Forum: Three predicaments faced by the hawker trade

I feel proud that Singapore's hawker culture has been officially added to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Hawkers hope Unesco nod will give their stalls a boost, Dec 17).

However, the inclusion means that Singapore must commit to protecting and promoting the hawker industry for posterity.

The hawker trade appears to be facing three major predicaments.

First and foremost is the question of survival. Despite various initiatives, hawkers still face an uphill task balancing rental and operating costs, and strict requirements imposed by food centre managers. Young "hawkerpreneurs", already few in number, must surmount high barriers to entry.

Second is the issue of authenticity. An increasing number of experienced hawkers are retiring from the trade without willing successors, causing their craft to disappear. Their replacements tend to offer a pallid imitation of local cuisine, which does a great disservice to the reputation of hawkers.

Third is the question of appeal. Hawker centres are often associated with a less than ideal ambience - cramped kitchens, dimly lit and poorly ventilated seating areas, and unsanitary washrooms - which takes a toll on hawkers and may diminish patrons' enjoyment of the food.

The authorities must come up with solid plans to help existing hawkers stay in the game, and to foster a new generation of hawkers.

Hawkerpreneurs should be aided in their endeavours and be equipped not only with contemporary culinary expertise, but also those cherished traditional recipes that make up our food heritage.

The image of the industry should also be revamped through more extensive renovation of hawker centres, offering clean, spacious cooking areas and pleasing public spaces.

Crucially, the cost of these projects should be absorbed as a necessary nation-building expense, rather than passed on to hawkers as costly rent.

A failure to change runs the risk of losing the soul of authentic hawker cuisine.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

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