THERE is a mix of emotions felt by noodle seller Tiong Ing Hui when he finally retires, at age 74, after being in the food business for over 60 years.
There is sadness and reluctance as he feels that his retirement is somewhat forced upon him due to old age.
On the bright side, though, he is very proud and happy to have contributed to Sarawak’s culinary heritage, especially in his hometown Simanggang in Sri Aman Division.
Tiong is hailed as the creator of the ‘Simanggang Satay Mee’ – a very distinct noodle dish so famous that a visit to the town would not be complete if one did not sample a plate at his shop.
His ‘satay mee’, along with his other ‘noodley’ delights, have been prominently featured by journalists and online content creators not only from Sarawak, but from all over the country and even overseas.
“It’s my hope that my children will continue my legacy, although I know that they have ambitions of their own. I am, however, lucky that my sons are willing to continue noodle-making, in Kuching or in Simanggang, and I am thankful for that.
“I assure you that my noodles are still available to those who want them,” he told thesundaypost in when met at his shop in Simanggang recently.
‘Signature Satay Mee’
Tiong was already in the family business when he was a teenager.
Back then, he never thought of it as being the one thing that he would do over the next six decades.
“I was actually hoping to make a career out of my hobbies of singing, fishing, and photography.
“It was my dream back then, there was nothing I would have loved more than to have a job that would pay me well and allow me to pursue things that I was passionate about,” he said.
“But destiny had its own way of shaping my path. It has turned out well, though – people recognise me as a good noodle dish maker, and some even call me the ‘Simanggang’s Noodle King,” he laughed.
Tiong is also famous for his ‘Mee Goreng Simanggang’ (Simanggang-style fried noodle), inherited from his late father. It is actually a plain fried-noodle dish, but it is the family trade secret that makes it stand out from all the other varieties.
Tiong’s youngest son, Paul, 42, serves this same dish at his shop in Kuching and many lovers of this ‘mee’, including ‘the purists’ from Simanggang, have praised Paul’s version as being quite as delicious as the original.
Nonetheless, Tiong’s pièce de résistance is definitely his own creation, the ‘satay mee’.
“I created it in 1971 upon having discovered that there was a stock of ready-made crushed peanuts, used to make satay sauce in bulk, sold at a local grocery store in Simanggang town at the time. I also found out that they were imported from Singapore.
“It was back then that an idea struck me: ‘Wouldn’t these crushed peanuts taste nice in my fried noodles?’
“I bought them and attempted to make a gravy to go with the ‘mee’. It was a mix of trials and errors, but I loved the outcome! And there you go – my signature ‘Satay Mee’,” he said.
That experimental Satay Mee was a godsend for Tiong – it significantly boosted his business, which was already well-known for his family’s ‘Simanggang Mee’.
“The customers kept queuing up for the dish; many were willing to wait for hours just to get their hands on my Satay Mee.
“For me, I fried the noodles almost non-stop throughout my shop’s opening hours. And I have kept doing that for many years. Yes, business is business, but the real joy is seeing my customers really enjoying their orders,” he said.
‘Childhood into adulthood’
Tiong first learned cooking from his father, Tiong Sei Kong, who opened a coffee shop in Simanggang town back in the early 1960s.
His father first taught Tiong how to make the ‘dry mee’, which the Simanggang folks called ‘Mee Rangkai’ (‘rangkai’ means dry in Iban). Gradually, the young Tiong earned his father’s trust to learn the ‘Mee Simanggang’ recipe and make the orders.
His father’s coffee shop was also well-known for many other types of Chinese dishes.
Tiong was actually born in Kanowit town, in 1949, to a rubber-tapping Foochow Chinese family, who lived near an Iban longhouse in Julau.
It was from this upbringing that made Tiong fluent in speaking Iban.
“At one point, my father got tired of making a living out of rubber-tapping, and wanted to venture into the food business.
“He would leave the family in Julau from time to time to seek better opportunities elsewhere.
“As luck would have it, my father found a shop in Simanggang town, and later brought us here.
“I still remember how my father had always wanted to run a food business, in honouring the rich food culture that his clan had inherited from their Foochow ancestors in China.”
However, Tiong admitted that initially, he did not want to become a noodle seller.
“I was in the business only because I needed to help my father provide for the family, and I became good at it only because I had been doing it since I was a teenager.
“My passion at the time was photography – I was always seen with my camera back in my younger days.”
Tiong had even worked with one of the photography studios in Simanggang during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Due to some unforeseen circumstances after my father’s passing, his shop was closed down.
“At the time, it did not matter to me because I finally got the chance to pursue my own dream.
