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'Skew Me, Are You The Satay Master?'
WE find him sitting quietly on a park bench. Just a short distance from the void deck of his HDB block, where he's told us to meet him. Like an informant about to hand over secret documents that will forever crush a crime syndicate or topple a corrupt public official. Okay, not quite. But if you want to get your hands on some of the most amazing Hainanese pork satay, this is one man you want to catch while you still can.
Because we take our cue from his secretive demeanour, we won't say where he lives, except that it's not too far from Tiong Bahru, where he spent decades hawking in the neighbourhood and earning himself the reputation as Ah Pui the satay man. He spent just as long playing hide-and-seek with the authorities - or as far as you can hide with a rickety pushcart - who were hell-bent on making a licensed hawker out of him, the way they did with every other itinerant peddler before him.
They caught him a few times, and fined him just as many. "Somebody" paid some of them for him, he says. No doubt from his pool of loyal regulars who want to ensure that he stays in this line, licence or no licence.
Why didn't he just get a stall and be done with it?
"Mai lah!" As in, 'don't want' in Hokkien. It is one of his most oft-spouted replies. "Bo lah!" or 'don't have', being the other.
If he got himself a stall, it would mean shelling out $1,800 a month (at the time) which would leave barely enough for him to get by, he reasons. So he continued in his usual way until a couple of years ago, when the last fine also became the last straw. He ditched his push cart for good and now only does private catering. He's since become a fixture at many a well-heeled customer's home parties - grilling satay in landscaped gardens, and ferried to and from his home by taxi or chauffeur, at his insistence.
"These people love my satay," he says in a rare display of pride, almost marvelling at the lengths to which his wealthy customers will go for a taste of his satay - skewers of evenly hand- sliced marinated pork layered with fat that, when grilled, releases oil to self-baste the tenderloin into juicy, fragrant morsels capped off with freshly made peanut sauce and grated pineapple.
You're famous, we tell him. "Bo lah!" He replies, looking slightly pleased.
Most of the time, he is friendly but cagey in the way one who's spent much of his life dodging authorities is. It's also partly due to him not really keeping track of a life-long trade that began in the late 60s at the age of 11, when he tagged along after his mother and brother who worked for the neighbourhood satay seller. The ah pek carried his satay on a bamboo pole across his shoulder, and old timers in Tiong Bahru still remember lowering baskets from their windows for him to fill when they were too lazy to come downstairs.
So was his a romanticised tale of satay master passing on his knowledge to his young apprentice?
"Bo lah!" The old man was mean to him, he says, berating him constantly and refusing to give him the recipe. But his brother taught him how to beat the ah pek at his own game. Tasked with buying the spices from an Indian vendor to marinate the meat, he asked for an invoice noting down the exact amounts of spices and cost. From there, he worked out the recipe that he still uses today, with absolutely no change.
While his grasp of dates seems spotty, we surmise that he stayed with the old man until the latter retired and he took over the business. Apart from a three-year stint from 1997 to 2000 when he worked as an usher with the Shaw cinema group, satay has been his life.
Now 59, with a wife and two teenaged children, living in an era where hawkers and heritage food are getting wide attention, the question turns to succession. When hawkers are selling their recipes for a few hundred thousand dollars, would he be open to selling his?
"Mai lah!" His recipe is his and his alone, he insists. He has no intention of teaching it to his children and even his wife doesn't know how to make it. He's tried over the years to do joint ventures with other food businesses but for one reason or another, they haven't panned out. He's still in talks with potential partners, but how well they turn out would probably depend on him being able to work without sharing the recipe. Perhaps the only venture he's done is a one-off collaboration with the restaurant Moosehead on April 7, when he cooked 1000 sticks of satay as part of a special menu.
But other than that, he won't compromise even if it means missing out on potentially lucrative deals, or even a chance to fulfil his dream of travelling to China. Especially if it means seeing his precious recipe turn into nothing but common property to be dissected or dismantled at whim.
"I can teach one person, but what if he tells another 10 people," he says. Maybe it's that lingering fear of losing his prized skill, or his stubbornness in wanting to live life on his own terms, without charity from anyone, that makes him the way he is. It took years for him to reveal his address and even his real name which, even though it's already been printed, we won't say here simply because he asked us not to.
Because, above all, you can understand what it's like to have something that means so much to a person. There may be no more satay like this in the future but for him, it's about his life. As he says, "I just want to keep this as my treasure. For myself."