It all began seven years ago in Tiong Bahru, when an elderly woman in her 90s tried getting up from her wheelchair while exclaiming: "Satay!"
That was when Benjamin Tan, 39, knew that this "satay man" was no ordinary guy.
Tan was working for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) at the time, and frequented Tiong Bahru as part of his social and community development work.
On that particular day, he decided to visit one of his friends' grandmother in the area for an interview.
Halfway through the interview, however, the elderly woman shot an alarmed look.
"Suddenly, I see her startled...," Tan told Mothership as he mimicked the struggle to get up.
He went on to explain:
"She was on a wheelchair ah but she could nearly stand up.
She could hear the Ang [the satay man] calling from the back alley, very far away. And everyone knows, you have to be down there within 15 minutes one (sic). If not, sold out already."
The Tiong Bahru satay man
That vivid encounter would mark the moment Tan met 63-year-old Ang Boon Ee for the first time.
Also known as Ah Pui for his rotund figure, Ang was a fixture of the Tiong Bahru back alleys, hawking fatty pork satay sticks from his iconic mobile pushcart.
When Tan rushed to the back alley that day and saw Ang grilling satay on his pushcart, he was amazed.
"You will never see such thing in our time, right?" Tan asked.
Indeed, it was a rare sight, and Tan wasn't the only one fascinated by the satay man.
Ang and his satay sticks have earned their fair share of fame over the years.
From pushcart to cafe
Unfortunately, Ang was also a famous figure among Singaporean authorities.
Following massive licensing and registration for mobile hawker carts, his pushcart satay shop wasn't exactly legal.
Ang had been fined four times for illegal hawking, and last operated his pushcart in the early 2010s.
As told to Mothership by Tan, Ang later also had the pushcart compounded by his estate's town council.
It was the last the world saw of the Tiong Bahru satay man.
Or so we thought.
Starting 195 Pearl Hill Cafe
You see, Tan had a plan.
Combining his passion for the F&B industry with his desire to contribute to the community, Tan opened 195 Pearl Hill Cafe with a unique concept in 2019.
That is, to bring generations together through food and time spent together.
To achieve his goal, Tan enlisted the help of Ang (and his satay sticks, of course).
"I realised [his satay] was a wonderful recipe lah, but I was after the beauty of the pushcart, and the man who bothered to preserve it," said Tan.
And as luck would have it, Ang was agreeable from the start, according to Tan.
Despite popular belief, there was no begging or persuading.
Tan simply asked Ang, and he agreed.
"I don't know why also lah. I think, maybe he saw some qualities that we had in alignment with him. A lot of people have asked him [as well], and he always tells me that it's not everyone he will say yes to."
Today, they are part of a lean team of five at the cafe.
A cafe for three generations
Catering to a variety of customers both old and new, the cafe is a tribute to heritage and the philosophies of the old.
This is also reflected in its layout.
When he used to work in MCCY and as a former police officer prior to that, Tan explained that he kept seeing problems pointing back to home.
He also realised the importance of the family nucleus.
While pasta, satay, and coffee do not intuitively go together, Tan said that the idea was to be able to have all three generations sit at a table, and have a meal together.
The pasta is meant to cater to the younger ones. On the other hand, the traditional satay is meant to appeal to the older customers.
"We want to empower the older ones to be the hip ones and bring the younger ones to the cafe," added Tan.
And his strategy appears to be working. Business has been booming since the cafe opened, reaching sales Ang never could during his pushcart days.
The cafe is so popular and limited, the waiting list is six months long. Currently, reservations are booked till November.
Tan explained that he typically has a buffer of three to four hours for reservations, because he enjoys seeing families spend time talking to each other.
"From a cafe standpoint, I want to address that community bonding and development issue. The satay is secondary to us, bringing people together is more important."
The same practice can easily be seen within the cafe's team as well.
The bond between Tan and his co-workers is a strong one, akin to a family.
Continuing the legacy
Tan said he treasures his relationship with Ang the most.
In hopes of continuing his legacy, Ang has appointed Tan as his satay apprentice.
Tan told Mothership that he has learnt a lot about satay-making from Ang, more than anyone can imagine.
"It’s an art. The way to skewer or cook requires a lot of patience. Your emotions are very important.
As a person doing food, we need to take care of our emotional wellbeing also. If your emotions are running wild, your food consistency also goes with it. I believe strongly in that cos if you think about it; if same recipe given to two different people, can be different.
The element behind it is the person. The texturing, understanding of the food as you’re processing it is different. Also must make constant decision from meat, to pineapple, to peanuts."
Tan added that he's gained much more beyond satay making under Ang's mentorship.
"Ang has this saying, 'mai chap siao', which means 'don’t care'.
Often, we overthink, then get paralysed and can't move forward. For example, when grilling the satay, I feel like [I] need to plan for the next 20-50. But he'll always say 'ai, mai cap siao' — let’s just keep doing, we will reach that point.
So far, he’s proven me right lah in every single scenario, even when we think we cannot meet demand for the week. He's just like relaxed. If relax, you can hit one (sic)."
It's also why the cafe continues to limit the supply of satay sticks, to ensure they never take on much and become unable to deal with demand.
Tan humbly credited Ang's years of experience selling satay for the cafe's success.
In fact, he often views Ang as the lao ban (boss).
"We live and breathe many of the things he says. I feel he's helped us more than we've helped him."
Top images courtesy of Benjamin Tan & by Jinghui Lean.