A look into life of a Kuching kuih seller

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Dayang Norhayati packs an order for a customer who stops by at her stall near Kampung Cemerlang in Kuching.

A TYPICAL day for Dayang Norhayati Awang Mohamad begins at 1am. For the next three hours, she would be busy preparing at least 13 types of ‘kuih-muih’ (local cakes and snacks), 50 packets of ‘nasi lemak’, and 20 packets each of fried ‘bee hoon’ and fried noodles – all for sale at her roadside stall near Kampung Cemerlang at Jalan Lapangan Terbang in Kuching.

According to this hardworking single mother, ‘karipap’ (curry puffs) is her best-selling item, but she also says it is the most tedious to make because of the many steps involved.

“Well, my customers love it, so I must make it,” she smiles.

Occasionally if she had the time, she would include chicken porridge in her list.

After everything is settled, she wakes up her children at around 4am to get them ready for school.

The 41-year-old vendor has two daughters, aged 10 and 12, and a son, aged seven.

By 5.20am, she begins the drive from her house in the Matang area to the school at Taman BDC, drops her children there and then proceeds to her trading spot.

By 6.15am, her stall is all set up and ready for business.

Having been doing this for over 15 years, her daily schedule throughout the working week runs like clockwork, and she never complains.

All the kuih and other items for sale at Dayang Norhayati’s stall are freshly-made every day – she never sells leftovers.

“I like the regularity. Being able to run this stall means being able to work and earn money.

“I need to do this for my children.”

“Except when it rains heavily, I usually close up by mid-morning after everything’s sold out.”

Challenges over the years

Dayang Norhayati does not come from a family of traders or hawkers.

Her parents are pensioners, having worked in the healthcare and medical sector previously.

However, she did obtain a Certificate in Culinary Arts from SATT College; hence, her skills in food preparations.

Prior to operating at the current trading site, she had been selling kuih from her minivan outside a primary school at Taman BDC for about 10 years until a new headmaster took over.

“I was told that I was no longer allowed to sell kuih anywhere near the school. The reason given to me was to prevent any incident of food poisoning from befalling the schoolchildren.

“It was very devastating, being suddenly uprooted from an entrenched comfort zone and also, struggling to find a new place.”

Nonetheless, Dayang Norhayati was tenacious. She kept looking and trying several places, and all eventually failed, she found the spot near Kampung Cemerlang.

It was around 2018, and things seemed to be going on well for her. She received many customers and was earning quite decently from the sales.

Then, Covid-19 hit.

‘Her smile hiding pain, struggles’

Dayang Norhayati’s kuih business was too small an operation for it to be allowed to open during the lockdown period.

She, along with other street vendors, stall operators and hawkers, are those grouped under micro small and medium enterprise (micro-SMEs) – the smallest scale of SME category with sales turnover of less than RM300,000 and maximum number of employees of five, according to definition by SME Corporation Malaysia.

Based on 2019 data from the Department of Statistics, 79 per cent of SMEs in Malaysia are micro-enterprises. With the number of SMEs being recorded at nearly 1.2 million in that same year, micro-SMEs in Malaysia could easily amount to 950,000 operations back then.

Yet, this small segment of SME was the worst hit by pandemic as the lockdown, followed by a series of Movement Control Order (MCO) phases, had forced them to shut down for what seemed like, at the time, an indefinite period.

The prolonged restrictions made the situation even worse for the micro-SMEs as with no cash flow to cover all kinds of bills and loans that were still continuing, more than half of them had no choice but to close shop permanently.

“It was one of the most fearful and jittery periods of my life because I lost my only source of income. My young children and I had to depend on what I had managed to scrimp and save over the years.

“Never a day passed when I was not stressed about my situation, where all of us were living on a shoestring budget. I was very worried about how long my savings could sustain us before they ran out,” recalls Dayang Norhayati.

It was only when some of the lockdown restrictions had been lifted that she could heave a sigh of relief, and she wasted no time to start selling again.

Business was slow in the beginning, but things gradually picked up as time went by.

Now, the vendor can smile again.

Children help out

Business has been good, with Dayang Norhayati taking home an average daily profit of around RM80, and she gets more when people place orders during the festive seasons.

