Ignatius Low Managing Editor

Lend a hand to vanishing hawkers

Pioneer food stall owners are intangible components of an area's heritage and identity

One weekday morning recently, I was sitting at the coffee shop near my house when my prawn noodles arrived with a little bit of extra chilli powder and a little bit of sad news.

"Better eat more," said the old lady in Hokkien as she placed the piping hot bowls on the table. "The boss is very old and is going for a big operation soon. He doesn't want to carry on any more. It's sad because you all have eaten at this stall for so long now."

I sighed. This is the second prawn noodle stall to have bitten the dust since I moved into my neighbourhood in Joo Chiat.

The first to go was a stall in a corner coffee shop along busy Changi Road. Aside from prawn noodles, the boss lady served wonderful lor mee. But the coffee shop was soon acquired by a new owner who promptly renovated the place and raised the rents, so she had no choice but to move out.

Today, there is just one prawn mee stall left in the neighbourhood - one that serves a soup-only version with a broth remarkable for its extremely light, home-made flavour. The stall owner is also elderly and looks to be in his 70s, but one of his sons helps out full-time and hopefully, he will eventually take over the business when his dad finally retires.

I take all this very seriously not just because breakfast is the most important meal of the day for me.

Old age and urban development seem to have become the biggest threats to my morning routine in an area legendary for its heritage hawker cuisine.

It has not even been five years since I moved to Joo Chiat. In that short time, my neighbours and I have lost famous bak chor mee and chicken rice stalls in one fell swoop through the sale of another corner coffee shop that is now a bridal studio.

Meanwhile, the char kway teow man near my house looks to have developed Parkinson's disease and his hands shake uncontrollably as he struggles to break the eggs that go into his wok. From wanton mee to economical noodles and roti prata, all the stalls I know and love so well are operated by hawkers who look to be well into their 50s and 60s.

It all makes me wonder what breakfast will be like for me in 10 years' time: Buckwheat waffles in a hipster cafe? Fresh muffins from an artisanal bakery?

Of course, the hawkers in my neighbourhood aren't the very best the country has to offer. They wouldn't feature, for example, among the six stalls just named in the latest group of Singapore Hawker Masters by this newspaper and people may not traverse the island to sample their offerings.

But many of these stall owners have been in the Joo Chiat area for decades because their food is good and their prices are reasonable. And over the years, they have become an important part of the local community.

As the nation prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday next year, there has been a renewed wave of enthusiasm for preserving its heritage. From old buildings to green spaces, the instinct now is to resist change - at least without a public debate - as Singaporeans seek to discover and assert their national and cultural identity.

We have processes and guidelines now to identify heritage buildings and conserve their outward appearances. We even go all out to save street lamps, bus stops and old trees. Should we be paying more attention to the more intangible components of an area's identity, such as its longtime hawkers and retailers?

Each time there is a need to take a long break because of a family member's illness, or there is a need to relocate because a coffee shop is changing hands, a longtime stall owner starts to seriously contemplate whether he or she should call it a day.

For those who do eventually retire, there is often no one to take over.

I've noticed my neighbourhood char kway teow man is trying to impart his skills to the young coffee shop drinks stall assistant. How do we give her the best chance of succeeding?

The answer probably lies in some combination of incentives and schemes that Singapore has expertly dreamed up in virtually every other area of business and the labour market to promote desired behaviour.

Can we give our veteran community hawkers who have been in business for say 10 or 15 years or more in the same area the right to apply for some special class of licence akin to the "pioneer generation" status that we accord our elders in society?

Can they be given special monetary help should they need to suspend operations for a certain period, or given grants or subsidies should they need to relocate or have to endure sudden rent increases?

Should the young entrepreneurs that hope to take over from these "pioneer" hawkers also be given training grants while they are in apprenticeship and may suffer revenue losses trying to perfect the skills they have learnt?

And when they finally get going, can they be given interest-free loans or capital grants to expand the business or to improve on the equipment needed to cook and serve the food?

To be sure, there are moves afoot at the national level to preserve Singapore's hawker heritage. There is a hawker academy where veteran masters impart skills in preparing everything from chicken rice to wanton mee to their younger counterparts. A steady stream of hawker food competitions, books and online reviews also helps to keep awareness of the importance of the hawker craft high.

Yet it is at the hyper-local level - away from the bright lights and often big bucks that surround the most famous hawker names - that help is often needed most. And it is also at the hyper-local level, where a hawker hand-off occurs one-to-one and demand already exists for a well-established product in a specific location, where I suspect help will be the most targeted and effective.

Of course, the devil is always in the details and such a scheme will be difficult to design and resource. It may be better administered at the local community level, by mayors and council officers more familiar with the people and businesses that are most integral to the ground.

But this is one heritage project worth thinking about, long after next year's SG50 festivities end.

ignatius@sph.com.sg