Singaporeans cheer hawker culture's entry into Unesco's heritage list

The hawker culture inscription is Singapore's first on the list. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Getting Singapore's hawker culture on the Unesco cultural heritage list was a national feat, and was overdue and well-deserved, said Singaporeans The Straits Times spoke to on Thursday (Dec 17), a day after the nomination was accepted by the world body's intergovernmental committee.

Singaporeans spoke of hawker centres' unique atmosphere and food diversity, which many have spent their daily lives enjoying.

"I have spent almost every day in my last 10 years eating at hawker centres," said Ms Kelly Ng, who is in her 50s.

The former IT worker recites off the top of her head the stalls she loves at Ghim Moh food centre - the chicken rice stall in the corner, the fried chicken in the first row - and said all her years of eating at hawker centres have given her an "exquisite palate".

Her claim is not unusual in Singapore, which prides itself on its reputation as a foodie nation.

The hawker culture inscription is Singapore's first on the list.

Mr Jeffrey Chua, a 60-year-old Grab driver, said food at hawker centres tastes better than what is served at other food and beverage outlets.

"Hawkers cook it themselves and prepare the ingredients themselves, unlike (what is) cooked at central kitchens and distributed everywhere," he said.

Ms Kidd Teo, 44, said hawker centres' uniqueness lies in the ambience, with no fine dining restrictions. "You can sweat, order a beer and the people here are easy-going," she said.

During a walk to thank hawkers at Ghim Moh food centre on Thursday, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu emphasised that the cultural milestone has relevance to all Singaporeans, whatever their profession.

She said it gives "a very young country... something to anchor our national identity with".

"(Hawker centres) didn't close throughout the pandemic and provided very essential food, nourishment and also a bit of a social anchoring for Singaporeans," she said.

"I think this inscription is a call for all Singaporeans to step forward, to help us promote, sustain this culture.

"They can do so by recommending good food to one another (and) to their friends abroad. They can also help us keep the place clean after they have used the place because we do want this place to be one we are proud of."

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who delivered short remarks in a pre-recorded video to the international community on Wednesday night after Singapore achieved the recognition, said hawker culture should never be taken for granted.

"Hawker culture is so much more than just about the food. It tells us a bit about the history, the heritage of the food and where it comes from. It's also a gathering point for people from all walks of life," he said.

"I think that is something we should cherish. It's a very beautiful symbol of what we are as a country."

Mr Ronak Robert, 24, agrees. The civil servant said he is confident Singaporeans would still brave the heat and rain for hawker food even as more buildings become air-conditioned.

"More than an external overseas body recognising our hawkers, I hope us Singaporeans can have a renewed sense of appreciation for the craft of our hawkers," he said.

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