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Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices


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Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices is a print and digital exhibition celebrating 5 women food vendors of Penang. This is a project undertaken in conjunction with International Women's Day 2015. The print and digital exhibition was launched on 8 March 2015 at LUMA Gallery, Whiteaways Arcade, Beach Street, George Town, Penang. We're working on documenting many more of Penang women's stories. Join us as a volunteer (interviewer, researcher or photographer) or give us your feedback. Email to:

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Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices

  1. 1. U N S E E N F A C E S , U N H E A R D V O I C E S A S P E C I A L I N T E R N A T I O N A L W O M E N ’ S D A Y P H O T O E X H I B I T I O N T O C E L E B R A T E 5 W O M E N F O O D V E N D O R S I N P E N A N G
  2. 2. C U R R Y M E E S E L L E R B E E K I M
  3. 3. N A S I C A M P U R S T A L L O W N E R M A K L A N
  4. 4. V A D E Y S E L L E R J E Y A
  5. 5. K O A Y T E O W T H ’ N G S E L L E R A H T E E N
  6. 6. H O K K I E N M E E S T A L L O W N E R P O H K I M
  7. 7. V A D E Y S E L L E R J E Y A
  8. 8. My husband had an accident and had problems getting work. So I started a business to support the family. I began in 1996.
  9. 9. I have two children. My daughter studied Business Administration. My son is studying engineering in college.
  10. 10. My husband wakes up at 4am to prepare the sour dough for thosai and kneads the chapati dough.
  11. 11. I have no formal schooling but I can speak Hokkien very well. I learned it when I was 14, living with my grandmother in Sungai Petani. We had many Chinese neighbours.
  12. 12. I am grateful for the support of my husband who helps me in the business.
  13. 13. He does all the marketing and difficult work of preparing the dough. I only cook the curries.
  14. 14. I have been quite fortunate… I sell about 500 to 600 vadeys a day. I also make sweet apom and thosai.
  15. 15. I am really good at making the dhal (for vadey). Many have tried to copy my dhal but have never been able to do it.
  16. 16. Even my daughter can’t prepare it the way I do. She gets upset if I teach others the recipe for the dhal as she believes it is our family’s secret recipe.
  17. 17. I’m happy I have customers who have stayed loyal to me all these years.
  18. 18. The local council used to take away my stall. Once they came three times in a month. Since then, I’ve applied for the necessary permits and done my vaccination.
  19. 19. I’d like my daughter to take over from me. She’s keen but she feels she would not be able to cook like I do.
  20. 20. I plan to retire when my son completes his studies. It is my hope to sell this stall and retire.
  21. 21. Jeya’s stall is at Sg Nibong. Originally her stall was in front of Lam Wah Ee Hospital.
  22. 22. K O A Y T E O W T H ’ N G S E L L E R A H T E E N
  23. 23. My name is Ah Teen. I am 72 years old.
  24. 24. My husband, Ah Chin, and I have been selling koay teow th’ng for a very long time. He is 83 years old.
  25. 25. In exactly a month’s time, we would have been doing this business for 40 years.
  26. 26. Our house is not too far away from this coffee shop. That’s why we like it here. It’s not too far for us to move our push-cart here every day.
  27. 27. The work is shared between us. My husband wakes up at 3.30am to do the marketing.
  28. 28. Our neighbour is a very old friend. He is free and loves coming to our stall in the mornings to help us out. He helps pluck taugeh.
  29. 29. I am up at 5am to prepare the food. We are out of the house with our push cart by 6.30am. We are usually sold out by 1pm and get home around 2pm.
  30. 30. We have a simple lunch when we get home. But I still have to cook the evening meal. We usually eat dinner early and are in bed by 8.30pm.
  31. 31. The price of ingredients have gone up. But we have not raised our prices. How to increase prices when our customers are like family? They all call me Ah Poh, Ah Ee, Ah Chee. Kids call me Ah Mah.
  32. 32. We only have 1 child, a son who lives and works in KL. He’s a good son.
  33. 33. He studied hard and got a loan to go to university. His employer liked his work and sponsored him for his Master’s degree. We didn’t have to make huge sacrifices for his education.
  34. 34. Even at our age, we don’t mind working, not at all, except on days when we are not feeling too good.
