Hawker culture must evolve to ensure survival

Hawker centres must continue to offer a variety of good-tasting food and some surprises, to keep diners going back.
Hawker centres must continue to offer a variety of good-tasting food and some surprises, to keep diners going back.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

In the good old days, hawkers plied their trade from pushcarts, dodging the authorities and attracting customers with distinctive calls. Some moved on to hawker centres, and helped to establish Singapore's distinctive hawker culture in more hygienic and comfortable surroundings.

Judging by the new hawker centres that have opened and the recommendations of the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee, these important hubs in the Singapore landscape, which many go to at least once a week, are going to be even more efficient and streamlined, what with cashless payment, better amenities and other innovations.

Words like "efficient" and "streamlined" strike fear in the hearts of foodies, who want their food done the old-fashioned way and from scratch. Some will even say the dirtier the stall, the more delicious the food.

But if we cling to this fantasy, then we have to be prepared for hawker culture to die in Singapore.

The median age of hawkers here is 59 years, according to the report containing the recommendations. Scores of them have retired and many more continue to do so every year.

Young people make more money blogging or writing listicles about hawker food than they ever will running a hawker stall. Why slave in a cramped and hot hawker stall when you can make pronouncements on the five best Hokkien mee stalls in Singapore on a laptop?

That is why the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee's recommendations make for a sensible road map for preserving Singapore's hawker culture.


Hawker centres must continue to offer a variety of good-tasting food and some surprises, to keep diners going back. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The committee was formed in January last year to look at how to better manage hawker centres and keep the trade sustainable. Four of its recommendations are key.

Providing training opportunities and pathways for hawkers will help to attract more people to the trade. The proposal is for practical courses that will arm potential hawkers with not just culinary skills, but also the tools to run a successful business.

The setting up of a one-stop information and service centre for hawkers is yet another timely recommendation, saving newbies the trouble of running from one department to another to make applications, tender for stalls or look for information.

Another recommendation, for the setting up of more incubation stalls like the ones in Ci Yuan Hawker Centre in Hougang, will give people a taste of what hawker life is like and weed out the ones who are not going to cut it.

A fourth recommendation, which recognises the need to raise the profile of hawkers, is another step in the right direction. If young hawkers doing good work are recognised, they might think the hard slog is worth something and stay on. Others might want to join a trade known for unrelentingly long hours and little reward.

 

Now that the report has been submitted to the Government, the challenge is to look at how the recommendations can be implemented without hawker centres losing their soul and just serving food assembled from ready-made components that come out of central kitchens.

Having activities such as music performances and festive celebrations, which is one of the recommendations, might work to make hawker centres more vibrant - never a bad thing.

But let's face it. Most of us go to hawker centres to eat, and here is where another recommendation must be taken seriously: food curation in hawker centres.

In any hawker centre, there will be stalls which draw attention either because they are old school and authentic, or they offer something new that other hawker centres do not have.

It might be handmade yong tau foo from Xiu Ji Ikan Bilis Yong Tau Foo at Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Costa Rican food from Mamacitas at Amoy Street Food Centre or the ramen, grain bowl and bento box stalls that have popped up in hawker centres.

Hawker centres must continue to offer a variety of good-tasting food and some surprises to pique diners' interest and to keep them going back. Although I find the stalls at Ci Yuan rather generic, I go there for fat-streaked char siew from Fatty Cheong, which has a stall there. The owner, Mr Chan Tuck Cheong, 50, is often behind the chopping board; another reason to go.

Hawkers and diners must get used to the idea of seeing non-traditional food in hawker centres or traditional food made by young people who might be easy to dismiss.

Aspiring hawkers must focus on producing good food and think beyond fish soup and Hokkien mee.

Take the example of Mr Gwern Khoo and Mr Ben Tham, both in their 30s, who developed Singapore-style ramen for A Noodle Story, their stall at Amoy Street Food Centre. It is on the Bib Gourmand list of the Republic's first Michelin Guide.

Even traditional businesses can be given a twist, as the Sai siblings Faye, Anna and Jack did when they took over their father James' coffee and toast business in the same hawker centre. They serve black sesame, key lime creme and matcha coconut toast, and sea salt caramel latte and taro milk coffee or tea, alongside the usual kopi and kaya toast.

Those willing to take on traditional food, such as Mr Kai Koh, 30, and Mr Randall Gan, 26, who set up Roast Paradise at Old Airport Road Food Centre selling char siew and roast pork, must be given time to grow and hone their skills.

They and other new hawkers are already making their presence felt in the trade. All they have to do is continue to turn out good food.

For them to keep doing so, diners must accept that they might have to pay more for some - not all - dishes. Those who continue to make food by hand or use age-old recipes and good ingredients should be able to charge more without diners complaining.

If the Government accepts and implements the committee's recommendations, there might be more potential hawkers coming out of the woodwork.

With any luck, decades from now, people will still be chowing down in hawker centres and without lamenting that "last time", hawker food tasted better.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'Hawker culture must evolve to ensure survival'. Subscribe