In the days leading up to Farewell Assembly 2017, Victorians have been preparing for a farewell of a somewhat different sort, as we bid our goodbyes to a canteen stall that has served us for 33 years.
Indeed, as some of you may know, the Western Stall (Stall 7) has been a fixture in our canteen since the school opened, and the stallholders have dutifully served Victorians ever since then. Demand for the stall has consistently been high with the stall drawing long queues throughout the day, and many a Victorian raves about the grilled meat, omelettes and gravy. However, the stall will be closing at the end of October. Today, The Victorian Press caught up with the stallholders to bring you their story.
Students, when queuing in the canteen, would no doubt be familiar with the shrill cries of “Fish? Pork? Cutlet?” (Chicken usually sells out early.) They come from none other than Mdm Chong Wai Leng, one of the two stallholders. The other is her elder sister, Mdm Chong Wai Har, who owns the stall and van — something Mdm Wai Leng is quick to point out. Throughout our conversation, she humbly referred to herself as a mere assistant, though clearly both sisters are indispensable to the stall. The sisters are Cantonese and while they take our orders in English and Mandarin, they can be heard conversing in their native dialect among themselves.
Mdm Chong Wai Leng (Humans of VJ Photo)
They take tremendous satisfaction in their long history of running the stall, boasting that no other stall in VJ has lasted this long — “All of the others have changed at least once before!” According to Mrs Kong Chai Eng, a pioneer maths teacher who was a HOD back in 1984, the other stalls who came close were the Malay stall, the soup noodle stall and the hot drinks stall, but eventually all retired and were replaced by 2016.
Every day, without fail, the sisters come in at 6 in the morning, only departing at 8 pm. However, those of us who study late in school would have noticed that they are usually closed by about 4.30 in the afternoon. As Mdm Wai Leng shares, that’s because the preparation needed for a Western stall is a lot higher than other stalls. Citing a mixed vegetable stall as an example, she says other stalls can afford to just bring their ingredients in the morning and then fry or cook them (it’ll be fresher that way too), her Western stall has to prepare the food and ingredients the evening before, in order to marinate them. Many of us might already notice that the food takes a longer time and is not served “instantaneously” as it is grilled on the spot. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg as a lot more goes into the preparation of the food we order!
Prices are also something that the Chongs take pride in. Amazingly, despite inflation, the prices of the main courses have not changed significantly since 1985! “Previously, the prices were $2.30 and $2.50. We only revised them once, to $2.60 and $2.80, forgot when though, and we haven’t changed since then!” Mdm Wai Leng proudly declares. The sisters believe in the philosophy of “bo li duo xiao”, which can be loosely translated as “low profits for high sales volume”.
A typical $2.60 meal consisting of a main (fish) and two sides (rice and mashed potato)
Things weren’t always smooth sailing for the stall. In fact, if one were to search online, there have actually been many occasions where the Chongs have felt the call to retire! According to Mdm Wai Har, running the stall is really not easy for them as they stay quite far from the school. She lives in Whampoa while Mdm Wai Leng lives in Serangoon, so every morning she has to wake up early to pick up her sister and then drive to VJC, getting here before 6 am. The heavy workload, staying in school until 8 pm, definitely takes a toll on the sisters. In addition, they are very reliant on Mdm Wai Har’s van, an aging Daihatsu S221 that has so far proven reliable but whose COE was to expire two years ago, hence their plans to retire then. According to Mdm Wai Leng, the school convinced them to renew the COE and stay, and they agreed to serve for another few years. However, all good things must come to an end, and the Chongs have finally decided to retire from the tiring job of running the stall and settle down in retirement.
The aunties will definitely miss dishing out plates of Western food to VJC students, and VJ will always hold a special place in their hearts as the only school they ever served at. When quizzed on the significant changes they observed in 33 years, Mdm Wai Leng astutely observed: “As the years go by, there are fewer students studying in school. In the early days everyone used to stay back into the night for studying, but now with e-learning everyone goes home!” Among myriad other changes, this was what stood out to the sisters — ostensibly because fewer students staying back in school means less business for them in the afternoons! The Western stall is, after all, a perennial favourite for its snacks as well as its main courses, in part due to the efficient queueing system that allows those buying just snacks to queue separately and get their food immediately.
Another reason why the Chongs will always look back fondly on their patrons, the Victorians, is needless to say our school culture. Both sisters said they were very impressed and heartened to see us all supporting one another. “The students are always looking out for each other and get along well, so we feel happy whenever we see all of you enjoying breaks together.”
What’s next for the Chong sisters? From what they say, they’re just planning to enjoy retirement. However, they will definitely visit the school from time to time just to indulge in bouts of nostalgia! After all, this was the school that gave them 33 years of business.
The Western stall will certainly be missed, and the absence of the Chong sisters sorely felt. Nevertheless, it is not all bad news, as there are other changes coming up for our canteen. According to rumour, the Western stall will be replaced by a new version (which will be halal), the mixed vegetable rice auntie will sell chicken rice, and a new mixed vegetable stall will take her place. But those are just rumours; all we know is that the Western stall aunties are retiring. Let’s wish them all the best in their future endeavours!
Ryan Ch’ng, 16S47