For Jolene Tham, waking up at the crack of dawn is the toughest part of being a hawker. The 23-year-old was thrust into the hawker trade full-time when her father, Bren Tham, 48, who owned Rolina Traditional Hainanese Curry Puff at Tanjong Pagar Food Centre, suddenly fell ill earlier this year and could no longer manage daily operations at the stall.
For the past two months, Jolene has been running the stall, which had been on hiatus since January, with the help of her fiance, Kwan Wei Lun, 23. The young couple start their day at 4am, preparing snacks like curry puffs and steamed glutinous rice from scratch.
LENGTHY BREAK DUE TO HAWKER’S POOR HEALTH
Back in January, Bren began experiencing worrying bouts of exhaustion. Speaking to 8days.sg, the hawker recalled his health scare. “Even when I slept early for three days in a row, I’d still feel very tired. It was hard for me to stand for long hours and keep up with a heavy workload. The doctor said my organs were overworked due to over exhaustion. I don’t smoke or drink, I only work and sleep. Maybe the long working hours and irregular meals led to my organs going haywire.”
In the same month, Bren closed his stall indefinitely to focus on recovery. “I was told my organs are functioning below the usual capacity. For example, it takes longer for me to digest food now. I can’t eat as much as I used to and I have to avoid certain foods. I’m doing much better now but it’s going to take time to heal,” said the hawker, who was in good spirits during our chat.
JOLENE USED TO COOK IN A STEAKHOUSE
Jolene tells us she has always wanted to join the F&B industry. The Temasek Polytechnic grad, who studied business, was working at Italian restaurant Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse for about a year as chef de partie (line cook) when her father’s health took a downturn. She left her job to care for Bren. When his health started improving a few months ago, the duo set their succession plan into motion.
PRESERVING A 60-YEAR-OLD FAMILY LEGACY
Rolina Curry Puff’s history dates back to the 1960s when Jolene’s late grandfather, Tham Niap Tong, peddled house-made curry puffs from a scooter cart in Serangoon and Novena. The brand name originated from a mispronunciation of “Novena” as “Rolina” by some of his customers. Over the years, the business went through different iterations, including a bakery at Ang Mo Kio as well as a hawker stall at Serangoon Gardens Food Centre.
Today, the sole surviving Rolina outlet is at Tanjong Pagar Food Centre, launched by the senior Tham in 2010. Bren took over in 2017 and under his management, the stall earned a Michelin Bib Gourmand nod the following year, though it has since lost the award.
FIANCE LEFT AUTOMOBILE SALES JOB TO BECOME FULL-TIME HAWKER
When Jolene’s fiance, Wei Lun, learned of her father’s concerns about her ability to manage the stall on her own, he gamely stepped up to the challenge. “I’ve always been someone who’s keen to try new stuff. (Working together) is also a good opportunity to get to know each other better,” said the 23-year-old former automobile salesman.
The jovial first-time hawker who has “zero cooking experience” confesses that the past couple of months have been tough. “I’ve lost 6kg already!” he declared playfully.
Jolene chimed in to share that he has been incredibly helpful with “all the heavy tasks, like frying and steaming” – a huge improvement from his early days as a complete kitchen newbie.
Papa Bren cheekily added “At first, their faces were so black every day! I told her ‘Don’t scold him so much, later he run away and don’t help you anymore’.” These days, Jolene insists there have been “fewer scoldings” and Wei Lun’s performance has been “so far so good”.
“He’s been very supportive from the start. I was very worried for him as he seemed so exhausted in the first few days. We’re doing much better now,” she added sweetly.
“I’LL LET MY CUSTOMERS ASSESS THEIR QUALITY”
So how does the senior hawker rate his Gen Z successors? “I won’t assess them, I’ll let my customers assess them,” he said simply.
According to Bren, the feedback has been quite positive so far. He also visits the stall for a few hours on most days to ‘supervise’ the couple as they get used to running the joint. “I’ll just tell them what to look out for, how to control the heat etc. Other than that, I’ve completely handed over the stall to my daughter. I’ve transferred the ownership to her and she handles all the finances now,” he said.
SARDINE PUFF, S$2 EACH
The sardine version is also stuffed to the brim – every bite was packed with the flaky fish – but we wished the spicy, flavourful filling was a little saucier.