Hawkers hope physical, virtual tours will rejuvenate Chinatown Complex

Poon Sun Hay from Pan Ji Cooked Food making sachima, a sweet snack. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - For many of his 37 years as a hawker in Chinatown Complex, Mr Poon Sun Hay would rise at 5am and head to his Pan Ji cooked food stall to make sachima, a crispy snack covered in sugar syrup.

The 64-year-old is the last seller of hand-made sachima here, with no one to inherit his trade. Except for the older generation, few would have heard of it.

As part of a Hawker Day Out event to be held from Aug 29 to Sept 6, curious foodies can visit his stall, one of several stops in a tour of the complex.

The event consists of four guided tours through Singapore's largest hawker centre, giving visitors the chance to sample traditional dishes and learn about their heritage.

Sachima, for example, was supposedly used by the conquering Manchurian army in the 1600s.

Each tour focuses on a different aspect of hawker culture, with visits to some of the 226 food stalls in the complex and opportunities to interact with the hawkers and try off-menu items such as chee cheong hor fun.

The tours are also available virtually over Zoom, where participants can interact with the hawkers and guide, and sample the dishes through a food platter delivered to their doorstep.

Conducted by local tour agency Tribe, the tours will also explore the history of hawker culture here.

Three of the physical tours will cost $25 per person, while the last, a "Hawker Discover" tour, will cost $10 per person. A maximum of 10 are allowed for each session.

The virtual tours are priced at $25 per person, with a maximum of 20 people allowed in each session.

Tribe's head of partnership and business development, Mr Law Yock Song, who curated the tours, said Tribe is in talks with Indonesian ticketing platforms to see if such livestreamed tours can be expanded to an overseas market as well.

"Covid-19 has made us more innovative. We believe it's a better way to engage our audience," he said.

A customer buying sachima from Mr Poon Sun Hay, owner of Pan Ji Cooked Food. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

For the physical tours at Chinatown Complex, there will be eight sessions each day over the two weekends during the event. For the virtual tours, there will be three sessions each day over the two weekends.

The prices are inclusive of vouchers that can be used at Chinatown Complex up to Sept 30.

There will be promotions such as discounted food, free drinks, goodie bags and a contest where patrons can vote for their favourite hawker.

More details are available at this website.

The Singapore Tourism Board is providing funding and marketing support for the event, which is part of the SingapoRediscovers campaign that aims to boost local tourism in the wake of Covid-19.

It was announced on Aug 17 that Singaporeans would get $320 million in SingapoRediscovers Vouchers to spend as part of this campaign.

The event is organised by the Chinatown Complex Hawkers' Association together with EatShopPlay, a private organisation promoting hawker culture.

EatShopPlay co-founder Nicole Lim said on Saturday (Aug 22) that she and her co-founder learnt that many hawkers have fascinating stories to tell, but Singaporeans often take hawker food for granted.

She said that if Hawker Day Out is successful, EatShopPlay hopes to organise similar events in the future.

"We want to do this so the next generation can still enjoy hawker food," she said.

Mr Law said tour guides who have been affected by the absence of tourists can also benefit from such events.

The Chinatown Complex Hawkers' Association hopes the event will help rejuvenate not just the hawker stalls but the entire complex, which houses around 480 other stalls selling sundries and fresh produce.

The association's secretary, Mr Yao Fang, said that business has been badly hit as some stores depend on tourists for up to 70 per cent of their business.

Hawker Tan Ming Han, 34, helps out at his family's dried cuttlefish and biscuit stall, which saw an 80 per cent fall in business due to the outbreak.

Although business has improved recently, he is concerned for the other stalls in the complex.

"Chinatown Complex has sort of been forgotten by people. I hope through this event we can re-energise it and bring business back to the rest of the complex through a multiplier effect," he said.

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