This is how I will always remember him. Beside a glass cabinet filled with roast ducks, bent over a wooden chopping board, landing every cut with precision on the bird and splitting it into bite sizes.
He hardly looks up even when he scoops the pieces onto a wrapper where his daughter would swiftly fold it up and throw it into a bag with two packets of sauces – salty and bean paste.
I have known this iconic figure in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, the man behind Sze Ngan Chye (the bespectacled guy in Cantonese) salted roast duck, for 20 years. I was working in the media when I first met Choong Feng Phooi at his stall by the roadside.
His eldest daughter would help with chopping ducks, second daughter Amy would wrap and his wife would take care of finance, collecting money and sending it to a nearby bank. Sze Ngan Chye was well respected as Petaling Street was home for him and his family and it was also a place where he made his income for 60 years to support them.
When his family and I became close friends I changed from addressing him as ‘Uncle’ to ‘Ah Bah’ and it thrilled him. I remember going to the stall and calling out loud (also because he was hard of hearing) “Ah Bah” and he would look up and smile.
And the only other sentence he would say to me was “Take home a cut-up duck to eat!” I would pay for one duck and go home with two.
Sometimes when he was in the mood he would put down his chopper and went on to tell me stories about Petaling Street. He would show me which shop served good tea or wanton mee. He had been peddling his wares there for 50 years. His family used to stay in a rented room there in the early days when he first started selling roast duck. Choong saw Petaling Street grew from a seedy place with street prostitution to a popular tourist hub.
When City Hall decided to give Petaling Street a face-lift in 2003 by cleaning up and building a huge green canopy over the street, the stalls were being relocated. Choong was given a spot about 100 metres away and he was greatly distressed.
But I also saw the broadest smile on his face when my friends in the media managed to help him appeal to the City Hall and he got back his old spot which the stall occupied till now.
Choong moved out of his father’s house with his wife Lee Yook Chan and four children in his early 20s because he wanted to be independent. He found himself a job and they stayed with his mother-in-law. His neighbours who made roasted meat to sell taught him to roast duck. He came up with his own recipe for salted roast duck and it quickly became popular. Through word of mouth his business grew.
Although he was a man of few words he was keen to share his stories with the young. In 2006 I sought his help to organise a reality race for college students, “The Spirit of KL” where the teams had to run around the city to complete tasks based on culture and traditions in the city to earn a place in the finals.
At 5 am Choong was already at the spot opposite his stall to set up stations for slaughtering fish and another for cutting roast duck. I had never seen Choong so vocal and active instructing the teams how to cut, making sure they didn’t cut their fingers and teaching them how to handle live fish.
We wouldn’t have gotten permission to set up at the sites of someone else’s stalls if not for Choong who went to them personally to ask for cooperation.
The halal Sze Ngan Chye roast duck has graced many dining tables during festive occasions, especially during Chinese New Year. His customers have also taken the succulent roast ducks overseas such as Singapore and Japan.
On days close to Chinese New Year’s eve, you can see long queues of customers in the wee hours of the morning waiting to collect their orders. How it warms my heart when he would still look up with a smile when I called out to him during that busy time.
It must have been a great joy for Choong to see his roast duck finding its place into a restaurant opened by his daughter Amy in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur.
Over the past decade, even though Choong had retired, he would make occasional appearances at the stall to chop a duck or two, to the delight of his regular customers, before sneaking off to have tea with his friends.
Sze Ngan Chye @ Ah Bah, may have retired but his salted roast duck continues to bring good eats and happiness to the dining table.
Choong passed away peacefully on Aug 22, 2019, two days before his 85th birthday.