning forward and miming a heart exploding with her hands. “My son was only seven years old.”
For the next 37 years, she ran the stall with a rotating cast of helpers, including her mother and grandmother, but mostly she did everything by herself. “I had to,” she says forcefully. Then she broke into a grin. “With so many regulars, I could be really happy sometimes.”
A few months ago, she continued, she hurt herself lifting something heavy, and ended up in the hospital. Her doctor told her she should shut the stall down. “Business isn’t that good,” she lamented. “If you do everything yourself, you can still make a bit of money. But it’s hard to hire people, everyone wants short hours and high wages. It’s impossible.”
“My son isn’t working either—neither he nor his wife have a job,” she said. “Even if he helped me at the stall, it wouldn’t be enough to cover his two kids.” She sighed deeply. “Life is hard.I have no choice but to take things one step at a time.”
It struck me that her plight was not an uncommon one in Singapore, the most expensive city in the world in 2017. Serving local food at hawker centers is seen as a lowbrow, non-lucrative trade, and with the previous generation of vendors aging out of the profession, few people my age are willing—or able to afford—to step into their roles.
I grasped for something comforting to tell her, and settled for telling her how many kids like me had grown up with her noodles. In fact, you could read their nostalgic reviews on sites like Yelp. “Thank you,” she said with a gracious smile. Grasping her hand, I said goodbye, knowing it would be the last time I saw her. Walking down the stairs, I realized I still didn’t know her name. Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter.