Canteen Vendor Spotlight: Hasdesign Cuisine

The Y1-4 canteen is far from unfamiliar to many of the Year 5 and 6 students who take weekly pilgrimages to the claypot stall very seriously – but that’s just about the food.

For a student, queuing up for food takes unremarkable few minutes. For the canteen
vendors, whose jobs revolve not just around the lunch menu but also interacting with the students who come to their stalls, it is a vastly different experience. To get a brief glimpse into these stories, we talked to Auntie Linda of hasDesign Cuisine.

What immediately struck us was the sheer number of students that she had gotten to see and know across her eight years in RI. ‘The previous batches,’ she tells us, ‘were very chatty, friendly. They were very warm – especially up to this year’s Year 6s, they were the best. When they see me around, they’ll still ask, “Auntie do you remember me?”’. In fact, even though many of her previous patrons have already graduated to become ‘doctors and everything’, she still recalls vividly the students that used to frequent her stall. In fact, Auntie Linda spoke of two such students, and even mentioned them by name: ‘They are in their second year of university already, but just the other day two of them came back. They came back and said, “Hello Auntie, I want to eat your chicken.


These brief but pleasant encounters are often the highlight of her day. ‘I mean, I’m here working, and I want to enjoy my work; it’s a two-way kind of thing right,’ she muses. For some of these boys, she had been a confidante – ‘I used to have a lot of boys who [have] problems, then they’d come to me in the evenings when there’s nobody already. It’s not like they want me to solve their problems, they just need someone to talk to.’ Even some teachers used to request for her to look out for some of their students.

‘Some teachers would come tell me “you know, this student, could you please scold him!” But when I talk to them, I’d feedback to the teachers about their complaints and what kind of misery they are going through,’ she explains.

‘Normally, it’s just a growing up thing lah. But they do talk to us a lot.’

The interactions with students are among the best parts of her job, but Auntie Linda mentions how these exchanges seem to be on the decline. The Year 6s of 2017 seem to be ‘the last batch I really know, then after that, it’s like, very few students I really know.’ For the newer batches, they seem to be more ‘closed up. They’re not chatty, they’re not like the earlier batches, which were very chatty, friendly, warm. For me, the boys used to be like, “even though you’re canteen Auntie, we still talk to you, we still joke”. But these past few years they’re not so open.’ This is perhaps a natural shift, as she points out how some of us may perhaps be a little more different – ‘I have a son, and he used to work in the bookshop when he was waiting for O-level [results]. He was very irritated with all the boys because when they come in, they [would go] “Auntie! Hi-five”. And he used to tell me, “we all don’t talk to our canteen aunties, we just touch and go. We come, buy food, we go off. We don’t sit around and chit-chat [with them].” So I suppose the boys now have my son’s kind of attitude.’ Nonetheless, she recalls with fondness how a while ago, some of the students had asked her to give a speech for Farewell Night, and had aired it in a video at the event. ‘[The students] said, “Wow Auntie Linda, you even said farewell to us”, and then I said, “Yeah, because I know most of you, and I am very touched.”’


With a warm and inviting demeanour, it is obvious why Auntie Linda is well-liked by
the students.

Student interactions aside, one of the biggest hurdles she is facing has to do with Health
Promotion Board’s latest efforts to promote healthy eating in schools. As part of its Healthy Meals in Schools Programme, deep fried food can no longer be served in school canteens from July 2017 onwards. Whilst the health concerns are understandable, this is a prospect that is frustrating for both students and vendors like Auntie Linda. ‘It’s very boring,’ she tells us. ‘Because the students here look forward to fried food right, and when they come and they don’t see fried things, they look like zombies. We also feel like we cannot feed the boys properly, because they don’t want to eat all these healthy food, you can feel their misery.’ She has been trying to introduce the boys to the healthy
food, while providing the options to satisfy their cravings. But in the future, ‘everything’s going to be steamed, roasted – which is very boring lah.’

‘At one time, one whole week, I think two weeks back, we completely no fried food. That’s why the boys look very zombie you know.’

When it comes to planning the menu, it becomes apparent that much of the vendors’ toil are hidden from us. According to Auntie Linda, most of the vendors arrive at four in the morning to prepare everything from scratch (she arrives at about 5a.m.). She explains that ‘by seven, some of the boys want to eat breakfast. So at least even if you don’t have the entire [menu ready], you have one breakfast item.’

‘For me, it’s mee rebus or mee siam. It’s ready in case any of the teachers or any of the
students want to have breakfast.’ She also plans her menu such that there is an interesting array of options across the week. ‘Monday is a free day, so I sell whatever.
Tuesday is Chinese style, so we have chicken rice. Everything is Chinese influenced.
Wednesday is Indian style because we sell biryani, a lot of curry. On Thursday it is
exclusively for Javanese food so we have the rendang, kalio, sambal goreng.’ Finally, Friday has been shrewdly designated ‘a budget day – the boys have no money already. So it’s noodles for a dollar, pasta, all the cheap cheap kind. People ask why don’t you sell Nasi Goreng, Mee Goreng on Friday and I say because people got no money,’ Auntie Linda laughs.

The chat with Auntie Linda has made clear that a lot of thought and effort goes into her work. For students, the canteen vendors are perhaps a dispenser of sustenance, briefly acknowledged, seen in passing. For the vendors, the students are their work environment. Whilst yearly appreciation week shenanigans often see Post-Its
thanking the vendors for their friendliness and for the food they prepare, few have thought about the process and experiences that they have in the canteen. Being a vendor is just a job with as many considerations as any other and as Auntie Linda reminds us at the end at the end of the chat, it is also ‘a labour of love.’

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