  35. 35. I am diabetic and also have high blood pressure. So I do have my occasional “down” days.
  36. 36. We earn an honest living. We earn enough to live on. We’ll continue selling this as long as we’re both healthy and have the energy to do so.
  37. 37. What would we do if we stopped selling koay teow th’ng?
  38. 38. We’d just be sitting at home with nothing to do. Besides we’ll miss the joy of interacting with our customers.
  39. 39. Their stall is located outside Kedai Kopi Hin Leong, Jalan Macalister. They open 5 days a week, Saturday through Wednesday from 7am to 1pm.
  40. 40. N A S I C A M P U R S T A L L O W N E R M A K L A N
  41. 41. I have been in this nasi campur business for 36 years. I started due to poverty.
  42. 42. Due to poverty, I will stand and work like the Chinese. And like the Chinese, I never give up.
  43. 43. I borrowed RM100 from a chettiar to start. Back then it was just a simple push cart but I opened from 6am to 6pm. I’d wake up at 3am to prepare my dishes with my aunt’s help.
  44. 44. Many people tell me it’s tiring to run a food business. I say, how can you be tired? I was a one-woman show when I started.
  45. 45. I did the marketing, cooking and selling. I’d drive to the wholesale market at midnight and start cooking at 3am. It was like this, day in, day out.
  46. 46. My specialities are kerabu, black chicken and fried terubok. We now serve 30 or more dishes from 7am to 9pm, Monday to Saturday.
  47. 47. My workers start preparing and cooking at 4.30am because we open at 7am.
  48. 48. You know how expensive red chillies are these days? But we still make our sambal belacan every day. We may not make as much money but it’s OK.
  49. 49. I don’t know what to do if I retire! I am so used to being here at my stall. If I don’t work, it’s so hard for me to pass the time!
  50. 50. My KL and Johor customers often fly into Penang just to eat at Lidiana.
  51. 51. You should see my business on the first day of Chinese New Year. All my Chinese customers would come here to eat with their families!
  52. 52. I have a Raya open house every year and I invite all my Chinese customers. (Lidiana attracts so many Chinese customers that people outside of Penang have asked if the stall is owned by a Chinese!)
  53. 53. Puan Lall Bee binti Ibrahim or fondly known as Mak Lan studied until Form Three at Convent Pulau Tikus.
  54. 54. She started her nasi campur business because she was a young divorcee with children. She also had to take care of her 16 siblings.
  55. 55. I want to advise divorced women that a divorce is not the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world when your husband leaves you.
  56. 56. Lidiana is the name of her stall. It’s the combined names of her 2 daughters, Nordiana and Lidia. Nordiana now runs the bustling business, assisted by her husband. They also cater for events.
  57. 57. Lidiana’s is located at the food court near Ratu Mutiara opposite the floating mosque of Tanjung Bungah. The stall is closed on Sundays.
  58. 58. I am thankful to God for good health, strength and determination.
  59. 59. H O K K I E N M E E S T A L L O W N E R P O H K I M
  60. 60. I started this business 23 years ago. Our family needed extra regular income to supplement my husband’s earnings as a small-scale building contractor.
  61. 61. I dropped out of school after Standard Six. No one told me about the importance of education!
  62. 62. In my younger days, I worked in a garment factory and did other part-time jobs. All were low-paying jobs. My family found it very difficult to make ends meet.
  63. 63. After trying out various options, relatives suggested I should sell Hokkien mee. I asked my sister-in-law to teach me my mother-in-law’s recipe which people used to like a lot.
  64. 64. My day starts at 7.30am and I only get home at midnight.
  65. 65. We are an all-woman operation. In the kitchen there’s me, the chief cook. We are assisted by 3 foreign maids for food preparation and waitressing.
  66. 66. Then there’s my god-sister’s daughter. She’s a key person at the stall. Her fantastic memory allows her to whip up customers’ orders without messing them up.
  67. 67. night shot
  68. 68. She just got married and will soon join her husband in the US. I worry she cannot be replaced. I can’t perform her important role. I don’t have her fantastic memory.
  69. 69. 7 years ago, my husband was disabled by a work injury. I have since become the primary breadwinner of our family.
