Locals get a taste of art in social programme at Singapore's 'community dining rooms'

ST VIDEO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Brightly coloured ang ku kueh, mee pok and ice kacang occupy a table at Ci Yuan Hawker Centre on Saturday morning (Dec 29).

The hawker favourites look almost good enough to eat, but the dishes are actually made out of recycled newspaper.

On Saturday, a section of the Hougang hawker centre turned into an art jamming studio, where kids - and a handful of adults - painted doughnuts on canvas and made paper mache sculptures of popular Singaporean meals.

It is part of the National Environment Agency's (NEA) Vibrant Hawker Centres Programme, launched last June to encourage more social interaction in the 114 "community dining rooms" across the island.

Under the three-year programme, grassroots groups, schools and members of the public adopt a hawker centre and organise events to bring residents together.

They are reimbursed by up to $2,000 per event, and up to $10,000 in total a year.

A total of $42,000 has been disbursed to date.

At a visit to Ci Yuan Hawker Centre on Saturday, Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said these funds have been given out to 22 adopters who organised 64 activities - ranging from music performances to games - at 26 hawker centres.

About 40 per cent of these have been held at seven new hawker centres - built from 2011 onwards - including Ci Yuan, she added.

One reasons for the relatively high participation rate is that these hawker centres are "integrated with many compatible amenities like transport nodes and community hubs," she told reporters.

Also, many have spaces dedicated to host such activities.

Dr Khor said the programme offers "three-in-one benefits": organisers can make their art or programmes more accessible as "hawker centres attract people from all walks of life", patrons get to enjoy food and participate in something that might be new, and hawker centres might see higher footfall.

An enthusiastic Lau Heng Mui, 71, was perhaps the oldest participant at the art jamming session.

As the retired cleaner and Hougang resident showed off her ang ku kueh sculpture, she said: "I've never made such a thing before. I always come here to eat but it's nice to do something fun and different too."

Organiser and founder of Art Chamber Fay Tan, 33, said it was her third time running such an event at a hawker centre.

What motivates her, she said, is that people from different age groups and careers can gather at the hawker centre and make art together.

"Many Singaporeans tend to say 'I can't do art' but here they can find out that they can use simple things to make something interesting," she said.

Hawker centres have been in the news of late, with the authorities planning to nominate hawker culture for Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

There have also been complaints about alleged poor management practices and high rentals and auxiliary costs at social enterprise-run hawker centres (SEHCs).

The government has since stepped in to provide a standard "playbook" that such hawker centres need to abide by and give NEA more oversight regarding the ways these hawker centres are run. The new rules will kick in on Jan 1.

Dr Khor acknowledged the problems and said the authorities have taken steps to address them. She added that the SEHCs "achieve many of the objectives we set out to achieve... (we will) continue to refine and improve the model."