When it comes to Singaporean comfort food, especially on a rainy day, one can rely on a tasty bowl of fish soup to soothe the soul. Have it with milk or without, or accompanied by either rice or noodles, the flavourful broth is a labour of love — a testament to what the beauty of time can achieve. It also cannot be denied that one of the most satisfying rituals is dipping a nugget of freshly-fried fish into the broth and letting the crisp, battered exterior surrender to the soup, resulting in a delectable textural irony of softness and crunch.
Run by Second-generation Hawkers
Seeing the younger generation taking over hawker businesses is an encouraging sight to behold, especially with the hawker culture on the decline. The recent addition of Singapore's hawker culture on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity in 2020 has given hawkers their much-deserved recognition, which has fuelled hope of reversing said decline.
Siblings Jason, 28, and Tsering, 30, run Jun Yuan House of Fish. Together with their parents, they opened their first outlet at Old Airport Road in 2014, followed by a second one at Pasir Ris in 2018. A third outlet at Wisma Atria has recently closed due to the pandemic.
“In 'Jun Yuan House of Fish (竣源鱼之家)', the character Jun (竣) is taken from my Chinese name, and Yuan (源) refers to the Chinese idiom that is about remembering your parents when you succeed,” says Jason. “We wanted a name to remind us of our roots and also of how we started.”
To this, his sister Tsering laughs and fondly quips, “So the pressure is on him because it’s his name on the line!”
Celebrating Family and Heritage in These Modern Times
After serving time in the army, Jason decided that he wanted to cook for a living. The popular fish soup that has newly earned its Old Airport Road stall a Bib Gourmand distinction in the MICHELIN Guide Singapore 2021 selection was once only enjoyed by the Ng family on their dinner table. “The recipe is from our grandparents,” says Jason. “Actually, it was my mum and I who had the idea to set up a hawker stall. It happened when I was 22, back in 2014. We took the traditional recipe as the backbone of the menu and tried to cater to a younger market by including varieties using X.O. brandy and spinach.”
“Working in this business is tough. You need to be brave, and it requires a lot of passion,” says Tsering. “Unlike now, we didn’t get a lot of encouragement when we started, and social media was not trendy, so we really had to find ways to market ourselves. Choosing the hawker life is uncommon as most second-generation kids want to carve out their own path, but it’s comforting to know that there are more of us now. I feel more positive about it.”
The Shift from Corporate Life to Hawker Life
Before joining her brother and mother, Tsering used to work a number of corporate jobs in the media and finance industries. “Life as a hawker is very laborious and intensive,” she says. “In my corporate jobs, the stress is more on a mental level; however, these experiences gave me a lot of knowledge on setting up systems and structures for the business, as well as marketing skills. After seeing how much physical labour my brother and mother were putting into the business, I decided to take a leap of faith. I quit my corporate job to join them.”
It is not always a walk in the park to start a business with family, but luck was on the Ng family’s side, as they discovered that they were like pieces of a puzzle that fit together. “I think all of our skills are complementary,” says Tsering. “I’m in charge of the marketing and operations; Jason, obviously, takes charge of the food. Mum is in charge of quality checks — she’s really good at finding the best ingredients and suppliers. Dad is more of an all-around person; he designs our spaces to maximise their efficiency. I think these skills were developed over time and through experience. We didn’t want to let each other down, so we were really driven to be the best we could in our individual roles.”
Hard Work and Heart Work
“One thing we’ve learned from our parents is kindness. Especially in this new normal, everyone has to adapt to the takeaway culture,” shares Jason. “At our Old Airport Road stall, we had to help the older folks of neighbouring stalls who were new to technology and assist them in setting up their businesses on food delivery platforms. You can't be selfish when others' livelihoods are on the line.”
They shared that they had a cheerful regular, named Ah Guai, who frequently patronised their Old Airport Road outlet to buy fish soup for his family. However, when the pandemic hit, he stopped visiting, which made the family wonder about him. One day, Ah Guai came back to buy some fish soup, but his cheery disposition had faded. The siblings were concerned, and Ah Guai shared that he was laid off from work. With a family of his own to feed, Tsering and Jason were quick to help by hiring him as their delivery man and helping him in their own way.
“People started donating to Ah Guai’s cause, and we’d prepare soup, eggs, and rice for those who needed it. I think in these hard times, it’s important to help one other if you have the means to. Ah Guai has a stable job now, and we couldn’t be happier for him,” says Tsering. “We got this quality from our mum,” adds Jason. “She really has the most generous heart."
But the siblings have accepted that there will always be naysayers. Despite their efforts to help, they have been criticised for using their charity work as a marketing tool, “which is absurd, because we are only doing what is right. In this current situation, we really need to help each other,” shares Tsering.
What to Order at Jun Yuan House of Fish
"If it's your first time to visit us, of course, you must try our signature Herbal Seafood Soup," says Tsering. "The broth is prepared with pork, seafood, and a combination of angelica and polygonatum roots that aid in detoxification and are good for dampness. If you want something different, you can also try our X.O. Fried Batang Fish Soup. Our chilli is also homemade and uses a fermented bean base," she adds.
“When we found out that our stall was listed on the 2021 Bib Gourmand selection, I was just so proud of our team. This was seven years in the making, and the most important ingredients are really persistence and hard work," Tsering says.
"When things seem to not be going according to plan, it’s easy to give up, but just keep on going and encourage each other to continue moving forward," she adds. “It's also very important to exercise empathy towards our employees; constant and open communication is also a must, always. We wouldn’t be here without them."
All photos are from Jun Yuan House of Fish.