Pandemic Power List: Food

Hawker champion Melvin Chew helps fellow hawkers stay afloat

Mr Melvin Chew, a second-generation hawker of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN


Owner of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap at Chinatown Complex Food Centre

The straight-talking, occasionally foul-mouthed, sweat-towel-wearing Melvin Chew became the voice for hawkers during the pandemic.

In April, the second-generation hawker founded the Facebook group Hawkers United - Dabao 2020 as a platform to support hawkers in the circuit breaker. Shortly after, he rallied together another group - Delivery United - to link hawkers and customers with food delivery drivers.

To date, Hawkers United has enlisted more than 282,000 members, and Delivery United, over 8,000 members.

Two other Facebook groups, Sweets United, for those selling desserts, and Pasar United - Dabao 2020, for selling groceries, are now run by other administrators after an internal conflict in October over the ownership of Hawkers United.

Two weeks ago, Mr Chew started Home Base Business United to support the surge in those selling food from home.

He is now the poster boy for Singapore hawkers in local and international media. He was a member of the Workgroup on Sustaining the Hawker Trade by the National Environment Agency, and has also been actively involved with various government agencies, bringing up problems hawkers face with digitalisation.

One of the issues he has raised is the lack of understanding of what new technology means for hawker businesses.

In June, it was announced that hawkers who sign up for the unified Singapore Quick Response Code under the Hawkers Go Digital initiative are eligible for a bonus of $300 a month over any five months next year if they have at least 20 cashless transactions a month.

Mr Chew has likened these incentives to "giving candy to children".

"It may help with promoting cashless payment, but, realistically, a move like this does not necessarily help us earn more money," he adds.

Instead, he has proposed digital banking platforms that offer longer-term rebates to hawkers who use them.

At his family's 37-year-old stall in Chinatown, which he runs with his 63-year-old mother and two siblings, he has rolled out different means of payment - GrabPay, Alipay and FavePay - to walk the digital talk himself. He is also active on various delivery platforms, such as WhyQ, GrabFood, foodpanda and Deliveroo.

Mr Melvin Chew is also the founder of Hawkers United Dabao 2020. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

He says offering islandwide delivery on Oddle has helped shore up his bottom line. Response has also been good for his weekend whole-duck delivery promotion to different parts of Singapore.

On Facebook, he offers a one-stop solution to those looking to buy food from different stalls in Chinatown Complex Food Centre. This initiative is mainly to help the drink and dessert stalls, as "no one is going to pay delivery fees to dabao one drink", he says.

Call him a futuristic hawker consultant or mentor, as some have, and he demurs with a chuckle: "No lah, I'm just kaypoh (a busybody).

"If you want the truth, you come to me. If you want everything to sound nice, go somewhere else. If I have issues, I will bring it up."

Much controversy swirls about him in the hawker community. Some see him as an opportunist, others as a brash loudmouth. But he is quick to defend his fellow hawkers, especially when netizens attack them on Facebook groups.

"They are just asking for support, so there's no need to condemn them and say that the food is not nice or expensive.

"When the char kway teow hawker cooks 300 plates in seven hours, 10 plates may be a bit 'off' because he's tired. Even a robot will break down after working for too long. Put yourself in his shoes. Can you reach the same standard?"

With the successful inclusion of Singapore's hawker culture in Unesco's intangible cultural heritage list, he hopes the recent spotlight on hawkers will not just be a flash in the pan, but also eventually raise their stature here and overseas.

He looks forward to the day that local hawker fare is sold and celebrated overseas. Thailand's tom yam soup, for example, has attained the global recognition that local dishes should strive for, he says.

"In the future, if there's no Singapore food - no char kway teow, bak chor mee or handmade fishballs - we're dead. Our hawker heritage will just become history, and we don't want this to happen. Now, when we see someone cooking with charcoal, we go, 'Wow'.

"After all, tourists come here for our food. We have to credit our first-generation hawkers for this. We wouldn't be here without them. We need their experience and they need us to carry on the heritage."

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