“However, reality later struck – I realised that if I were to stay in Simanggang and continue being a photographer, I would not earn much… and I also wanted to have a family of my own.
“Reluctantly, I went back to the food business and opened a stall at Simanggang Open Air Market in the 1970s.
“I never had any photos of the stall, or any shots of me frying noodles at the time and for many years after that, just because I did not want to be seen as a ‘tukang goreng mee’ (fried noodle cook).
“Back then, I was still adamant about pursuing my own dream, and I regarded my noodle business as just a temporary thing; one that I did while waiting for better opportunities to come knocking.
“I waited for years and years, and no such opportunity ever came,” he said.
Apart from photography, Tiong also wanted to be a popular singer.
“I was quite good too, having won many Chinese singing competitions throughout the years,” he smiled.
Tiong also went through great lengths to improve his vocals, including going to Singapore to take singing lessons and coaching from the industry’s greats there.
He said he was not ashamed of having good singing ability.
“I would sing at any time I feel like it. I also have many musical recordings at home, and would listen to them whenever I have free time.
“For me, music is a way to express myself freely. So great is my love for music that I become the head of the Sri Aman Music Society.
“Everybody in my hometown knows that I am passionate about music, and that I am proud of my achievements in singing,” he said.
As the years went by, however, it became obvious to Tiong that it was his destiny to continue making and selling noodles.
“I was realistic enough to know that only by cooking noodles, I could put food on the table and take good care of my family. No regrets!”
In 1976, Tiong married Chung Kiok Ing, and a year later, they welcomed their first-born Chong Lung.
The couple was later blessed with another son Chong Hoo, in 1979; the youngest Paul was born in 1981.
Making his own noodles
One might think, albeit not wrongly, that the reason behind the success of Tiong’s Satay Mee is the crushed peanuts that he mixes into the gravy.
That, however, is just one factor. Just like his father before him, Tiong has been making the noodles from scratch.
“No store-bought noodles, I can tell you that,” he stressed.
“No noodle would taste good if the raw stuff did not have good ingredients. The business was already famous for its ‘Mee Goreng Simanggang’ before I created the Satay Mee, and that’s because we have been making our own noodles.
“Without good raw noodles, no noodle dish would ever taste good, no matter how highly-skilled the cook is.
“In this family business, I strongly believe that this is the case – no compromise whatsoever!”
It is already established that Tiong is famous for his ‘Simanggang Mee’ and ‘Satay Mee’, but his handmade noodles are also a highly sought-after item among other noodle dish sellers.
His second son Chong Hoo, 44, now handles the shop in Simanggang.
“He sells our noodles, and yes, he can also fry the noodles,” Tiong smiled.
“Paul runs his own shop ‘Noodle Master’ at King’s Centre in Kuching. Both of them do what I have been doing almost all my life.
“Only our eldest son has gone to a different path,” he said, referring to Chong Lung, 46, who is now the senior assistant for students’ affairs at SKJC Chung Hua Pantu in Sri Aman.
In a recent interview, Paul said apart from frying noodles, he also inherited from his father the skills of making cooking utensils and also fishing.
“My father picked up these skills during his younger days, a time when resources were very limited. My father has always been a resourceful man – he would make his own utensils if he could not find the right types.
“Some of the cooking utensils at my shop were made by my father.
“I wish I could just keep them forever; I never wanted to lose or even break any of them,” said Paul.
‘Love for music’
Apart from cooking skills, Paul seems to have also inherited his father’s love for music.
Paul is an enterprising cook by day, but by night, he is a popular music DJ, recognised by those in the local electronica music scene as ‘DJ Paul’.
“I’ve always been fascinated by music, ever since I was a young boy.
“When not helping Dad at the noodle stall, I would spend most of my time listening to music.
“As I entered my late teens, I had the ambition of becoming a renowned DJ after discovering world’s top names such as Ferry Corsten, Tiesto, Armin van Buuren and Paul van Dyk. For me, the music and performances of these artistes renowned in electronic music simply mesmerised me – I wanted to become just like them,” said Paul.
Nowadays, Tiong can often be seen hanging out at Paul’s shop in Kuching, leaving the Simanggang operations to Chong Hoo.
At times, though, he misses the busy days of working at the stall.
“Well, I’m getting old and my health is not as good as it was years ago.
“I have to accept that it’s time for me to retire, and let my sons continue my legacy.
“I would do my best to enjoy my retirement. Maybe once in a while, I’d pick up the wok and ‘do my thing’ – just for old time’s sake,” laughed Tiong.
“Still, my family has always been and will continue to be proud of the food culture that we have established, and we want to share the happiness with the people around us through food,” he added.