Read about the Chinese bagel and other lost food in new book on early hawkers in Singapore

Lai Chee Kien translated an entire series of 128 panels that has been turned into a book, Early Hawkers in Singapore. PHOTO: FOCUS PUBLISHING AND NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

SINGAPORE - Readers of the evening Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao in the 1980s may remember a regular column on Singapore's early itinerant hawkers featuring an illustration accompanied by a short piece of text by artist Chang Yang.

The entire series of 128 panels that ran from Oct 31, 1987 to May 16, 1988 has now been translated into English and turned into a book, 1920s-1930s Early Hawkers In Singapore.

Published by Focus Publishing and the National Heritage Board (NHB), it was translated by Mr Lai Chee Kien, an architectural and urban historian.

Mr Lai, 55, who remembers reading Chang's series in Lianhe Wanbao, came up with the idea for the book and took it to the publishers two years ago.

For him, the panels tell the story not just of Singapore's hawkers, but also the country's development. The 1980s were when illegal hawkers were removed from the streets and Chang's detailed drawings capture a slice of life that has disappeared.

He said: "Many of the hawkers were drawn with bare feet, which shows how poor they were. It must have been tough walking around the whole day without shoes."

He added: "There was also a lot of lost food. The a-ha moment for me was realising that the name soon kueh was because the snack was made with bamboo shoot in the past. But now, it's substituted with turnip."

Soon is Teochew for bamboo shoot.

He said the toughest part of the translation was figuring out some of the things Chang was talking about because they do not exist anymore.

An example is the Chinese bagel, which was used to sandwich a piece of braised meat like a hamburger - except it has a hole in the middle.

It can be traced back to soldiers in the Ming Dynasty who would string up a few buns with twine and hang them round their waist.

Lai Chee Kien came up with the idea for the book and took it to the publishers two years ago. PHOTO: CHEO CHAI HIANG

He also wrote two essays for the book. The first is an introduction to Chang, who died in 1991 aged 72, with an analysis of his hawker drawings.

The second, on the history of hawker centres in Singapore, is co-written with Mr Lee Zhi Jie, his former student who worked on a dissertation on hawker centres at the National University of Singapore.

Mr Lai's research for the second essay also unearthed other interesting facts.

For example, the first mention of a "shelter for hawkers" was made in 1908 in a proposal following a Singapore Sanitation Commission report. The oldest hawker centre still in its original location is the one in Balestier Road, which opened in 1929.

The book is timely because last year, Singapore nominated its hawker culture to be inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's (Unesco) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The result of the nomination will be announced at Unesco's annual Intergovernmental Committee session next month.

Lai Chee Kien said the toughest part of the translation was figuring out some of the things Chang was talking about because they do not exist anymore. PHOTO: FOCUS PUBLISHING AND NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive (policy & community), said: "The book is part of ongoing efforts to document Singapore's hawker culture, and to commemorate the nomination of hawker culture for Unesco listing.

"We decided to publish the book in order to make the early history of our hawker culture more accessible to the public, and more appealing to a new generation of readers. The book is targeted at both locals and tourists who have tasted and fallen in love with our hawker fare."

His sentiments are echoed by Ms Maureen Ho, general manager of Focus Publishing, a contract publishing arm of Singapore Press Holdings.

She said: "The book will contribute towards efforts to document and celebrate hawker culture in Singapore.

"We hope the book can also reach out to the non-Mandarin-speaking community on the rich cultural heritage of Lianhe Wanbao."

- 1920s-1930s Early Hawkers In Singapore is available on this website for $30 (including GST). It is also on sale at Books Kinokuniya, Times Bookstores, Popular, BooksActually and Littered With Books.

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