She opens her stall on weekdays because most of her customers are the working folks such as the civil servants, those working at the airport and companies within the area, as well as the residents of Kampung Cemerlang and the nearby neighbourhoods.

She takes off on Sundays and public holidays, which she dedicates to spending the time with her children.

“My children would finish school lessons at 11.30am, but they would have extra activities in the afternoon. So, I would just wait for them in the car, parked at the school compound.

“It would be a waste of effort and petrol if I were to go home and come out again to fetch them. My petrol money, to cover all the necessary trips, is at least RM200 a month.

“I must save however I can.”

With her not driving back home after closing up her stall, she makes sure to pack lunch on-the-go to eat with her children after they finish the morning classes and before they go for the afternoon activities.

They would all reach home around 7pm.

“By the end of the day, we’re all tired,” she chuckles.

“We seldom go out – going out means spending more money.”

Dayang Norhayati admits that to anyone else, her life may seem mundane and uninteresting.

“It’s quite exhausting, actually, being the sole parent to your kids.

“Still, I count my blessings every day. I’m also very fortunate to have children who are very helpful and understanding.

“They always help out, especially during the school holidays,” she smiles with pride.

Dayang Norhayati’s son helps his mother out by packing the fried bee hoon and some kuih.

One of Dayang Norhayati’s daughters fries some karipap, which is a must-have on the vendor’s selling list.

Weathering life’s storms

As strong and determined as she is, Dayang Norhayati says her years as a kuih seller have not been without bittersweet moments.

Twice, her stall and everything else were blown away by the strong winds during a raging storm.

“My tables were overturned, food thrown everywhere, and the big umbrella was flung far from the site. I cried when I picked the kuih and other food, knowing that there’d be no sale that day. “Fortunately, the umbrella was not broken. It was already seven years old by then, and was quite worn out, with a tear on the top.

“For now, it is still working, but I will get a new one once I have the money.”

Dayang Norhayati unfolds her trustworthy, weather-beaten stall umbrella. She says she will get a new ones once she has the money.

Dayang Norhayati also recalls a terrifying incident where she almost became a snatch theft victim.

“This was not long after I reopened after the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions.

“The man was riding a motorbike. I caught him looking at me as he went past my stall.

“My instinct immediately warned me that he was up to no good. True enough – the very next moment, he made a U-turn, alighted from his bike and ran towards me.

“Perhaps it was reflex – I quickly grabbed my cash box and ran into a nearby bush, all the while screaming my lungs out.

“Thankfully, some village folks nearby heard my scream and quickly went over to see what was going on.

“By that time, the man had already fled.

“As terrifying as it was, that incident taught me one important lesson – never, ever have I placed my cash box on the table since then.”

Dayang Norhayati points at the bush area, where she ran into to hide from a snatch thief.

Dayang Norhayati also remembers another incident that was ‘indecent’, to say the least.

“Again, it was also a man on a motorbike. He stopped by and started to ask me funny questions.

“Obviously, he could tell I was selling kuih, yet he kept asking what I was selling.

“He then asked me if I sold other things. I replied: ‘Nasi Lemak’, but they already sold out.

“The man kept going: No, I mean do you sell ‘that thing’? It was immediately after that when that pervert flashed me his genitals, and added: You see, it is ‘standing’ now!

“Deep inside, I was freaking out!” laughs Dayang Norhayati as she recounts that story.

“But somehow, I remained calm. I firmly told him I was not that type of person – and also, I told him to get lost!”

Always appreciating customers

Notwithstanding the snatch thief and the pervert, Dayang Norhayati says her customers are generally ‘good folks, who are polite and understanding’.

“They are happy to buy my kuih, and I am happy that they are willing to stop by and patronise my small business.

“Many of the regular ones are policemen and army personnel, and I can tell you that many of us really underappreciated these guys in uniforms.

“You see, upon learning about the bad incidents, they give me their contacts and tell me to call them in case of any emergency.

“We still have good, decent people in the world, and I appreciate them very much.”

Dayang Norhayati says as long as she can manage it, she would continue selling kuih at her roadside stall.

“I realise that as a woman vendor working on my own, I am exposed to some dangers, but what else can I do? By hook or by crook, this is my means of income.

“I will continue on for the sake of my children,” she points out.