Unesco's decision on Singapore's hawker culture out this week

If successful, Singapore's hawker culture will join the more than 463 items already on the list. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

By this time next week, Singapore will know if its dreams of having hawker culture inscribed on the Unesco intangible heritage list have come true.

The intergovernmental committee in charge of the final verdict is convening from tomorrow to Dec 19, during which the official result of the nomination will be announced.

The historic moment has been hotly anticipated by the country for nearly three years, though for a while what to nominate for the list was unclear.

Unlike the historic inscription of Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2016 as a Unesco World Heritage Site, promoting an intangible heritage involved making a decision about practices, crafts and rituals, which can be challenging in diverse Singapore.

Having an item on the list committed the Government to allocating resources to protect it, and to submitting a report to Unesco every six years to prove that the nomination was not an empty grab at prestige.

In this context, the National Heritage Board (NHB) in 2018 sat down with 140 Singaporeans for extensive discussions in which they deliberated on what to pick. These people - students, academics in universities, tour guides and performers in the arts - talked passionately about what they would like to see Singapore being internationally recognised for.

NHB's director of heritage research and assessment Yeo Kirk Siang said that fundamentally, the debate was about Singapore's identity.

"We had identified getting a nomination as a key recommendation in Singapore's heritage plan. Because of how diverse Singapore's heritage is, the challenge was to find something that spoke to Singaporeans and that was close to our hearts."

"Our work on intangible cultural heritage is about looking beyond our historic buildings. It is about the cultures that define who we are."

An inventory of more than 50 items was created by the NHB together with Singaporeans. Proposals included pilgrimages to Kusu Island and ethnic traditions such as Malay weddings and getai performances. Peranakan food, as well as how people celebrate Hari Raya and Chinese New Year, were also suggested.

What emerged in the end, however, drove to the heart of a foodie nation: Singapore's hawker culture.

Mr Abdul Faris, 30, who is now training to be a hawker, said hawker centres have always been a gathering spot for family and friends. It also brought all kinds of cuisines and ethnicities together. "For hawkers, it brings us all under one roof with one sole purpose - to serve food," he said. "The same goes for people. They come here to eat."

The NHB said that ultimately, hawker culture was "consistently highlighted" by all they spoke to. Even those in the performing arts said this was what the NHB should go with.

With a target and candidate acquired, the NHB went to work.

TAKING CUES FROM OTHER FOOD CULTURES

There have been other food culture candidates successfully nominated to the Unesco intangible heritage list. The "gastronomic meal of the French" was in 2010 inscribed as a "customary social practice for celebrating important moments in the lives of individuals and groups".

In 2016, beer culture in Belgium was said to have a role in Belgian daily life. Beer there is used in cooking and products such as beer-washed cheese.

Traditional Japanese food was in 2013 also chosen for being associated with the "essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources".

While taking reference from these, the NHB observed that unlike other countries' more ethnicity-specific iterations of food culture, Singapore's hawker culture stood out for its multiculturalism.

With half the world living in cities, NHB also wanted to show that city cultures are important in bringing people together too.

The final title of Singapore's submission - Hawker Culture In Singapore: Community Dining And Culinary Practices In A Multicultural Urban Context - bears this out.

Singapore Management University president Lily Kong, who was in the 14-member nomination committee that oversaw the nomination process, said it is precisely because of urban living that hawker culture has thrived here.

"The busyness of everyday urban lives has meant that Singaporeans rely on hawker fare for everyday meals - convenient, affordable and familiar," she said.

She added: "(When) the Government stopped building hawker centres in the late 2000s and for part of the 2010s, it was based on the thinking that young people would prefer to eat in other food and beverage options. Clearly, that has not been borne out."

A FLURRY OF ACTIVITY

The months between August 2018 - when the decision to nominate hawker culture was announced - and the final submission to Unesco in March last year were hectic for the NHB, the National Environment Agency and the Federation of Merchants' Associations, which had by then teamed up to helm the effort.

Apart from wrangling over the wording of the submission and exhortations to make descriptions more colourful and evocative of the sights and smells of hawker centres, they also had to create a 10-minute video and submit 10 photos that best portrayed hawker culture's importance to Singapore.

Hundreds of photos were submitted in a photo competition organised to tap community participation, including more abstract depictions that the NHB decided were artistic but not as clear in conveying the message.

A video team fanned out to find authentic voices of hawkers, which would showcase the hardship - and also their pride - in their line, which often entails 16-hour workdays.

A separate team put up photos of hawker centres at Changi Airport to welcome tourists, although these ultimately went unseen as the coronavirus pandemic stymied global tourism.

Tekka Centre hawker Ganesh Singh, who was featured in the video submitted to Unesco, said he was slightly flustered when he was approached for the filming.

The 54-year-old has been selling teh tarik for more than 30 years and immediately recognised the significance of his participation.

"I was not exactly shy but it was really important," he said, explaining his hesitation.

"My part took two takes to film properly. It's just not something that happens every day and I really enjoyed the process," he said.

Mr Yeo and other representatives also flew to Colombia last year to familiarise themselves with the proceedings of the Unesco intangible cultural heritage meeting.

All these efforts have moved Singapore past the first hurdle, after an evaluation body comprising 12 experts from around the world recommended last month that the intergovernmental committee in charge of the final verdict accept the nomination.

If successful, Singapore's hawker culture will join the more than 463 items already on the list. It will be Singapore's first item on the Unesco intangible heritage list, and a victory bell for the country's hawker sector, which has in recent years been threatened by a lack of interest from young people in continuing the practice.

Long-suffering hawkers are looking forward to the sweet taste of victory.

Madam Tee Chun Moy, 60, who has sold yong tau foo for 36 years, said: "I will feel very proud. I used to have to provide my own tables for people to eat my food and sometimes these would even be stolen. Now, I can hold my head high and know my suffering was worth it."

As for other cultural contenders, this is not the end of the road to Unesco recognition. Those involved in the process said more nominations such as for xinyao, or Chinese folk songs, could be put forward in the future.

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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 Unesco's decision on Singapore's hawker culture out this week. Subscribe