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Yong tau foo war in Bukit Merah Central

A yong tau foo war is brewing in the sleepy neighbourhood of Bukit Merah Central, which has three stalwarts selling yong tau foo and a fourth contender who joined the fray in early 2024.

It has been game on between hawker stall Guan Huat Yong Tau Foo – which has a 44-year history at Bukit Merah Central Food Centre – and air-conditioned standalone eatery Fong Yong Tau Foo, which moved from Tampines into an adjacent block in 2019.

Long queues form at these two spots every weekday during lunchtime.

Halal-certified Bao Yueh Yong Tau Fu Former ITE Central bravely entered the arena when it moved to Bukit Merah Central Food Centre in September 2022, but has yet to break even due to the stiff competition.

Tanjong Pagar Plaza old-timer Fei Ma Hakka Yong Tau Foo is the fourth and latest challenger, having relocated to a coffee shop at 161 Bukit Merah Central on Jan 3. 

Stall owner Puan Siew Kam reluctantly left Tanjong Pagar after 17 years as the coffee shop where she was located changed hands. She was unable to find a suitable stall in the vicinity after moving out in November 2023.

The 60-year-old Malaysia-born Singapore permanent resident started her business in 2002 in Woodlands and moved it to Tanjong Pagar in 2006. She says: “I was well aware of the fierce competition in the area before I took up my current lease. But the rental here is more reasonable than that in Tanjong Pagar.

Madam Puan Siew Kam, stall owner of Fei Ma Hakka Yong Tau Foo, which used to be in Tanjong Pagar. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

“I have tried the yong tau foo of all my competitors and I feel I have something different to offer.”

Apart from using factory-supplied yong tau foo stuffed with fish paste, she prepares her own handmade Hakka-style yong tau foo stuffed with a mixture of pork and fish paste. Each piece is priced at 80 cents, with a minimum order of six pieces.

She also takes care to deep-fry the fried items, such as stuffed brinjal and beancurd sticks, at the point of order.

Of the four yong tau foo sellers in Bukit Merah Central, she is the only one to use freshly squeezed coconut milk in her laksa gravy, which lends greater depth of flavour and aroma.

Still, she knows cooking experience and quality ingredients alone may not be sufficient to win the war.

Madam Puan says: “Our location is not ideal since the coffee shop is in a corner of this area. There is no steady stream of customers.”

Business in Tanjong Pagar used to be fast and furious. Customers would hang around her stall half an hour before it opened at 9am, and she was often sold out by 1.30pm. 

She says: “It can be disheartening to be the new kid on the block here and not having the popularity we were used to in Tanjong Pagar. Back there, we could barely cope with the lunchtime crowd.”

The air-conditioned stalwart

The swishest yong tau foo seller in Bukit Merah Central is easily Fong Yong Tau Foo, which operates its own standalone eatery with air-conditioning.

The business was started by the late Madam Chia See Fong in 1990 at the since-demolished Pearls Centre. Her son Chen Qi Hong, 42, moved it to its current location, which can seat up to 50, in 2019. It is likely to move out in May due to a change in landlords.

Mr Chen is now looking for a new location in the vicinity so as not to lose his crowd of regulars built up over the last five years. He has three other outlets – in Tampines North, Potong Pasir and Tyrwhitt Road, the last opened only in January. 

Meanwhile, he thrives on competition.

“The competition is to my advantage. Now that this area has become ‘Yong Tau Foo Central’, it helps attract people to come here for the dish. I believe in putting in extra effort and customers can tell the difference,” he says.

“Our strength is that we do not cut corners when it comes to using quality ingredients, even though costs have gone up 25 per cent. Our yong tau foo are also big and chunky.”

Despite being the priciest – starting at 90 cents a piece, with a minimum order of seven pieces – the eatery is packed during weekday lunch.

It also boasts the largest variety of yong tau foo in the area, offering up to 60 choices, including 10 types of vegetables, from you mai lettuce to spinach, and unusual selections such as carrot stuffed with fish paste.

The eatery also offers yong tau foo stuffed with a meat paste made using fresh minced pork. These premium items, such as bittergourd and chilli stuffed with pork, are priced at $1.20 each.

They are prepared in small batches throughout the day for optimal freshness. Accompanying the yong tau foo is a range of condiments – from boiled soya beans to laksa leaves to sesame seeds – which customers can help themselves to.

Asked to size up the state of play, he says: “I have not tried my competitors’ yong tau foo and I don’t plan to do so because I am confident about what I bring to the table. Once you put dedication and commitment to your food, you will be confident of your product.”

