Hawker heritage

Singapore's hawker culture on Unesco list: Young hawkers ready to make waves

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.

Football coach Abdul Faris (right) is an apprentice at Ashes Burnnit, opened by Mr Lee Syafiq. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
Football coach Abdul Faris (right) is an apprentice at Ashes Burnnit, opened by Mr Lee Syafiq. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Western food chains Astons and Collin's began in hawker centres or coffee shops, and Mr Lee Syafiq hopes his burger outlets will be the next hawker brand to make it big.

He opened the first Ashes Burnnit stall at Golden Mile Food Centre last year, and two more since then, with each outlet selling about 500 burgers a day.

While not a household name yet, like Malaysia's Ramly burger, Ashes Burnnit is fast acquiring a loyal customer base for both its affordability and its crusty patties.

"Burger chains were not common in hawker centres when I started, and they became a trend only later," said Mr Lee, 28.

"In the next five years, hawker centres will not be what you see today. Food will be more international and storefronts will be more unique. Right now, you can't really tell the difference between the stores."

At the outlet in Alexandra Village Food Centre, Ashes Burnnit stands out for its neon-lit storefront, which is regularly tagged on social media platforms like Instagram.

Charcoal buns are the default choice for the burgers, which Mr Lee said initially faced some resistance from customers, especially those from the older generation.

"As I see it, it's also about consumer education. After serving charcoal buns for a year, 90 per cent now want charcoal buns.

"You can see the shift in consumers' appreciation."

Mr Lee is among a generation of younger hawkers who are looking to make waves in Singapore's hawker culture, almost forcing it to evolve with the times.

He fiercely believes that there is much scope for older and younger hawkers to learn from each other. They have asked him for help with using apps, while he learns from their stall management experience.

And Mr Lee is already mentoring others who are newer to the hawker trade.

Football coach Abdul Faris, 30, is apprenticing at Ashes Burnnit for two months. He hopes to go on to open his own Western food hawker stall.

Mr Abdul's mother used to be a hawker selling Malay food, and her passion for it rubbed off on him. He labels himself a foodie, and said he wants hawker centres to be more experiential to attract young people.

"People will then hawker centre-hop, like how they now cafe-hop," he said.

"It is important to keep these centres alive as they bring together all kinds of cuisine and people of all ethnicities under one roof. With more young people joining the trade, hopefully others will see this as a possible path for them."

Mr Lee said he hopes to see the profession of hawker up in neon lights one day, having the same prestige value as a director or an accountant.

He added: "People will also have to start paying for what they get in terms of food quality.

"Consumers have a part to play in grooming the future generation of young hawkers."

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