Hawker heritage: Passing on a legacy

Mentoring another to keep the trade alive

As Singapore awaits the Unesco decision on inscribing hawker culture on the intangible heritage list, Clement Yong speaks to three hawkers who are passing on their love of the trade to others through an apprenticeship scheme. He also asks the three students why they are choosing to enter the trade.

Top and above: Mr Tan Kin Leng (in blue), who runs Min Nan Pork Ribs Prawn Noodle stall at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, is mentoring Mr Lim Min Jie, who wants to start his own braised food stall. ST PHOTOS: GAVIN FOO
Mr Tan Kin Leng (in blue), who runs Min Nan Pork Ribs Prawn Noodle stall at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, is mentoring Mr Lim Min Jie, who wants to start his own braised food stall. ST PHOTOS: GAVIN FOO
Top and above: Mr Tan Kin Leng (in blue), who runs Min Nan Pork Ribs Prawn Noodle stall at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, is mentoring Mr Lim Min Jie, who wants to start his own braised food stall. ST PHOTOS: GAVIN FOO
Mr Tan Kin Leng (in blue), who runs Min Nan Pork Ribs Prawn Noodle stall at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, is mentoring Mr Lim Min Jie, who wants to start his own braised food stall. ST PHOTOS: GAVIN FOO

The hawker who runs the Min Nan Pork Ribs Prawn Noodle stall at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, Mr Tan Kin Leng, used to be ashamed of the trade.

As a child, he had to help his father and grandfather at the now 50-year-old stall, while his classmates and their families feasted on the food he served.

Today, he is actively helping to keep the trade alive, mentoring Mr Lim Min Jie, 34, who wishes to start his own braised food stall.

Mr Tan, 51, said: "When I was young, I didn't like to come down (to the stall), but my perspective changed as I grew up. It is a respectable way to earn a livelihood and it would be a waste to discontinue the efforts of my father and grandfather.

"With artificial intelligence, a lot of jobs may disappear. But eating is important for everyone, so I think it will be quite a stable job."

His grandfather used to sell prawn noodles out of a pushcart. There was no food centre in Tiong Bahru then, he said, and hawkers would gather under makeshift tents to sell their food in the morning.

In the afternoon, they would walk from alley to alley to look for those who wanted lunch. At night, they went to the cinema nearby to cajole moviegoers into splurging the last of their money on supper.

Mr Tan said he did not know if his two children, aged 15 and 16, would want to take over when he retires. They help out during the school holidays or when he is short of staff, "but definitely not during the school term".

He estimates that only about 10 per cent to 20 per cent of hawkers' children end up following in their parents' footsteps. But among them is his trainee, Mr Lim, whose mother was also a hawker.

Mr Lim, who is married with no children, entered the hawker trade via a circuitous route. His mother died 15 years ago, and he did not learn the tricks of the trade directly from her.

He was working in retail at a sporting goods company when he was hit by a round of Covid-19 retrenchments in April, leading him to sell braised food from his home to make up for the loss of income.

"Because my mum used to be a hawker, lor mee has always been in my life. Whatever my mum didn't sell, I would eat," he said.

"I'm now trying to put together her recipe. If she were still around, I would have become a hawker a lot sooner."

As he and Mr Tan will end up selling different dishes, his hawker education is more focused on the business and stall management aspects.

But Mr Lim said Mr Tan has also been able to offer some tweaks to his braised food recipe and pass on the contacts of suppliers.

His future stall will make a lot more use of social media, he said of the biggest difference with Mr Tan's business.

For now, he hopes Singapore's bid to have hawker culture inscribed on the Unesco intangible heritage list will be successful.

"People can travel only via the Internet right now, so being on the Unesco list will be another selling point that will show up on search engines when people try to find out more about Singapore," he said.

"They will start to notice that there is something interesting going on here."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2020, with the headline Mentoring another to keep the trade alive. Subscribe