Worth Watching in 2021: Hipster hawkers to keep culture alive

Hawker food is inexpensive, a reliable way to fill empty bellies, but hawker culture needs tending to. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

SINGAPORE - Now that Singapore's hawker culture has been added to Unesco's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, expect big things to happen.

The Government is throwing its weight behind preserving this invaluable part of Singapore life. Patronising one, or more, of the 6,000 stalls in 110 hawker centres around the island is a daily ritual for many.

Rare is the Singaporean who does not have strong opinions about the quality and price of hawker food, the cleanliness of hawker centres and the future of hawkering.

Hawker food is inexpensive, a reliable way to fill empty bellies. Sometimes, it can even be exquisite. But hawker culture needs tending to.

The median age of hawkers here is 59. Every year, veteran hawkers call it a day. Their recipes and skills vanish into the sunset too, because few young people want those gruelling 16-hour days in cramped work spaces. Many hawkers slog so that their children will not have to follow their footsteps.

Attracting new blood is crucial for preserving hawker culture, however. Without enterprising young men and women, there is no hope of keeping the culture alive.

Aside from programmes to upgrade and refurbish existing hawker centres, and plans to build new ones, the Government has also come up with schemes to groom new hawkers.

The latest initiative involves pairing veteran hawkers with aspiring ones who will then take over their businesses.

How do these young ones master skills that have taken a lifetime to hone, how do they acquire the kind of muscle memory needed to turn out consistently good food?

The Government has made a commitment and so must we.

We need to give these young hawkers time, to be more forgiving of lapses. We need to buy food from their stalls, to encourage the hawkers when they improve, to give constructive feedback.

The learning curve is steep, we must accept that.

We also need to accept that in time, we will have to pay higher prices for hawker food. Millennials have myriad ways to make a living, why would they choose hard slog and pitiful pay?

Oh, and here's another thing we need to accept: one day, hipsters will rule in hawker centres.

The late American television host Anthony Bourdain predicted this in 2013, and it is happening.

Think of the young guns slinging burgers, tacos, bak chor meeramen hybrids, old school fishballs and yong tau foo, Taiwanese lu rou fan and bento meals. They have added so much diversity to the hawker scene and they draw younger customers.

"These distinct schools of young and rebellious older sons and daughters who do this in the future - that will be the salvation of street food," Bourdain had said then.

I hope one day to see these rebellious hawkers face off against one another, in a yearly fight to name the top five young hawkers in Singapore. Can you tell I just came off a Food Wars binge on Netflix?

These men and women stand between us and a depressing food landscape of fast food restaurants and foodcourts.

We cannot let this happen. Vive la revolution.


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