  70. 70. The most time-consuming task is peeling prawns - tonnes of them! Both prawns and shells are used for our Hokkien mee.
  71. 71. I personally oversee the stock preparation because that’s what gives Hokkien mee its distinct flavour. People from outside Penang call it prawn mee.
  72. 72. As you know, there’s the basic bowl of Hokkien mee. Then there’s the “keh liao” bowl. You can add extra “liao” or toppings like pork ribs, roast pork, entrails, mantis prawns at extra charges of course.
  73. 73. This is my god sister, Ah Lean. She is my best friend and partner. We pooled our savings to buy a house in the early days. Our families have since been living together as one big family. We share and manage all our resources as one.
  74. 74. I am very grateful for strong family support. My mother whom I love very much but is no longer around. My eldest brother who generously allowed me to use his shop house rent-free.
  75. 75. Ah Lean who happily stays home to care for all our children and grandchildren. Family is top priority for both of us.
  76. 76. I have a son, a daughter and 3 grandchildren. My son has a successful hairdressing business. My daughter tried opening a prawn mee stall but didn’t like it. She has now followed in her father’s footsteps as a contractor.
  77. 77. We don’t have retirement on our minds. We are used to hard work.
  78. 78. Poh Kim runs her Hokkien mee stall at Presgrave Street (Sar Teow Lor) from 5pm - 11pm. The shop is closed for 2 days every month on alternate Thursdays. You can order her Hokkien mee in bulk for home parties and takeaway.
  79. 79. C U R R Y M E E S E L L E R B E E K I M
  80. 80. Bee Kim sells curry mee in the morning on Macalister Road. In the evenings, she sells at a corner coffeeshop on Burma/Tavoy Road junction. Her day starts at 6am and ends before midnight.
  81. 81. Her family has been selling curry mee for more than 30 years over 3 generations, from her grandmother to her father and now to her.
  82. 82. Thank goodness I have always been strong and healthy. How else could I have slogged the way I have been doing all these years? I’ve had to work like a cow.
  83. 83. But it’s OK. I am not afraid of hard work. My husband and I have to earn a living to raise a family the best we can. Rain or shine, we have to work.
  84. 84. I have 3 children. My eldest daughter is almost finishing her degree at MMU while my second daughter is studying in USM. My youngest son is in Form Five this year.
  85. 85. When I completed my Form Five, I worked for several years as an electronics factory operator doing long 12-hour shifts. But soldering work was hard and stressful. When my father grew too old to carry on toiling, I took over.
  86. 86. I started helping him at his stall as a young school girl. I continued helping my father even when I was working in Motorola. And I helped him throughout my pregnancies.
  87. 87. I clearly remember having to assist my father to push his stall even when I was pregnant. I was so afraid this heavy work would cause me to lose my baby. But we had no choice.
  88. 88. My children were sent to child-minders while I ran the stall. Thank goodness babysitters were quite affordable in those days.
  89. 89. Whenever she can, my daughter helps me out. My husband who is now a retiree does the marketing for me. He also helps out at the stall at night.
  90. 90. When the day is done at 11pm, I am a spent force. I return home and sleep like a log till the next morning.
  91. 91. But I think it is much better to run my own business, to be my own boss.
  92. 92. I don’t think that far ahead. I just live from day to day. Hopefully we’ll have some savings at the end to live on when I cannot carry on selling curry mee or have grown too tired.
  93. 93. Bee Kim runs her curry mee stall in 2 locations 6 days a week. Her morning stall opens from 7am - 11am while her evening stall opens from 5.30pm-10.30pm. Her goal is to give her 3 children a good education so that they can live better lives.
  94. 94. S H A R E & W I N • Snap a photo of your favourite woman street food vendor in Penang. • Hashtag it with #ufuvpenang • Share on Facebook or Twitter. • You might win a yummy prize! Deadline: 31 March 2015.
  95. 95. V O L U N T E E R W I T H U S ! • Enjoy photography? Good at telling stories? • Join us for Phase 2 of this project. • We want to document much more of the history of Penang women - women in sports, women in NGOs and more. • Contact us:
  96. 96. Photography by: Mariam Lim Lee Hau Chern Sandra Leng Interviews by: Mariam Lim Krista Goon Janarthani Arumugam Partially funded by: Gerakbudaya