Singapore's favourite hawkers explain their beloved dishes in documentary Old Friends

Chye Kee Chwee Kueh, which was featured in documentary Old Friends, has shuttered its business.
Chye Kee Chwee Kueh, which was featured in documentary Old Friends, has shuttered its business.PHOTO: CHUAN PICTURES

The Michelin Guide is done and dusted, but for a foodie list with a heartland vibe, you could consider turning to Old Friends.

The documentary comprises 49 bite-sized nuggets chronicling the relationship between Singaporeans and their favourite hawker haunts.

The recommendations featured span the gamut from muah chee to sup tulang to Indian rojak - with voiceovers in English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew and Malay lovingly detailing what makes each dish special by long-time customers and sometimes from the stallholders themselves.

The DVD of the film was launched at visual arts centre Objectifs on Tuesday night.

Old Friends is directed by Royston Tan, 40, Debe Hoo, 42, Alvin Lee, 25, and Boi Kwong, 38. Award-winning film-maker Tan had previously co-directed Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012), about disappearing spaces in Singapore.

Old Friends, the third title in the series, premiered in May 2015 at the National Library Building as part of the Singapore Memory Project's Rewind/Remind film festival.

It took rounds of brainstorming before they decided on the final list and Tan says: "The top criterion is that the food cannot be from a central kitchen."

The documentary is very much a tribute to the hard work that goes into making a delicious piece of kueh or a delectable curry, but it was sometimes challenging trying to record that process.

Hoo says: "Their business is non-stop, so how are you going to film them despite the fact they are actually going on with what they are doing."

There were also the constraints of shooting within the confines of a hawker stall.

Kwong says: "The space is very small and there's no aircon. But then again, the process of being in that environment, with the heat and the cooking, (helped) us get into their world."

Some hawkers did not want to be featured as they saw it as a bother. In the case of a dessert seller, Lee had to approach her three times before she finally relented.

A key issue that emerged from the vignettes was the lack of successors for many of the hawkers. In fact, some stalls - including a chwee kueh seller who made his fare from scratch using rice - have since shuttered their business.

Hence Kwong says: "It's very important for this project to be there to document something that is very important to our heritage."

As for a more practical benefit, he quips: "I get a lot of discounts at a lot of stalls (and) I can straightaway cut queue."

Watching the film again two years later, Tan says: "It affirms to me the magic of film-making. It immortalises moments, people and history. Through this project, we have established bonds which will last for a very long time."

• The DVD of Old Friends is available at retailers such as Objectifs and BooksActually at $23.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's favourite hawkers on a DVD'. Print Edition | Subscribe