“Hunky Hawker,” “Muscular Hunk,” and “Beefcake.” These are all names that Walter Tay has earned from his striking bodybuilder physique and suave looks, especially for someone who cooks carrot cake at a neighbourhood hawker centre.
If you were to visit his stall at Kampung Admiralty, you’ll find his stall front display plastered with numerous article features of him and the stall.
Though this media darling seem to have achieved a ‘mini hawker celebrity’ status, with locals from all across Singapore and even expats travelling down to his hawker stall just to get his carrot cake (and a glimpse of him), he started out merely wanting to pay off his debts from failed businesses and a Ponzi scheme—A past that he isn’t proud of.
Instead of serving up plates of carrot cake, Walter once served as cabin crew. At 21 back then, he was what you would think of a young cabin crew zealous about seeing the world. It was a well-paying job, and enough to fund his sports car and expensive watches—all symbols of wealth and luxury, which reflected the kind of life he was leading.
But the fun didn’t last.
Stumbling Into A Ponzi Scheme
At 24, Walter left his high-paying job to become a full time sales agent for two brothers who pitched to him about a project that would yield high returns. Young and reckless, the project seemed like an easy way to strike it rich. He was sold that vision, and in turn, he sold that vision to many of his friends, encouraging them to join him. And they did.
All in their early twenties, many of Walter’s friends left their commitments for that vision. Some left school, some left their jobs, and they were also friends who left places that had a very promising future for them.
“They left whatever they were doing to join me full-fledged. They brought in money, they brought in connections, they brought in everything precious to them—I did as well. [But] at the end of it, all burn.”
The MLM company turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, which Walter only realised when he waded in too deep.
“Once you’re midway through, it’s so hard to pull out. Because, you’re also telling the whole world that you are wrong.”
As one of the earlier investors who roped in other investors, it also meant that he was, in a way, accountable to all the investments that his friends had poured in.
Leaving And Burning Bridges
Walter finally managed to pull out of the scheme two years later but by then, the damage was already done. It was time, effort, and money that his friends had invested into this after all. Beyond that, it was the trust that was broken.
“So that’s why I really burned all my connections, all my friendships, all my relationships.”
A part of him wanted to blame the two brothers who sold the scheme to him, but he knew that the responsibility was still his for making that final decision. The guilt of having implicated all the people he was closest to sparked his drive to succeed and with that, he started a couple of different ventures.
“I wanted to do something and then make it big [so that I can repay] the people who I owe so much to. But with that kind of attitude [of trying to make it big quickly], I only kept failing.”
While the results of some of his ventures, like a cosmetics business and a fitness competition, were relatively promising in its reach and recognition, financial feasibility was another matter altogether.
Sliding Into A Slump
When you’ve lost all the people who meant so much to you, and you’ve chalked up a mass of emotional and financial debts from your own doing, it’s easy to fall into a pit of anger, regret, self-blame, and guilt.
Walter was only in his mid-twenties then—a point where most Singaporeans would have either began to establish a stable career or at least starting to have their life sorted out. The negativity of failing the people who trusted him and of failing himself drove him into a dark place. He picked up smoking, and even with all those ventures he started, he couldn’t find meaning in them.
Knowing that his problems became a problem for his parents also made him feel “very shitty, like my naivety and actions caused so many problems.”
It was his mother who changed everything when she took the initiative to apply for the stall that would later become Father & Son. His father, who had been driving taxis as a retirement job for several years, returned to the hawker line for him as well.
With hard work (15 hour days) and a bit of luck, business picked up quickly. Thankfully, Walter was able to pay off the debts he owed from the business earnings, and from selling his car and watches. Some of these debts include ‘paying back’ some of his friends as well.
“I tried to recover people’s investments, especially those very close to me, or those who bought into the investment portfolio because of me. I want to repay them—it’s the 人情 (debt of gratitude).”
The whole ‘Hunky Hawker’ image was something he adopted later, which he unabashedly acknowledge having done so for the good of the business. Despite the praises that people have sung about his success however, Walter professed that he isn’t successful—not yet.
“No Leh, I Don’t Think I’m Successful”
To others, his may be an inspirational story of success after hardships. But for Walter, success is when, and if he is able to nurture students to take over the stall, or even set up another branch of Father & Son in the future.
Ultimately, it is also his wish to help contribute to the hawker culture, through baby steps like running his own hawker internship programme, which he is currently working on.
Although, the hawker life actually chose him before he chose it. A child to parents who dabbled in the hawker trade for 20 years, he resolved to not go into this trade after having helped out occasionally.
So, why the passion in not just running a hawker stall but also preserving its culture then?
“We grow up in this society that teaches us that we need to find a job which has very good entitlement, with high CPF, high holiday allowance, high this high that, but actually if you land a job with all these entitlements, you still might not be a happy person. I think it is what you do and how you find meaning in it.”
Finding Meaning Through A Simple Lifestyle
As a hawker, Walter’s life is a world of difference compared to the pleasures he enjoyed back when he was jetting around. On one hand, the Ponzi scheme is a part of his past that he is ashamed of, and the guilt from implicating friends a feeling that has and will continue to haunt him, it is also a lesson he is glad to have gone through, as it now motivates him to be resilient and to stay grounded.
“We grow up watching Hollywood movies and I thought the high life is what I wanted. I’ve had my fun. I’ve had expensive cars, I wore watches, I stayed opposite MBS. But it’s all fake lah. It’s all a show.”
At the end of the day, it is hawker life that humbled him. It is, to him, a lot more meaningful that the luxuries that he used to chase.
Hawker life is like being neighbours with the people there, and through each interaction he has with customers who return for another plate of carrot cake, he forms bonds with them that are deeper than those he would have formed in his life back then.
He’d even want for his children to be trained in the hawker trade in the future, because “to be a successful businessman, you need to handle a lot. I think it’s a good life training.”
(Header Image Credit: Melissa Chan)