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Doctorate Holder Becomes Hawker At 76


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At 76, Dr Vic Lee leads an unusual lifestyle. Instead of enjoying retirement at home with his five grandchildren, he’s living in a $30-a-night hostel room in Chinatown, which he shares with seven bunkmates. “There’s no entertainment, no CNA or Ch 5. You just get a bunk bed to sleep in,” he tells 8days.sg.

But Dr Vic ⁠— who earned his honorific from graduating with a Doctor in Business Administration from the University of Western Australia ⁠— is neither destitute nor struggling. In fact, the father-of-three had been staying with his wife and eldest son at their HDB flat in Simei before he moved to the Pagoda Street hostel.
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The reason? He wanted to be near his new workplace, having recently taken up a job as a hawker at the newly-opened Peace Thai Cuisine stall at Hong Lim Market & Food Centre. “I can walk back to the hostel when I work late or go to my stall early,” he explains.

Dr Vic had thrown himself into the job with the same fervour as he did for his studies (he readily trots out the PhD-related joke that he has “permanent head damage”.) He declares: “I’m very committed to what I do, which is to concentrate on setting up this business. My university professor in Australia told me, ‘When you want to do something, do it well.’”
 
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Hawker with a doctorate

There’s a lot to unpack in Dr Vic’s very colourful life, which is driven by his firm belief in being a “lifelong learner”. For over two decades, he had been a regional salesperson for automotive giants like Australia’s Repco and the US-based Champion Auto Parts. From 1992 to 1999, he was also a service quality consultant to Singapore Airlines.

In 2000, aged 54, he saved enough money to leave his job to pursue his full-time research doctorate in Perth. The five-year services marketing course is a field which focuses on helping businesses stand out and attract customers.

While living there with the locals, Dr Vic learnt how to cook steak at home and discovered hāngī, a traditional Māori cooking method in neighbouring New Zealand that involves roasting food in a rock-heated pit oven in the ground.

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He was an incinerator cleaner for a while

Dr Vic was so fascinated by hāngī that he decided to enrol in Shatec to learn professional cooking when he returned to Singapore in 2006, graduating with a Western cuisine diploma. After that, he took on occasional gigs as a private chef for birthday parties and set up his own services marketing consultancy firm, which he says he still runs today.

His whimsical curiosity also led him to apply for a job as a cleaner at a Tuas incinerator in 2016, where he spent three months sorting out tons of trash.

While the move was fuelled by a child-like desire to observe “how we clear our rubbish”, it was also partly academic. “As a service quality consultant, I wanted to build organisational culture by learning about how people behave in the workplace. And how would you know that unless you have worked at the bottom?” he points out. “So I decided to become a cleaner and interact with people.”

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The accidental hawker

After getting his Shatec diploma, Dr Vic wanted to try his hand at working as a cook. In 2019, he applied for a job at a restaurant in Beauty World Centre called Peace Japanese Cuisine (which has since moved to OUE Downtown Gallery). “He didn’t have experience in Japanese cuisine, so I asked him to start as a service crew first,” recalls the restaurant’s owner Simon Ng (pictured above), 57, who eventually promoted Dr Vic to assistant cook.

Dr Vic’s bubbly, sociable personality made him very popular with customers. When a hawker stall unit opened up at Hong Lim Food Centre, Simon decided to employ him as a cook there. “I let him run it. As a hawker he can interact with people,” Simon laughs.

He was also moved to do something with the elderly, as he observes: “So far everyone is talking about ageing, closures and failures. But Dr Vic has so much positive vibes, he doesn’t want to retire and stay at home.”

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Peace Thai Cuisine’s menu

The stall offers Thai cuisine as Simon, who is also a trained chef, used to run an IT security firm in Thailand and is familiar with the country’s traditional recipes. There are just three dishes on Peace Thai Cuisine’s menu, all cooked by Dr Vic and a Thai-born stall assistant: Pad Krapow Gai ($5), stir-fried basil chicken with rice and a fried egg, a beef version called Pad Krapow Neua ($6) and Kway Teow Reua ($8), Thai boat noodles with beef slices. “To make it simple I asked Dr Vic to pick up three dishes,” says Simon. “Pad Krapow was chosen as it’s the favourite of many people in Thailand.”

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On working away from home at 76

We point out to Dr Vic - who has two sons, 59 and 40, and a daughter, 45 - that it is rare for a man of his age to work away from home. His wife, who used to run a home-based Peranakan tingkat business, is now wheelchair-bound after developing spinal problems from standing for long hours. Does your family mind that you moved out to a hostel, we ask.

According to Dr Vic, the hostel situation is temporary as he plans to eventually rent an apartment around Chinatown to stay with his family. They had also long gotten “used to [him] travelling” as a regional auto parts salesman in the ’80s and ’90s, he says, but Sundays are always reserved for family. “I go to church and spend time with them. That is very precious to me,” he shares.

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Lifelong learning as a senior citizen

At 76, Dr Vic’s complexion is smooth, his eyes twinkly and his voice dulcet and lively. “It’s because I’m active, the momentum spins off,” he guffaws. “I would recommend all senior citizens to not just sit at the coffeeshop and smoke and drink and talk shop.”

His goal is to learn how to cook the “top three dishes” of every country. “Now it’s Thai. Next it’s Vietnamese and I will go further and learn Taiwanese and Korean cuisine,” he says, though he does not know exactly how long he will remain as a hawker.

“My [career] track record is always seven years at each company,” he muses. “When I dedicate my life to something, the seven-year itch will come in. Seems that way.” His boss, Simon, gives Dr Vic the flexible option of leaving his job anytime. “If one day he finds it too tiring and wants to retire, he can do so,” Simon says.

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Kway Teow Reua, $8

Kway teow reua, or Thai boat noodles, is usually served in small portions. Peace Thai Cuisine’s version is a full soupy bowl (“value for money,” Dr Vic quips merrily). The broth, rich, robust and simmered for hours, is loaded with flat silky rice sheets similar to kway chap, plus a generous amount of beef balls, (rather tough) Australian beef slices and crunchy bean sprouts.

It is decent, though also a tad too salty for our liking, with fine salt granules clinging to the side of a beef ball. While Dr Vic is a conscientious cook, we observe that his hands — stiff from age — are a little shaky when cooking. Still, you can’t help but root for this lovable uncle who is trying his very best to serve up good food.

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Pad Krapow Gai, $5 (8 Days Pick!) 

Dr Vic’s basil chicken stir-fry with rice uses holy basil, a slightly different species from the typical Thai herb used for the dish. While Thai basil is earthy and mildly sweet, holy basil has a strong, peppery, almost medicinal flavour that’s also said to be good for health.

Our tasty stir-fry comes with succulent chicken thigh chunks tossed with onions, still-crunchy long beans, fragrant basil and tame cut red chillies over white rice, topped with a crispy-edged fried egg. An aroi mak mak Thai meal for a reasonable $5.
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Pad Krapow Neua, $6

The beef stir-fry is just passable, though. We find the thinly-sliced meat too dry and tough. Go for the chicken version, we say.

#02-52 Hong Lim Market & Food Centre, 531A Upper Cross St, S051531. Tel: 8927-6683. Open daily except Sun, 10am-3pm. www.facebook.com/peacethaicuisine.

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U need more then paper qualification & smart talking when selling $5-8 food.

 

I think he's has taken a big risk staking his  marketing theories to actually livelihood.   Good quality food is in itself -self marketing.

 

Hope he really can cook good food.   He's competing with a lot of big boys in Hong lim FC! 

 

May go and try someday!

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