Mr Chen Qi Hong, owner of eatery Fong Yong Tau Foo. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO
The resident old-timer

Mr Ko Ngak Phweng, 66, who runs Guan Huat Yong Tau Foo with his 58-year-old wife, Madam Chor Wai Fong, is “too paiseh” (embarassed) to try his competitors’ yong tau foo – for fear of being accused of spying on them. 

Mr Ko Ngak Phweng runs Guan Huat Yong Tau Foo with his wife. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

But he, too, welcomes the contest.

He says: “Some customers tell us they have tried our competitors’ yong tau foo, yet they return to our stall. I would not say it is necessarily because our yong tau foo tastes better, but consumers can be price-sensitive and our prices are economical.” 

His yong tau foo sells for 70 cents a piece, with a minimum order of seven. In 2024, he increased the price of the cuttlefish and powder intestines to $1 a piece, but cuts them into larger pieces now. He also upped the price of his laksa gravy from 80 cents to $1.

His operating costs have gone up, but he is hesitant to raise overall prices as he is keenly aware that Bao Yueh Yong Tau Fu Former ITE Central, which opened at the same food centre in September 2022, is also selling its yong tau foo for 70 cents a piece.

He says: “There is slight pressure since we are at the same food centre. We have to be mindful of our competition, even though we are established here.”

Guan Huat, which opened in 1980, stands out with the 10 types of tau kee it offers, including sweet beancurd skin imported from Hong Kong. There are 30 choices of yong tau foo at any one time, which is made with fish paste. Dumplings are made with fresh pork.

Mr Ko recalls that other yong tau foo stalls have come and gone at the food centre through the 1980s and 1990s.  “It was competitive back then, but we each had our own regulars,” he says.

By 2018, Guan Huat was the only yong tau foo stall left standing, but Fong Yong Tau Foo moved into an adjacent block in 2019.

Mr Ko shrugs and says: “I am fine with the competition as we each have our own segment of the market. Fong Yong Tau Foo attracts a younger crowd who wants to dine in air-conditioned comfort, but we attract more seniors who live nearby.”

The halal contender

The competition is proving to be a swim upstream for Bao Yueh Yong Tau Fu Former ITE Central, the only halal-certified contender.

Since opening in 2022, stall owner Leong Mee Yueh kept prices low at 60 cents a yong tau foo piece to attract customers, resulting in losses.

After dipping into her savings for more than a year, she raised her prices to 70 cents a piece in January. Business has since picked up, allowing her to start drawing a basic salary.

The 52-year-old Malaysia-born Singapore permanent resident, who is not Muslim, wanted to appeal to the Muslim crowd, in addition to offering healthier options of yong tau foo.

Stall owner Leong Mee Yueh of hawker stall Bao Yueh Yong Tau Fu Former ITE Central. ST PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

As her stall is not equipped to fry items, her yong tau foo can only be boiled.  While she is adamant about serving healthier options, not having crispy fried items is proving to be a disadvantage as customers have complained about her limited offerings, compared with the others. 

Her stall offers 33 types of yong tau foo, including five choices of vegetables. The yong tau foo is priced at 70 cents a piece, with a minimum order of six pieces. Laksa gravy and tom yum soup are priced at 70 cents each. 

Originally located at ITE College Central in Ang Mo Kio since 2021, the Redhill resident decided to move to her current stall to be nearer her home.

She had known about the legendary Guan Huat in the food centre, but realised Fong Yong Tau Foo was also a formidable force after moving into the neighbourhood.

She says: “My daughter says I am crazy to continue and keeps telling me to give up. But I am not so profit-driven. I feel happy working for myself. I have my own customers.

“Right now, I don’t feel like I am in the middle of a yong tau foo war. But I will start worrying if another halal-certified stall selling yong tau foo opens.”

Contenders of the yong tau foo war

Fong Yong Tau Foo

Where: 01-3623, 164 Bukit Merah Central
Open: 8.30am to 9pm daily

Guan Huat Yong Tau Foo

Where: 02-31 Bukit Merah Central Food Centre, 163 Bukit Merah Central
Open: 10am to 7pm, Sundays to Fridays; closed on Saturdays

Bao Yueh Yong Tau Fu Former ITE Central

Where: 02-26 Bukit Merah Central Food Centre, 163 Bukit Merah Central
Open: 6.30am to 7.30pm, Mondays to Fridays; closed on weekends

Fei Ma Hakka Yong Tau Foo

Where: 01-3749, 161 Bukit Merah Central
Open: 8.30am to 3pm, Mondays to Fridays and alternate Saturdays; closed on alternate Saturdays and all Sundays