29-year-old cai png boss works more than 12 hours, cooks over 30 dishes daily

Javier Ng tells us why he chose the unconventional route of operating a cai png stall and what keeps him going.

Alfie Kwa | November 23, 2021, 03:14 PM

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It was 34 degrees celsius on a Wednesday afternoon. The sun was blazing as I made my way through a bustling neighbourhood in Choa Chu Kang and arrived at “Gu Zao Wei” cai png stall.

There, 29-year-old owner Javier Ng greeted me in front of his stall, beads of perspiration trickling down his forehead.

Ng is a rare breed, having chosen to enter his line of work four years ago. Even though we are close in age, we couldn’t have chosen jobs which were more different. Why? That’s what I’m here to find out.

And so, as I uttered a muffled “kopi peng” through my mask to the drink stall uncle, we sat down to talk.

Why open a cai png stall?

Image by Alfie Kwa.

Unlike his peers, Ng chose to open a traditional cai png (or economy rice) stall.

It was interesting to find out that this wasn't something he had originally planned to do.

Right before he was thrust into the business, Ng was travelling around the world, hoping to find the answer to what his next step in life should be. He had just completed National Service and was toying with the idea of either pursuing further education or venturing into the working world.

But while he was in Thailand in 2017, he received a call from his dad. A coffeeshop stall had been put up for rent, and his dad said: “I will rent it for you.”

So, without hesitation, Ng returned from his trip and started working with his dad at the new cai png stall.

Image courtesy of Javier Ng.

It seemed a little strange that Ng would throw himself into the cai png business so readily, but as I learned, he wasn’t unfamiliar with the business.

His dad runs three cai png stores today and has been in the business since Ng was three years old. So, it wasn’t as if he was starting from scratch.

Ng’s father was able to link him up with suppliers, get him workers and even shared recipes for common cai png dishes like curry chicken, steamed eggs, mixed vegetables and more.

Ng also admitted that he was attracted to the business in part because of his fascination with cai png dishes and how to cook them.

“So many dishes and so many different colours. How do they do it? How do they even remember?” he recalls thinking to himself as a kid.

It was not long before Ng was able to get most of the stall up and running on his own.

Over time, he found his own suppliers, hired his own workers, and even worked on new dishes like salted egg chicken, making the stall his own.

Image by Alfie Kwa.

Ng recalled how he used to help out at his father’s stall during his school holidays, taking on menial tasks like cleaning the toilet and washing dirty dishes.

This allowed him to observe how his dad and staff manned the stall and ran the business.

One of the best pieces of advice his dad gave him was to offer stir-fried cabbage at the stall. Ng explains:

“It’s the most profitable dish because it’s just vegetables. Also, everyone eats it, so it will sell.”

Thanks to his dad and a couple of his staff, Ng also mastered other dishes and is now able to cook more than 30 dishes every day.

With almost every coffee shop and hawker centre having at least one cai png stall, he thinks that a cai png meal is “something everyone will eat, because there’s so much to choose from”.

Picture rich chicken curry doused over a plate of steamed white rice, with tasty sweet and sour pork in the mix and some savoury stir-fried vegetables on the side.

Adds up to a pretty hearty meal most would enjoy, or at least I do.

Being a young guy in the coffeeshop

Image by Alfie Kwa.

Ng is one of the youngest of all the people working in the coffeeshop, but he has an easy-going rapport with the older workers and vendors.

When my kopi peng arrived, I fumbled with my coins to pay. But Ng gestured at the drink stall uncle and the man left.

“It’s on the house,” he said in a rather suave manner.

Throughout our chat, I also noticed that Ng constantly sneaked a smile or a nod at other vendors and cleaners walking around the coffee shop.

Some older vendors used to think that he wasn’t capable of running a cai png business, Ng said with a laugh.

He still recalls how they would say things like:

“Young people do this because they have no choice”

“Confirm will give up soon.”

“Young people cannot take this kind of labour.”

Yet, Ng agreed that the work is not for everyone.

“Like many young people, I was enjoying life and I had much more freedom before. And now I’m restricted to this place at least for 12 hours a day.”

Every day, from 5am to 7am, he prepares his ingredients and begins cooking the first of each day's dishes.

Ng starts serving customers from 7am (he sells economic bee hoon in the mornings), all the way until 8pm. In between, he might take short breaks or cook again when a dish runs out.

All these while slogging away in a small, humid space that can fit no more than two people at a time.

Image courtesy of Javier Ng.

