Ms Debbie Yam, 29, is a fourth-generation hawker. The management graduate, who’s a foodie all her life, spent 4 years working in cafés before returning to help her family brand, Tang Kay Kee Fish Head Bee Hoon.

Hawker Debbie Yam standing in front of her stall Tang Kay Kee Fish Head Bee Hoon

The business was founded in the 1940s by Ms Yam’s great-grandfather Tang Pak Kay, who used to peddle along Upper Hokkien Street, selling tze char, or a wide variety of Chinese dishes. 

The night street stall hawker license of Tang Pak Kay in 1946
Photo Credit: Debbie Yam

In the late 1970s, the business moved to Hong Lim Food Centre, and was eventually passed to Ms Yam’s grand-aunt, Mdm Tang Yock Cheng, who remains the owner today. Ms Yam’s parents, uncles and other relatives now take turns to assist at the stall. 

Ms Debbie Yam's uncle preparing food

The stall used to operate only in the evenings. Ms Yam saw an opportunity to serve the lunch crowd and decided to introduce tze char bowls.

Ms Debbie Yam preparing food

“People have always ordered tze char to share food. For lunch, it is difficult because most of them have only an hour. This means they cannot afford to wait for every plate of food to be served.”

“I thought about doing tze char in a bowl where you get different tastes and textures,” she explained. 

A photo of modernized tze char at Tang Kay Kee

Working in a café is very different from running a hawker stall, Ms Yam said. For one thing, she has to learn to bear with the heat at the stall. 

“Cafés are air-conditioned, and you have a team whom you work with. However, this is a hawker stall, and I work with my family and grand-aunt who are about 50 years older than me. There is a generation gap, and sometimes they do not understand what we are trying to do.” 

Ms Debbie Yam preparing food at the hawker stall

When she first started helming the wok, she often suffered burns and scalds. 

Ms Yam also finds herself working longer hours now. After work, she continues to craft marketing collaterals and maintains the stall’s social media channels. 

A photo of Tang Kay Kee's Instagram channel

Despite these challenges, she is thankful for the strong family support given. 

Ms Debbie Yam's aunty preparing the ingredients

“My family members have always asked me if I needed anything. That gave me a lot of help, since I’m the only one cooking during lunch,” she said. 

The current owner of Tang Kay Kee, Tang Yock Cheng.

Mdm Tang, 75, is happy that her grand-niece is of great help.

She said: “Since she (Ms Yam) is still young, I hope she can eventually take over and pass the business to future generations.” 

Ms Yam said it would be a “pity” if young people do not preserve Singapore’s hawker culture. 

“If no one is going to pick up these skills, your favorite char kway teow (fried flat noodles) and chai tow kway (fried radish cake) will be gone,” she said.

Ms Debbie Yam with her grand-aunty Mdm Tang Yock Cheng.

In advice to those looking to join the hawker trade, she said: “Being a hawker is really tough and pushes you outside of your comfort zone. The environment and the culture are very different, but this is what makes good and affordable food. 

It’s not all about earning money in the end – it is your passion that will bring you forward.” 

Tang Kay Kee Fish Head Bee Hoon (@tangkaykee) is located at #01-70 Hong Lim Food Centre, 531A Upper Cross Street Singapore 051531.