TL;DR – Rest in peace, Hainanese Pei Dei (Uncle).
I just got the news that the Uncle in the photo left us about 1.5 months ago. He was 72.
I have been drinking the coffee that Uncle Ah Seng brewed since 1996 when I was an intern just across the street. His Kaya Toast and French Toast are renowned and simply awesome as well, as they are traditionally-toasted over charcoal.
Over the years, I continue to patronise his stall and enjoy his coffee and toast.
About three months ago, I visited Amoy Street again one early morning and had a long chat with the family.
I do not know why the chat was exceptionally long that day but I just enjoyed the whole conversation. Before we parted company, I requested for a photo opportunity with Uncle and wife and they happily obliged.
I recall my wife asking Uncle how he was doing and he told us calmly and jovially that he felt some slight pain at his tummy area due to his cancer. We wished him well and we told him he would win the battle.
I recall that Uncle’s complexion still looked good back then.
When I ordered his French toast that fine day just before I left the Hawker Centre, he stood up in the middle of his meal and insisted on preparing the French toast himself. I was apologetic because he could have asked his son to do it. I guess he had insisted on doing it himself because I had conversed with him for quite awhile in Hainanese.
Little did I know that that was the last piece of French toast that Uncle would prepare for me.
I had a chat with the son and wife today. The son broke the news to me in a calm manner.
“Uncle 走了（Uncle has left us),“ he said.
It was me who reacted in disbelief and denial.
“他什么 (What is it about Uncle)?” I stared hard at the son as I asked the question.
“Yes, Uncle has left us,” Uncle’s wife who was seated behind me, reiterated calmly.
I could only utter simple words of condolences as I was trying hard to accept the news without losing control of my emotions.
Auntie went on to tell me not to worry as Uncle had not suffered much pain from his rounds of chemotherapy. Uncle was supposed to have eight rounds of treatment but unfortunately, his body succumbed during the sixth round.
Auntie then went on to share that Uncle had long prepared his family for his eventual passing. Ever since Uncle’s cancer diagnosis, he had spent longer hours fine-tuning his son on the art of brewing coffee, preparing toasts and running the business. Even right up to the last few days before his passing, his wife had to rest-assure him that both son and herself would be able to run the business independently.
That is how much amazing love Uncle had for his family, and how much he cared for them, and wanted to watch over them.
By the way, Uncle Ah Seng came from Hainan Island. The Hainanese kopi-and-toast stall was started in Lau Pa Sat in 1964 by Uncle’s father. His father had brought the then seven-year-old Uncle Ah Seng when he migrated to Singapore.
From the very young age of just nine, Uncle Ah Seng was already helping out at his father’s stall. He took over the stall a decade later and it relocated to its current address at Amoy Street Food Centre in 1997.
Their great coffee and toast (especially French Toast) have been featured many times on media and many travel guides. It has also been featured by many local food bloggers too.
The son has mastered perfectly the coffee-brewing and toast-making skills from his father. I can proudly vouch for that.
I still cannot explain why I went all the way down to Amoy Street last Tuesday despite it being a busy day. However, I am glad I did. It was Uncle’s way of breaking the news to me. It was also a necessary though sad farewell session for Uncle. But I am glad I made that effort to follow my heart.
As I held the cup of coffee and walked down the stairs of the hawker centre, my tears just started falling freely. I just could not help it even though I know eternal parting is but part and parcel of life.
Rest in peace, Hainanese Pei Dei (Uncle).
You have been a memorable and important part of my hawker culture since 1996.
Thank you, Uncle. 一路走好。
P.S. Would like to leave you with an interview video that Our Grandfather Story has done previously. Quite an interesting one as Uncle Ah Seng shared he had even served the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s father before!
Ah Seng (Hai Nam) Coffee is at Amoy Street Food Centre, 7 Maxwell Road, #02-95
(Featured image via IG/Gaosiewdai)