LIVING HISTORY

Noise & nostalgia

Customers at the Satay Club, which reopened in Dhoby Ghaut Green in 1952.
Customers at the Satay Club, which reopened in Dhoby Ghaut Green in 1952. ST FILE PHOTO
Patrons enjoying their bowls of fish meat noodles at Tiong Bahru Food Centre in this 2012 photo. Hawker centres are an example of a uniquely Singaporean attraction: the availability of affordable local fare in clean surroundings.
Patrons enjoying their bowls of fish meat noodles at Tiong Bahru Food Centre in this 2012 photo. Hawker centres are an example of a uniquely Singaporean attraction: the availability of affordable local fare in clean surroundings.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
A street hawker peddling his wares at the Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru on Sept 12, 1961.
A street hawker peddling his wares at the Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru on Sept 12, 1961.ST FILE PHOTO

LIFE & TIMES: HAWKERS

Singapore's colonial government saw the hawker as little more than a risk to public health. Unkempt and unorganised, these "peripatetic" men and women obstructed traffic and impeded pedestrian flow. They competed with the Government for land use. Sometimes, they were accused of trying to bribe policemen. The Straits Times reported on page 2 on May 3, 1898, that a hawker was fined $5 or 14 days' in jail for offering 10 cents to a policeman to release him.

The tension between the law enforcer and the hawker continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s and even into the 50s.

The more common problems were with unlicensed hawkers setting up stalls along areas like Boat Quay. The police would demolish these rickety structures and confiscate their supplies and food items. In these battles, the public often took the side of the hawkers, according to the The Straits Times records.

The Government's unannounced raids did not deter them. On July 19, 1946, The Straits Times reported: "Singapore's unlicensed hawkers seem as determined to ply their trade as the authorities are to drive them off the streets.

A Straits Times report on Aug 9, 1970, chronicled the atmosphere at these noisy, egalitarian places that came alive after dark and where millionaires and mechanics sat and ate alongside each other... It spoke of the unique serenity of the Satay Club in Beach Road. "Many who visit it will regret the passing of its intrinsic features: the flickering flame in a container of oil and water, the steady fanning of charcoal brazier and the revving of buses just across the narrow side street."

The transformation of Singapore’s street food culture happened quietly in the mid-1970s, as hawker centres with modern amenities arose. The Government doggedly pursued the hawkers, coaxing them to move in, educating them and holding them to higher standards of hygiene. Newspaper coverage focused mainly on the benefits of this uniquely Singaporean attraction: the availability of affordable local fare in clean surroundings.

"In Merchant and New Market Roads on Wednesday, black-market cigarette and tinned food hawkers were back on the roads half an hour after the police had moved off after a raid - the second in a fortnight.

"Upper Chin Chew Street, raided on Tuesday, presented as busy a sight again yesterday morning when a Straits Times reporter investigated. The same Chinese women vegetable sellers were there, and the gutters were lined with numbers of familiar pork and beef merchants."

The newspaper report noted that meanwhile, 500 vacant pitches in municipal shelters for hawkers remained empty and the pages in the registration book kept at the Labour Office for unlicensed hawkers who wished for new employment remained blank.

Soon after the Japanese Occupation, the British colonial government came up with a policy in 1950 to house the hawkers at centralised locations. Predictably, this was easier said than done.

It was not until the late 1960s, in independent Singapore, that order came.

After an islandwide hawkers' registration, the Government announced on Aug 4, 1970, that all 25,000 hawkers in Singapore were to be cleared off the street under a massive five-year scheme.

The policy, which sparked what can be called "pre-emptive" nostalgia for hawker haunts that were soon to disappear, drove some Straits Times writers to wax lyrical about them.

A Straits Times report on Aug 9, 1970, chronicled the atmosphere at these noisy, egalitarian places that came alive after dark and where millionaires and mechanics sat and ate alongside one another.

Bugis Street, then a top tourist haunt in Singapore, was described as a place of inimitable colour and curiosity value, as famous for beef kway teow as for people who went there not only to eat but also to see and be seen.

"Its habitues, hip-swinging and handbag-twirling, with their occasional escorts, are a piquant contrast with the sober appearance of tables spread with white cloth," said the report.

It spoke of the unique serenity of the Satay Club in Hoi How Street in Beach Road.

"Many who visit it will regret the passing of its intrinsic features: the flickering flame in a container of oil and water, the steady fanning of charcoal brazier and the revving of buses just across the narrow side street."

In Hokkien Street, celebrated for its prawn noodles, hawkers would slit the shrimp and ladle soup into bowls of noodles for their faithful clientele: millionaires, government ministers, cabaret girls, night-shift workers and couples looking for a snack after a date at the cinema or nightclub.

Sometimes, those doing the slitting and the ladling were millionaires themselves, although clad in the unofficial hawker uniform of singlet, shorts and slippers.

Fatty was one such icon.

"In Albert Street, we basked in the good company of 46-year-old Au Chan Seng, better known as Fatty.

"Widely rumoured to be a millionaire from his chilly crab, sweet and sour pork, shark's fin soup, roast chicken and fish head, he is a voluble and entertaining talker. Hear him speak with gay frankness of the family's 47-year-old restaurant and two stalls outside: 'The sooner the government move us into hawker centres, the better - the street is crawling with cats, rats and bugs. I've maintained the stalls only to please my old Pa, he started the business and has great attachment to them.'''

Fatty was a hawker that newspaper reporters were drawn to. He was the only one who could "cook, roast and cut" among his 11 siblings who were teachers, lecturers and chartered accountants.

LIFE & TIMES: HAWKERS continued...


2004

NKF SAGA

An April 19, 2004 article headlined: The NKF: Controversially Ahead Of Its Time? reports the outrage felt by a contractor who was asked to install a gold-plated tap in the bathroom of the office of National Kidney Foundation chief executive T. T. Durai.

Mr Durai sues senior correspondent Susan Long for defamation, but drops the lawsuit after two days of questioning in court in July 2005.

With SPH and MediaCorp bleeding from the competition, they merge their mass market TV and free newspaper operations. English-language Channel i ceases to transmit in 2005, while Channel U merges with MediaCorp's Channel 5 and Channel 8 to make up MediaCorp TV Holdings Private Limited. SPH now holds a 20 per cent stake in the new company.              

2005

LITTLE RED DOT

Two magazines for schools, IN and Little Red Dot, are launched to attract young readers.

 

2006

MY PAPER AND STOMP

My Paper is launched as Singapore's first Chinese freesheet.

The Straits Times steps up efforts to establish a strong digital presence. Stomp (Straits Times Online Mobile Print), an interactive online portal designed for Straits Times readers to share viewpoints and stories, is launched. The site gets 600,000 hits within a week.

2007

STRAITSTIMES.COM

STI is renamed straitstimes.com, and drops the subscription model to offer free breaking news.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Noise & nostalgia'. Print Edition | Subscribe