THE first time I met Auntie Eng, I had walked right past her stall. It wasn’t her chicken I was looking for, but Uncle Tony’s, whose stall is situated diagonally across from hers. “Want some chicken?” she said in Mandarin, flashing a lipstick smile. Would I buy chicken from this lady? I don’t think so. She seemed like a diva, her eyes drawn, her hair streaked with color (blue, I recall), and there was a bossy air about her.
Had I not been a chatterbox at the Bukit Timah Food Center, my breakfast haunt, I wouldn’t have gotten to know about her. Over breakfast one morning last year, I shared a table with a lady, who boasted that she doesn’t ever eat chicken rice anywhere else, except at home, the kind she makes.
“Wah, the chicken is so sweet, you know,” she said, “so juicy!” And on and on she went.
I couldn’t quite place who she was referring to when she went on about “this couple” and “this lady,” but the moment I heard “elderly” and “colored hair,” I knew it had to be Lady Diva. Strange that you could go to a market for years on end, in my case, five, and all you go for are the same crew of suppliers, blinders on, until some little mouse lets you in on a secret.
So, what’s so special about Auntie Eng? If you want organic chicken, she’s the only one who has it at my market. If you want Sakura, or kampong, or normal, everyone else has it — so does she.
Now, let me tell you, she’s not just special because she’s carries organic chicken, she’s special because of her very person. She’s a conversationalist, she’s warm, she laughs a lot, and she’s pretty bossy too, clucking at me on occasion — Jiang huayu! Speak Mandarin! — whenever I lapse into some English here and there.
Best of all, she always calls me by name, my name-about-town-and-the-neighborhood: no, it’s not Viv, not Vivienne, not Huimin, but Yang Guifei. That’s right, that classical Chinese beauty of yore. Rendered in Chinese, my last name Yeo transforms into the same Yang as Ms Guifei’s, so I gave myself the right to be the famed beauty on account of our shared last names. And voilà, this name sticks with the hawkers, they love it, and they get to tease me for being not pudgy enough like the great Beauty.
In the same way, I return the kindness and compliment, and always call her by name — Auntie Eng! — it pleases her to no end, she breaks into a sweet, diva smile.
Boss lady, that’s who she really is. She takes the orders, weighs the chicken, collects the money, lays out her wares on a bee-line to the chopper and chopping board, manned by Uncle Chuan, who would know exactly what needs to be done for each pile: deboned, de-skinned, chopped into X number of pieces, or cut really close to the bone, Guifei’s fussy request for all her deboned thighs. Oh, and please remember to chop those nails off the feet, she gets so squeamish about them it’s not even funny!
The first time I searched Auntie Eng out on 28 June 2018, I was an idiot asking her journalistic type questions about the chicken, how many days from chick to slaughter, what kind of feed, she grew impatient and just pointed me to this signboard:
“Anxin ji,” she announced, then she recited the tagline that ran below the chicken’s feet. “Mai de anxin, chi de anxin.”
In other words, when you get the Anxin chicken, you buy with no worries, and you eat with no worries — anxin, being that soothing word that points to all things fret-free, and fret-free of course, because you get no steroids or hormones in Auntie Eng’s Anxin chicken, which was how I often heard her referring to that range of chicken, instead of “organic.”
Then with a raised arm, she cut me short, and I got the hint: for the tak cheh kind, the bookish kind like me, better not waste her time, and so I rattled my order: chicken breast, please — which I made into this, for a dinner that evening with my friend, Lin: