Social media abuzz with support for elderly hawkers who are not tech-savvy

Madam Loh Giat Tin and her husband Ong Kheng Kiat, who run the 27-year-old Weng Pancake stall at Maxwell Food Centre. ST PHOTO: EUNICE QUEK

SINGAPORE - First affected by the ongoing Maxwell MRT station construction in the area, then by last year's circuit breaker, the phase two (heightened alert) restrictions have further strained the livelihood of hawkers at Maxwell Food Centre.

Madam Loh Giat Tin, 63, who runs the 27-year-old Weng Pancake stall with her husband Ong Kheng Kiat, 66, points out several shuttered stalls at the popular hawker centre.

Some, she says, have chosen to take a break and wait out the pandemic. Others have thrown in the towel.

She adds in Mandarin: "If we didn't have rental waivers, we may not have lasted so long."

When The Straits Times was at the hawker centre last Thursday, people were trickling in to take away food at lunchtime - a far cry from the usual bustling hordes of Central Business District (CBD) workers and tourists.

These days, Madam Loh closes at 1pm, a few hours earlier than before, as she notes that the hawker centre empties out after that. The stall opens daily from 7am.

To minimise leftovers, she makes smaller batches of the stall's signature min jiang kueh.

With the pancakes selling at just 70 cents a piece, Mr Ong feels it is pointless for them to be on delivery platforms. He says in Mandarin: "We can't sell much since our product is cheap. We can only hope that when people come out to take away food, they come by our stall to buy a few pieces too."

Mr Ong and his wife are among the older hawkers who are not on delivery platforms.

Since the ban on dining in kicked in on May 16, social media has been abuzz with support for elderly hawkers, particularly those who are less tech-savvy.

With people working from home, food-and-beverage vendors in the CBD and industrial areas are the hardest-hit.

Recent casualties are famous roast meat joint Foong Kee Coffee Shop in Keong Saik Road and fish soup establishment Swee Kee Eating House in Amoy Street. Foong Kee will close for good on June 15, while Swee Kee's last day of operations is tomorrow.

Social media buzz

Hawker champions such as Mr K.F. Seetoh, founder and chief executive of food guide Makansutra, as well as Mr Melvin Chew, founder of Facebook group Hawkers United - Dabao 2020, have been actively highlighting the plight of hawkers on their platforms.

The Hawkers United page - with more than 295,600 followers - has been inundated with public posts on how best to support hawkers islandwide.

Mr Chew, who runs Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap stall in Chinatown Complex Food Centre, has also been rallying group-buy hosts to help elderly hawkers in the CBD and industrial areas sell their food.

About 60 hawkers have signed up so far, requesting online help from these hosts to organise food purchases and delivery.

Remote video URL

On Instagram, at least three accounts have been set up since May 21 to crowd-source recommendations of hawker stalls and help the elderly folk who run them. These include @Savetheelderlyhawkers, @Wheretodapao and @Wejiaklocal.

The women aged 20 to 29 behind these accounts hope to continue these online initiatives to support the hawkers even when the pandemic situation improves.

@Wheretodapao, run by three sisters aged 24 to 28, has more than 28,000 followers and gets up to eight recommendations a day from netizens.

(From left) Sisters Jasmine, Jocelyn and Jacquelyn Ng use their Instagram account @Wheretodapao to encourage customers to patronise featured stalls with takeaway orders. PHOTO: JOCELYN NG

Youngest sister Jocelyn Ng, a social media executive, says: "Most of these elderly are encouraged by their children to rest, particularly in this pandemic and with the slower business. However, they are passionate about what they do and wish to preserve their stalls.

"They also cook and serve with love. Each time there are leftovers, we hear that the hawkers will give the food to foreign workers and cleaners around the hawker centres for free."

Delivery platforms on board

In the meantime, delivery platforms Grab and foodpanda are working to support hawkers managed by the National Environment Agency by waiving commissions during the heightened alert period.

Enterprise Singapore has also reintroduced the Food Delivery Booster Package till June 15. It covers 5 percentage points of the commission cost charged by food-delivery platforms Deliveroo, foodpanda and GrabFood.

To make it easier for consumers to discover hawkers and small businesses, the GrabFood homepage now features a new "Local Eats" icon, says a Grab spokesman.

More hawker centres have also joined Grab's Hawker Centre 2.0 programme, where consumers can mix and match orders from multiple stalls within the same hawker centre and pay just one delivery fee.

There are close to 400 hawkers from 50 hawker centres on the programme.

The spokesman adds: "Since the heightened alert measures kicked in, we have seen close to a 50 per cent increase in hawker orders on our platform."

For foodpanda, its initiatives include on-boarding fee waivers for new vendors and free delivery for hawker centre orders with a minimum order of $35.

Its spokesman notes an overall increase in orders during this period, especially for hawker food. Local favourites such as chicken rice, prata and mala stir-fry continue to be on its list of most- ordered items.

Meanwhile, hawker food-delivery service WhyQ, which does not usually take commissions, has launched a campaign to help hawkers attract walk-in customers by offering $1 off for self-collection. The $1 discount is subsidised by WhyQ.

Hawkers can also set up their own e-store on its new free mobile app, WhyQ Store Manager. No commissions or service fees are charged for using it.

WhyQ co-founder and chief executive Varun Saraf says: "We have seen an average increase of 50 per cent in sales volume on WhyQ since the restriction on dine-in was announced, as customers may seek more affordable, accessible hawker food, rather than ordering mid- to high-tier restaurant options for their daily meals."

Even as support rallies around them, elderly hawkers such as Mr Teo Chue Sen, 70, are content to remain offline.

Mr Teo Chwee Poh (left) and Mr Teo Chue Sen at their drinks stall Choon Seng Coffee at Amoy Street Food Centre. ST PHOTO: EUNICE QUEK

He has been running drinks stall Choon Seng Coffee with his brother Teo Chwee Poh, 66, for more than 30 years at Amoy Street Food Centre.

The elder Mr Teo remains positive, noting that last year's circuit breaker was worse than the situation now.

He says in Mandarin: "Everyone was completely shut-in last year. Now, people can still come out to take away food and drink. I sold only 50 cups a day last year, at least now I can do about 100.

"We will continue to operate because if I stay at home, I'll be bored. While we can still go out, I might as well continue working."

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