So who wants to be a hawker?

Long hours, hard work, it is no wonder hawkers are vanishing - and it's time foodies face up to this reality

Is preemptive nostalgia a thing?

Because that is what I am feeling right now. There is a char kway teow man in a coffee shop near my home that makes things happen with lard, cockles and Chinese sausage that should not be legal.

He's not young and lately, his stall has been closed more often than it is open. It worries me. He may commit the selfish, vindictive and utterly cruel act of retirement. I might ask for his home address and drop by just in case he's cooking.

My father says that he might be closed because he has a stall somewhere else.

I fear my father might be right: My char kway teow man might be cheating on me. The thought of him serving his noodles to another set of customers -it makes me sick.

I doubt he knows or cares that his cooking has aroused this maelstrom of feelings within me. I am trying to be mature and philosophical about his eventual departure. I tell myself 'tis better to have chewed his noodles and lost, than to have never chewed at all.

People like me - and I think there are a lot of us - might have a slight problem with entitlement.


I feel I am entitled to cheap, delicious food made in a location convenient to me. I want my noodle man to pledge himself to me, forever.

Those feelings might turn into full-blown grief when the first wave of hawkers retire, with no one left to take over their jobs.

The Government has launched schemes, working with the private sector, to forestall The Day Of The Great Un-Hawkering. Food consultants have offered ideas, such as bulk raw ingredient purchases, rent subsidies for new hawkers and allowing hawkers to hire foreign workers.

They are all good ideas and they might work, but I think they will only delay the inevitable.

Generational change is driving the trend and that cannot be fixed with carrot-and-stick social engineering.

I also feel a distinction must be made between the career of being a hawker and its output, the food.

When Singaporeans wax lyrical about certain stalls, they might think a little about the man or woman behind the wok, but the object of their affection is the food.

Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle in Chinatown did not get a Michelin star because its owner Chan Hon Meng worked 17-hour days; he got it serving amazing soya sauce chicken.

I guess when I say I want my noodle man to pledge many years of faithful service, what I really mean is I want any noodle man, as long as he is good. I value him not for who he is, but for the service he provides.

Industries evolve. Take my industry, news delivery. Readers want the news, but they are not going to pay $10 for a copy of the paper just so newsrooms can be museums where people like me bash typewriters and smoke cigarettes.

And let's not romanticise the experience of eating street food either. It was terrible in the 1960s (filth, open drains, rats).

You might sneer at the thought of premixes and vending machines, but doubters said the same thing when hawkers were moved off the streets and into centres.

It's become relatively better in recent times, but let's just say that if you were to take someone to a hawker centre on a first date, chances are, there won't be a second.

If you can have a meal for under $5, the environs are going to be at best functional, or at worst, the kind of place where you would use the toilets only at gunpoint.

To put it into perspective: Street food has been around since the 1800s. The idea of street food that won't make you sick, doesn't block traffic or leave piles of garbage was created only recently, in the 1970s through the Government-driven street vendor resettlement programme.

So when we talk about "preserving the heritage of hawker food", we are actually peeking through a tiny keyhole at the long stretch of history - a history marked by poverty, disease and lack of choice.

If we really cared about street food authenticity, we'd bring back the rats and the typhoid. Otherwise, we are cherrypicking historical moments.

Hawkers do not have an easy life. Just ask their children. Natural forces acting on the labour market, like rain on rock, are wearing away the hawker system, one retiring cook at a time.

Romanticising the eating experience at hawker centres as justification for preserving them the way they are is like how Westerners wept when old Bugis Street was razed. They cared about their own romantic experience, not the suffering that went into creating it.

Of course, there is artisanship in cooking. From the very best hawkers, there are phenomenal levels of artisanship. These stars have been discovered and there are two-hour queues at their stalls.

The majority of hawkers, however, make functional, everyday food. They make acceptable chicken rice for $3, okay mee goreng for $3.50, so-so fried bee hoon for $3. Their food is what you have when you are out for something quick and cheap.

That quick and cheap food has knock-on effects.

If you can get a good meal for $3.50, you are not going to take a sandwich to work or attempt to cook the same food at home because the whole exercise will cost the same, or more, even before adding the time spent.

Those selling raw food - meat, vegetables, bread and peanut butter - lose because they have to compete with rent-subsidised stalls.

You know those countries with governments that control the prices of rice, cooking oil, salt and onions?

We are not that different. Our route is just a little more indirect.

Will cheap food still be around? Of course. Sandwiches you make at home can be as cheap or as expensive as you like. They can be elaborate or plain.

Artisanship might be something you learn to do by yourself at home, rather than buy at a stall for $3.

Let's not confuse the hawker experience with concepts of hygiene, cheapness, deliciousness or convenience - these qualities can exist without hawker centres as we know them today.

Me, I'm a techno-optimist. Have you tried laksa premix packets? They are really good and they are the future.

You might sneer at the thought of premixes and vending machines, but doubters said the same thing when hawkers were moved off the streets and into centres.

There are a few people in my office who hang that popular poster above their desks, the one that says you can ask them to work in three ways: Cheap, fast or good, but you can pick only two at a time.

Why do office workers expect hawkers to give all three, when they can deliver only two?

Hawkers - the good ones - deliver the "fast" and "good". The "cheap" part is delivered by someone else: Their landlord, the Government.

I'm going to take my own advice. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, I tell myself, and by rosebuds, I mean lardy noodles.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'So who wants to be a hawker?'. Print Edition | Subscribe