Hawker culture in the spotlight in three upcoming books

They aim to shine fresh light on unique food practices dating back to colonial times

One of the 14 rewritten rhymes in an upcoming children's book, Sing A Song Of Hawker Food, which combines well-known nursery rhymes with hawker culture in a collision of worlds that looks set to surprise, amuse and educate.
One of the 14 rewritten rhymes in an upcoming children's book, Sing A Song Of Hawker Food, which combines well-known nursery rhymes with hawker culture in a collision of worlds that looks set to surprise, amuse and educate.PHOTO: NHB

What if Humpty Dumpty had kaya toast for breakfast? Or if itsy bitsy spider tried to steal a sip of Milo dinosaur?

An upcoming children's book, Sing A Song Of Hawker Food, combines well-known nursery rhymes with hawker culture in a collision of worlds that looks set to surprise, amuse and educate.

The illustrated book of 14 rewritten rhymes is one of three upcoming hawker-related projects funded by the National Heritage Board (NHB). This comes after Singapore hawker culture's successful inscription on the Unesco intangible cultural heritage list last December.

The other two books are more serious-minded. Ambrosia For The People: Hawker Centre Food deals with the socio-historical context of this quintessentially Singaporean phenomenon, and Delicious Heirlooms: Stories Of Singapore's Hawker Heritage delves into the family histories of multi-generational stallholders.

Each aims to rejuvenate hawker culture in the eyes of its target audience, shining fresh light on a unique food practice that dates back to the street food peddlers of colonial times.

Said first-time author Janice Khoo who co-wrote Sing A Song Of Hawker Food: "When you ask kids nowadays what they eat in school, they say 'noodles'. But there are so many types of noodles. Mee pok, mee kia, wanton mee, prawn mee. It's important that they know."

Her co-author Lianne Ong, who has written 14 children's picture books, quipped: "We have also included things like hawker etiquette. You need to return your trays now."

There are today more than 110 hawker centres operated by the National Environment Agency, located across the island, selling affordable food. Singapore's bid for hawker culture to be added to the Unesco intangible cultural heritage list was predicated on their being multi-ethnic urban food spaces.

But they are also much more than that, said Dr Lai Chee Kien, adjunct associate professor of architecture at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who authored Ambrosia For The People: Hawker Centre Food.

"They are now so much of a community space that Meet-the-People Sessions are held there during elections. They are also communication centres, where posters and stickers can be found," he said.

"Our hawker centres are constantly changing. After 2011 we had the renovation of all hawker centres and the shift of more hawker centres to become social enterprises. It is now also a cosmopolitan space for newer types of food. You can sell scones there."

Dr Lai has been researching hawker culture for years, last year translating 128 columns by artist Chang Yang, first published in evening Chinese-language daily Lianhe Wanbao in the 1980s, on Singapore's early itinerant hawkers. These were compiled into Early Hawkers In Singapore: 1920s to 1930s.

His new book includes more than 100 entries, each tracing the history of one hawker dish. Every entry also focuses on a stall in a different hawker centre - "to show the network that we have" - and is accompanied by a sketch drawn by comic artist Koh Hong Teng.

"We chose to use sketches (instead of photos) because we wanted to show the insides of their confined stalls. We can skew the perspective to show aspects that a photograph will not be able to capture," Dr Lai said. "Some of them also did not want to be photographed."

This was a similar problem faced by Ms Ow Kim Kit, the author of Delicious Heirlooms: Stories Of Singapore's Hawker Heritage, which is still a tentative title as it is set to be ready only in April 2023.

She said many hawkers she approached to ask about their family histories were reluctant to open up. "In a way they are quite insular. Some were afraid I was trying to scam them of their recipes," she said.

She eventually managed to track down 10 families who have been operating stalls for more than 50 years, during which the baton was passed on, in one case, through four generations.

Ms Ow, a lawyer, said she was more interested in the stories of their families rather than the aspects which were directly related to food. Most of these were migrant families who arrived in Singapore from China, India or elsewhere and who settled here, sometimes getting to learn recipes of hawker fare serendipitously.

"They were really resourceful. Many settled around the Nee Soon area because there was a well there and so they could get water. They also made use of the rain to keep their stalls clean," she said.

"There is perseverance, hard work, but what strikes me is their idea of wanting to ensure that they keep the heritage and the legacies of their forefathers."

NHB grants seek to get the community to assume greater ownership and to play a bigger role in safeguarding Singapore's heritage.

From 2019 to June this year, it has supported 113 projects with its grants, as well as a further 15 related to research aimed at institutions such as think-tanks and universities.

Sing A Song Of Hawker Food should be available in book stores by December. Ambrosia For The People: Hawker Centre Food is targeted for October.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2021, with the headline 'Hawker culture in the spotlight in three upcoming books'. Subscribe