Experts hope Unesco bid will increase support for hawkers

Patrons at Old Airport Road Food Centre. One of the key challenges, say experts, is to attract younger hawkers who will stay on in the business. They hope the Unesco nomination will spur the authorities here to pour more resources into making the tra
Patrons at Old Airport Road Food Centre. One of the key challenges, say experts, is to attract younger hawkers who will stay on in the business. They hope the Unesco nomination will spur the authorities here to pour more resources into making the trade sustainable.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Current initiatives may need to be relooked, say two champions of hawker culture here

Singapore's unique hawker culture would be a worthy inclusion on Unesco's heritage list, but experts question if current efforts to revitalise it are enough, and hope the nomination will spur the authorities here to pour more resources into making the trade sustainable.

One of the key challenges, they said, is to attract younger hawkers who will stay on in the business.

At the National Day Rally on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore would nominate hawker culture as its first inscription in Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The list aims to demonstrate the diversity of world heritage and ensure its protection. With about 110 hawker centres boasting more than 6,000 hawker stalls across the island, Singapore has put what began as humble street food firmly on the world map.

However, current initiatives to boost the trade may need to be relooked and refined, said two champions of hawker food culture.

New hawkers are still few and far between, so there is a challenge to ensure continuity of the hawker trade, said hawker food guide Makansutra's founder K.F. Seetoh.

A HAWKER'S HOPE

In the very beginning, a lot of young folk thought of hawkers as low class, but there have been some good efforts done by the Government to raise the profile of hawkers, and I hope that this change will continue with the nomination.

COOKED FOOD HAWKER LOW HOCK KEE, 50, who is also the president of the Boon Lay Hawker Association.

In March last year, the Government set aside $90 million to implement recommendations made by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee to boost the industry, which included, among other things, instituting bulk buying to help reduce the cost of materials, and reconceptualising hawker centres as social spaces to draw more customers.

Food blogger Leslie Tay, who was on the committee, said many hawkers still face challenges such as high rental and maintenance costs. In particular, young hawkers - who often choose to set up shop at newer hawker centres as there is less competition from established hawkers - are feeling the pinch, and some have left the trade in recent years.

"A Unesco nomination is good, but we have a much bigger problem at hand, how are we going to maintain a hawker culture in the future?" said Dr Tay, a medical doctor whose blog ieatishootipost is popular with netizens.

Mr Seetoh said while the recommendations are good, implementation has been patchy and new hawkers are often left "groping in the dark" about the new operations.

Some hawkers, however, are hopeful that the nomination will help to boost the trade in the eyes of potential new entrants .

 

"In the very beginning, a lot of young folk thought of hawkers as low class, but there have been some good efforts done by the Government to raise the profile of hawkers, and I hope that this change will continue with the nomination," said cooked food hawker Low Hock Kee, 50, who is also the president of the Boon Lay Hawker Association.

But it will take more to persuade Mr Jonathan Chua, 30, that a Unesco inscription will help him. Most people his age are put off by the long hours and physical demands of the trade, said Mr Chua, who runs a nasi lemak stall in Whampoa Food Centre with his mother.

Add to that challenges such as rising costs of materials and high rents, and being a hawker is far from easy, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2018, with the headline 'Experts hope Unesco bid will increase support for hawkers'. Print Edition | Subscribe