Hearing this made me feel thankful that Ng was giving up his precious rest time for this interview.

Plus, the work is never-ending.

“I only take ‘leave’ on Chinese New Year and if I’m sick, I’ll submit the MC (medical certificate) to myself,” Ng joked.

Besides this, he also has to face the occasional naggy customers who say things like: “Why so salty, why so expensive, why you give so little meat.”

“I’m a bit of a hothead, so whenever I hear comments like this my smile immediately goes away, and I try to hold it all in.”

He added that it can be a little disheartening to work on a recipe and think, “Wow, this is very nice,” but have customers complain about it to his face.

“You have to realise that it's not about what you like, it's what the customers like.”

Managing workers is also an issue. Sometimes, workers do not turn up for work or quit all of a sudden. And with the pandemic, he’s unable to get workers in as quickly.

“During the initial six months (of starting up the business), I wanted to give it up because it was too much for me to take emotionally and mentally.”

When he was pushed to the brink of tears, he would call his mum for comfort.

“I didn't have workers and I wasn't seeing the sales every day,” he said. “I was like a crybaby. But, I’m not a baby anymore, I had to get over it.”

Over the past four years, Ng encountered and overcame multiple hurdles and has now earned his stripes as a self-proclaimed “coffeeshop uncle”.

He's also proven himself to naysayers.

“So, just let others say what they want. It doesn't matter what people think. What matters is what you think about yourself.”

Sacrifices of the job

Image by Alfie Kwa.

Ng enjoys cooking and he loves being his own boss. But he also admitted that it’s hard not to compare himself to his friends who have office jobs and work in air-conditioned rooms from 9am to 6pm every day.

It can be rather frustrating at times.

“Sometimes, when I wake up at four in the morning... I remember that all my friends are still sleeping,” he added.

At times, his friends would question his career choice and advise him to ditch this tiring job in favour of something that might get him a better salary.

However, Ng believes that there are highs and lows in every job. He raised the example of a friend who works as an accountant.

“He gets busier at the end of the year. And the remaining part of the year he’s also busy. Pay wise, he earns well, I earn decently so I can’t complain. But I will say it’s around the same. It’s just that mine is in a hot environment, his is in a cold environment. But, I try to stick to the positive side.”

“Do you ever regret taking on this job as a cai png stall owner?” I ventured.

Ng didn't give me a direct answer but said, rather wistfully, that he wishes he has more time for his loved ones.

“I want to go see my grandma, but I end work at nine plus. Older people like her sleep early, so I can’t visit her.”

Even catching up with friends is difficult. Ng has a short window of time each day to hang out. Even then, most days, he is too tired to even head out for drinks after work.

Which is why he appreciates friends who make the effort to accommodate his working schedule.

“Some of them will visit me at my stall and we will chat. If my friends want to play futsal, they’ll arrange to play later at about 10pm.”

Although it’s quite a sacrifice to bear, the 29-year-old knows that this is “part and parcel” of the path he has chosen, and he is determined to keep going.

“I can’t blame anyone for (the sacrifices I've made),” Ng said, matter-of-factly adding "I'll get over it" — a line that, to me, summed up his attitude toward the obstacles he faces on the job.

A desire to achieve success is the thing that keeps Ng going. However, his definition of success has evolved over the last four years.

At first, he thought: “Once I make X amount of profits, I’ll be successful.” But when he hit the target, he felt that it wasn’t enough.

Neither was it enough for him to have managed to hire workers to help run the stall.

As time went by, he thought that if he could sustain the stall for two years, he’d be very successful. But nope, that wasn’t it too. “I still don't have as many stalls as other people!” said Ng.

“I tend to keep pushing myself. I always feel like it's never enough. So, how do I determine whether I'm successful? I don't have the answer for that now.”

One thing is for certain though: Four years on, Ng’s unconventional quest for success hasn’t gotten any easier, but he’s not giving up.

“If you want to take (an unconventional) career route like this, just do it.

Every time you doubt yourself you must try to overcome or be mentally prepared that it is going to be very tiring. But, you keep telling yourself you can do it.

Be prepared for sacrifices and remember it is important to have faith in yourself.”

Ng hopes to see his business blossom in the near future and hopes to only stop when he’s ready to retire.

“Five more stalls in the next five years,” he chuckled, “but we shall see how that goes”.

You can visit Ng’s cai png stall at Keat Hong Market, 253 Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1.

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Top images, unless otherwise stated, by Alfie Kwa. Quotes were edited for clarity.