SINGAPORE // Singapore’s street food culture was thrust into the international spotlight when Michelin awarded two of the country’s so-called “hawker” stalls a single star each for their culinary achievements.
Known for being clean, affordable and offering an endless choice of gastronomic delights, hawker fare is an integral part of Singapore’s food and cultural heritage.
Whether rich or poor, young or old, Singaporeans and tourists alike flock to more than 100 hawker centres throughout the island state, where some 6,000 cooked food stalls serve up hundreds of thousands of meals every day – sometimes for 24 hours.
The government plans to build 20 more hawker centres in the next decade, but challenges such as rising costs and succession problems threaten the sustainability of Singapore’s much-loved hawker food.
Hawker centres are open-air buildings that house rows of food stalls, while providing diners with shelter from the elements.
Under one roof, customers can find everything from local favourites like Hainanese chicken rice or laksa (curry noodles) to Japanese ramen, Hong Kong dim sum or Italian pasta. Meals cost as little as 3 Singapore dollars (Dh8), if one is willing to brave the heat and sometimes eat with strangers at the same table.
Nearly 20 years before Michelin took notice of hawker fare, one man was already a passionate advocate for it.
KF Seetoh, the founder of Makansutra, a culinary consultancy which produces its own food guide and organises world street food events, has been rating Singapore hawkers since 1998.
Instead of stars, Makansutra awards food outlets with chopsticks – three pairs of chopsticks being the maximum score.
“Food, from my view, is a big part of Singapore’s heritage as it spells [out] our colourful, desperate and innovative migrant nation culture. It says who we are,” said the 55-year-old food guru, who in 2008 was recognised as Singapore’s food ambassador by then president SR Nathan.
“Celebrating the food culture is not just about identity, it’s also about lifestyle, tourism and the food industry, which spell opportunities for many people.”
The popular hawker food centre in Chinatown Complex in Singapore on May 3, 2017. Munshi Ahmed for The National
Indeed it was because of these opportunities that the hawker trade thrived in the 1950s and 60s.
Hawkers in those days, mostly unemployed Chinese migrants, gathered at the Singapore River to ply their trade – be it cooked food, fresh produce, or even shoe-repair services.
As street peddlers proliferated, however, they became a public nuisance, their mobile pushcarts often spilling into the streets and obstructing traffic.
Their questionable hygiene practices – with no clean water supply or waste disposal system – were also linked to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid, and seen as a public health threat.
But there was little success in moving hawkers off the streets until 1971 when Singapore’s post-independence government began building hawker centres with piped water, sewers and garbage disposal facilities. By 1986, Singapore had resettled all its street food vendors.
“Hawker centres have since become an integral part of the everyday lives of Singaporeans and one of the key distinguishing features of Singapore’s food heritage,” said Alvin Tan, assistant chief executive of policy and community at the National Heritage Board.
A hawker grilling chicken wings at a stall in Balestier Food Centre in Singapore. Joanna Tan for The National
According to a government survey in 2015/2016, nearly 75 per cent of respondents ate at hawker centres at least once a week.
“Singapore’s food is one of the top three things Singaporeans miss most about Singapore when they are overseas,” said Mr Tan, citing another survey in 2009.
“The government recognises the key role of hawker centres in feeding the nation and the key place occupied by hawker centres and hawker food in the hearts of Singaporeans.”
Tucking in to different dishes at the Balestier food centre, British tourists John and Joan Heap explained why they love hawker fare: “There’s so much variety of what we can have, a bit from there, a bit from here. It’s really good.”
“In England you don’t have this environment,” they said, adding that the food was both cheap and clean here.
Despite its popularity, the future of Singapore’s street food is at risk.
The average age of hawkers in Singapore is 59 years old, according to the Hawker Centre Committee 3.0, tasked by the government in 2016 to look into reviving the industry. As ageing hawkers retire, young people have been reluctant to enter the trade, not helped by long hours, backbreaking working conditions and rising cost of rents and ingredients, and difficulties in finding workers.
Not many are like third-generation hawker Li Ruifang – the 33-year-old chef and owner of 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodle (Tekka branch) – who is determined to carry on her grandfather’s legacy despite the challenges.
Three years ago, the economics and finance graduate quit her job as a loan settlements officer in a finance company to become a hawker. She now spends 12 to 14 hours a day in a small kitchen, starting work as early as 3am.
“My grandfather came from China and started off by selling near the streets of the current Whampoa food centre [in the 1940s-50s],” said Ms Li, a young mother with a one-year-old baby.
When roadside peddlers were moved off the streets, her grandparents accepted the government’s invitation to take up a stall in Whampoa food centre in 1973. Since then, her parents and aunts have taken turns to run the business at the original stall.
“I’ve always been interested in food and in the trade and the fact that none of my siblings or cousins are interested in doing it, makes me want to continue this even more,” she said.
Toney and Karen Ong, the husband-and-wife hawker team that manages Khoon’s Katong Laksa and Seafood Soup at Sembawang Hills food centre in Singapore. Joanna Tan for The National
But some hawkers do not want their children to follow in their footsteps.
“I don’t encourage my children to take over my business. Running your own business is very hard,” said Wendy Tan, 58, who has been selling poh piah (fresh spring rolls) with her husband at Sembawang Hills food centre for 19 years.
A few stalls away, Toney and Karen Ong, who sell laksa and seafood soup, feel the same: “Our kids are both university grads. They won’t want to take over. We work such long hours.”
Reviving the industry
Acting on the hawker committee’s recommendations, the government has set aside some S$90m (Dh238.7m) to help existing stall holders through grants and reimbursement, and will launch initiatives to lower the barriers to entry for aspiring entrants.
Ms Li thinks one way the government can help hawkers like herself would be to lower its expectations that vendors need to sell cheap food. Prices for some dishes are predetermined by authorities in some new hawker centres.
“The open market already forces hawkers to price their food competitively. There’s no need to interfere to appease the public by putting the stress on hawkers.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge of attracting young hawkers is that most Singaporeans still can’t shake off their stereotype about hawkers.
“It’s a little late in changing the mindset of how people see a hawker as a career,” Ms Li said, as if resigned. “Most still see it as a job for people who aren’t able to find alternatives.”
“Even those who respect and understand the work that we do often won’t ever want to do it themselves.”
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