Words by Nicole Tan
When it comes to mala, a deeper story of migration, change, and success lies at the root of the story. The complex flavours of mala is considered to be one of the biggest crowd favourites in Chinese gastronomy, speculated to have originated from the Sichuan Province during the 19th century. Today, we see it present in every region, used in a variety of dishes.
Coincidentally, this is also how the story of Ni Qian Zhen began. He migrated to Singapore in 2000, working as a chef in ther Crystal Jade group for eight years, before joining Putien as a chef executive in 2010, and subsequently moving on to Shangri-La Hotel as a sous chef. It was here that he decided to start his own eatery by highlighting one of his favourite flavours of his homeland, mala, in the local F&B scene. Thus he founded Happy Folks Pte Ltd in 2016, where he started Man Tang Hong, his eatery brand specialising in mala xiang guo — a stir-fried hotpot of multiple ingredients cooked with strong mala flavors. Since their inception, he has enjoyed reasonable success, and has expanded the brand to three stalls across Singapore.
The traditional way of preparing mala xiang guo is no easy feat, involving hours of preparation, manual labour, and the close proximity to a hot stove. Additionally, workers also have to deal with crowds and larger orders. On top of this, the company also had to deal with the impact of Covid-19, finding a way to stay afloat by increasing their stalls’ operating hours to avoid permanent closure like many others in the F&B industry. As an age-friendly company, half of Man Tang Hong’s service staff comprise older workers, which has made it necessary for Ni and his company to find innovative ways to increase efficiency and make it easier on their employees.
This is where he chanced upon the support of NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), which offers various schemes ranging from recruitment, training and job redesign to support businesses in their transformative endeavours towards adapting with Covid-19. Through their WorkPro Job redesign scheme, Man Tang Hong has undergone a reassessment and reconditioning of their workplaces to make the jobs of their employees—especially senior workers—easier, safer and smarter.
This is largely due to the introduction of automotive devices, such as automatic energy-saving cookers and commercial induction cookers, which help eliminate manual processes, streamline work and increase efficiency and security of the overall work environment. No longer will their workers have to bear with a hot and tedious working environment, as these devices help in containing the heat from the fire, making the environment cooler and safer. The automated induction cooker also works towards minimizing the energy spent on the cooking process itself, allowing workers to simply pre-set the cooking duration and temperature, and moving on to perform other tasks while waiting for the dish to finish cooking with minimal monitoring.
The stall has also introduced a paging system, where customers will be given a transmitter upon ordering. When the food is ready, workers press the transmitter to notify customers to collect their order from the counter. Indeed, this does help to streamline the order process and make it easier on the older workers, negating the need to remember and search for customers especially during peak periods. With the increased efficiency, the older workers of Man Tang Hong found that they were able to better manage their workload. This also prompted an increment in their wages as they were able to perform tasks of higher value, increasing their overall performance.
Just like how mala has been made better and found success over the ages, Ni hopes that through the support granted by e2i, he is able to help his workers continue their employment while also finding grounds for the continued advancement of Man Tang Hong, setting his sights on building a popular mala xiang guo franchise in Singapore.