Don't let hawker fare disappear

The odds are stacked against hawkers - the hours are long, prices of ingredients are high and the public won't pay more

Did you notice how blue the sky was last week when the haze disappeared?

The air seemed fresher, and even the birds sounded chirpier.

It is true - you don't appreciate the little pleasures of life until they are taken away from you.

Then you miss them like the earth and begin to understand what they mean.

What else do we take for granted that might disappear one day?

Here is one that tops my list - good old hawker food as we know it.

If present trends continue, they will disappear in 10 to 15 years.

That is char kway teow, laksa, carrot cake, mee goreng, popiah, Indian rojak and many others.

Mr Douglas Ng (above), 24, of Fishball Story at Golden Mile Food Centre, is one of very few of his generation who decided to become a hawker. One would need passion to go into this line of work now as the economics is all wrong, says the writer. PHOTO: FOOD NETWORK

It is not just the dishes themselves you will miss, but being able to tuck into them at almost all hours of the day and at down-to-earth prices.

This delicious combination of lip-smacking goodness, availability and affordability is the result of a unique set of circumstances never to be repeated.

An earlier generation of Singaporeans, unable to make a living otherwise, mastered the art of cooking street food at low prices.

When they were moved from the streets into government-built hawker centres in the 1960s and 70s, it coincided with a public housing boom which shifted almost an entire population to within walking distance of the nearest char kway teow stall.

It was the perfect recipe for success, and helped make hawker food the uniquely Singaporean experience that has become a part of our lives.

The next time you are at a hawker centre, slurping your favourite kambing soup, take a moment to savour how all the different ingredients came together to make it happen.

The Government built the infrastructure, but the idea grew from people making a living out of necessity and excelling at it, to satisfy the multiracial appetite of a growing Singapore.

A hawker centre experience isn't perfect - often hot and stuffy, uncleared dishes everywhere, and not all the food is worth the visit.

But for what you pay and with the variety available, it is hard to beat.

Now, it is in danger of disappearing like fresh air during the dry season.

With hawkers, though, the loss will be a permanent one unless drastic action is taken.

Singapore's rapid progress and transformation have produced a new generation with many other career choices who will not do the back-breaking work for the sort of wages their forefathers sweated for.

Who will take over and continue to fry Hokkien mee like his life depended on it?

I put this question to Mr Douglas Ng as I dug into his mee pok at his stall called Fishball Story at Golden Mile Food Centre.

At 24, he represents a new generation of hawkers who have new ideas about how to make this old profession work.

But they are up against frightening odds.

Everything is stacked against them, he says. The hours are long (he wakes up at 4am to prepare the food), prices of food ingredients have gone up, hawker assistants are almost impossible to find and are expensive to hire, and the public refuse to pay more, so accustomed are they to low prices.

When Mr Ng raised his price from $3 to $3.50, business dropped by 40 per cent.

It has slowly recovered as Fishball Story became more widely known, partly a result of his social media skills (check it out on Facebook) and the freshness of his homemade fishballs.

So, what made him work at a hawker centre rather than in an air-conditioned office?

He grew up loving the fishballs his grandmother made, and his father used to take the family out to hunt for the best hawker food.

These early experiences made a deep impression on him.

He says he wants to do something to keep the tradition alive, and he gets a big kick when customers tell him how good his dishes are.

You need passion to be doing this because the economics is all wrong.

I asked another friend in his 40s, who runs a fish soup stall, how it all added up for him.

His account:

Monthly takings: $12,000

Cost of ingredients (fish, rice, vegetables, etc): $6,000

Rent: $3,000

That leaves $3,000 for his monthly income, assuming he does everything himself. If he hires an assistant, he is left with around $1,500 - half of what a taxi driver might make.

This is what he says: "That's it, for all the work - morning market run, preparations, cooking, serving, washing, all in a hot environment, 12-hour days - my stall closes every other Saturday, so that is only two rest days a month. And when costs go up seasonally, bad fish haul, vegetable prices up due to bad weather... the price of hawker food is the only one expected to stay constant. People will complain if it goes up 50 cents."

Mr Ng told me that since he started, he has not paid himself more than $1,000 a month.

No business operating with these numbers can hope to survive for long in Singapore.

The reason large numbers of the older generation of hawkers are able to carry on is that they enjoy heavily subsidised rentals from the Government, and so can charge $3, even $2.50, for a bowl of noodles.

But they are getting on, and many will retire soon.

Very few of their children are likely to want to take over, which leaves people like Mr Ng and my fish soup friend, but they will need more than passion to pay those market rentals.

Should the Government do more to support and save this dying business?

Can they be offered subsidised rentals, or grants, in the same way other start-ups and SMEs are helped?

If these independent operators cannot make a go of it, hawker food might still survive, but it will be dominated by food businesses dishing out mass-produced mee pok in air-conditioned foodcourts.

Even with financial assistance, people like Mr Ng have to find new ways of working the business that are more in sync with the times, with new ideas that appeal to their generation.

I do not know what a hawker centre might look like in 20 years, or who will be the people running it.

I do know that the answer lies with younger people doing different things as they try to reinvent the business.

Hopefully, a few will find the right business model and pave the way for others.

But they need help now.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Don't let hawker fare disappear'. Subscribe