Singapore Icon Tian Tian Lai Nasi Lemak Closes After 22 Years Amidst Rising Costs: A Reflection on Hawker Culture Challenges
After two decades of filling the tummies of hungry patrons, Tian Tian Lai Nasi Lemak’s Google page revealed a message stating, “We will be ceasing business on 28/11/2023.”
On November 28, 2023, husband-and-wife owners Chen Han Bin (62) and Fu Li Xin (58) decided to hang up their aprons and close their nasi lemak stall at Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre.
According to Shin Min Daily News, rising costs of running the business and the couple’s advancing age were cited as reasons for the closure.
Preferring a quiet exit, Chen and Fu chose not to announce the closure to the general public, informing only a few regular customers who live further away from the hawker centre, allowing them to get their final nasi lemak fix.
The Quintessential Nasi Lemak of Marsiling
Tian Tian Lai Nasi Lemak is well-loved with a 4.1-star rating on Google Reviews.
Customers from all around the island flocked to Woodlands for their fragrant coconut rice, a wide variety of freshly-made side dishes, and satisfyingly spicy sambal chilli.
And the kicker? Their dishes average at the affordable price of less than S$4 a set!
A reviewer on Google states that he prematurely made the assumption that Tian Tian Lai Nasi Lemak was just another average economic nasi lemak stall.
However, when the owner cracked open an egg to fry it on the spot for the customer, he “knew this was going to be amazingly good.”
Other reviews describe it as “homely,” “an old favorite,” and the “best nasi lemak in Singapore.”
When asked if they had a secret recipe, Chen confesses with a smile that their recipe had been crafted through years and years of experience, rather than based on strict measurement of ingredients.
From Engineer to Nasi Lemak Hawker
Chen first started off on a career in engineering.
He eventually pursued his dream of entrepreneurship, wishing to make money via his own business instead of “earning it for another person’s pockets.”
Driven by a love for nasi lemak, Chen embarked on his hawker journey after investing time and resources in experimenting with recipes at home.
Chen and Fu first set up Tian Tian Lai Nasi Lemak in Alexandra Road, but unfortunately faced a S$70K loss within half a year of its opening.
Despite the rocky beginnings, the couple persevered and re-established themselves in 2001 at a hawker centre in Old Woodlands Town Centre.
Over time, the stall found its footing, gained traction, and developed a loyal customer base.
When the hawker centre closed down in 2012, Chen returned to his previous job as an engineer.
Tian Tian Lai Nasi Lemak revived once again in 2018 at the Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre, where they continued to tirelessly serve customers until their latest closure.
Rising Costs Drive Hawkers into a Corner
While hawkers are passionate about nourishing residents with affordable and scrumptious meals, the prevailing rising costs of running these stalls may be making it harder for them to continue doing so.
In November last year, there were 15 empty stalls in Amoy Street Food Centre as hawkers allegedly were unable to survive there with high rental rates and inflation.
In 2023, rent for a drinks stall at Maxwell Food Centre reached an all-time high at S$6,111 a month.
Most recently, accusations against hawkers at Singapore General Hospital’s Koufu overcharging customers and cutting corners in terms of ingredients surfaced on Facebook.
The evolving landscape of hawker culture prompts reflection on the need for sustainable solutions to ensure the survival of these culinary institutions.
As we bid farewell to one chapter, it’s an opportunity for the community and authorities to work collaboratively to preserve our hawker traditions, fostering an environment where our favourite places can continue to thrive.
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