FOR the past 12 years, more than 100 hawker centres around the island have been given facelifts ranging from cosmetic touch-ups to top-to-toe reconstruction.
Now, the $420 million Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme (HUP) by the National Environment Agency (NEA) is drawing to a close as the last three centres undergo a revamp.
Most of the freshly upgraded centres were built in the 1970s to house resettled street hawkers in buildings with proper sanitation and amenities. By the 1990s, they were in poor condition.
Under the programme, the centres' physical infrastructure has been upgraded to improve cleanliness and hygiene. Their facilities have also been improved with more seats for patrons, bigger stalls, wider passageways, better lighting and ventilation, new facades and upgraded toilets.
With more than 700 stalls, the NEA said Chinatown Complex at Block 335 in Smith Street, which was renovated in 2008, was the most extensive upgrading project to date, costing $20.9 million.
The agency's spokesman said the HUP has been "generally well-received and welcomed".
He said: "Stallholders enjoy a more conducive environment for their business and the public enjoy a more pleasant and hygienic environment for their dining."
The Straits Times spoke to hawkers from three recently re-opened centres - Blocks 2 and 3, Changi Village Road, Block 85, Bedok North Street 4 and Block 75, Toa Payoh Lorong 5 - who had mixed feelings.
Ms Mizrea Abu Nazir, 41, who runs the Mizzy Corner Nasi Lemak stall at Changi Village, said the fact that hawker centres fit in with their modern surroundings "bodes well for Singapore's image". She said business has almost doubled since she scored a corner unit during the balloting process in which some stallholders are reassigned units at the newly upgraded centres.
"My customers can now form a queue outside my stall. In the past they had to squeeze with other diners," she added.
Student Paul Tan, 20, who frequents the centre, said it used to be very cramped.
"But now it's more spacious. I'm more motivated to stop and sit down for a meal whenever I go cycling in the area," he said.
When a centre is being upgraded stallholders may choose to operate at other centres at a subsidised rate, take a break or join other hawkers from the same centre to build a temporary market. While the NEA and grassroots organisations will help to find land for this, the costs of building it will be borne by stallholders.
Toa Payoh stallholder Seow Beng Ngoh, who took a seven-month break during her centre's renovation, said most of her customers have returned.
"Customers kept calling us to ask why we were not open," said the 54-year-old who owns the popular Teochew porridge stall Peck Hwan Eating House.
But not everything has been rosy for fellow stall owner Chua Eng Noi, 55, who runs Song Kee Kway Teow Noodle Soup.
She said business has taken a turn for the worse since the hawker centre reopened last December. "It is quieter. Some of my regulars did not return after the renovation, maybe because it took too long and they got used to other places," she said.
Rents elsewhere were too high and she could not afford to set up a temporary stall, she added.
Some hawkers complained that the reshuffled units have led to a change in the centre's dynamics.
Mr Chen Ku Lin, 71, who sells Hokkien mee at Changi Village, said: "We are now at a corner stall. When we are open in the day the stretch is quiet and customers often choose to sit elsewhere and buy food from a busier stretch. Our regulars also get confused and often complain that they cannot find us."
At the Bedok North centre, business has dipped by as much as 40 per cent for some stalls.
Mr Jim Giam, 32, who runs Chai Chee Pork Porridge with his parents, said the fixed outdoor seating arrangement results in hawkers being able to serve fewer customers at a time.
Mr Aw Keng Hui, 41, who helps to run a barbecue chicken stall there, said the centre has "lost its charm".
"We used to be able to set up tables to cater to diners as they ate under the night sky," he said. "But now the table and chairs are fixed to the ground."
The NEA will continue to seek feedback from stallholders and patrons, said its spokesman.
Despite the dip in traffic, Mr Chua Yok Kee, 50, owner of Seng Hiang Bak Chor Mee, is optimistic. "Our regulars are returning and the environment is more conducive for dining," he said. "We trust that business will return to normal."