29 April 2021

Hawker Culture: From Illegal Street Vendors to UNESCO’s Heritage List

Hawker centres are the pride and joy of the nation. But how did they come to be? And what exactly is hawker culture?

by Joel Conceicao A long-suffering Arsenal fan who will most likely reincarnate as a Himalayan goat.

Thronging crowds, sizzling dishes, and yes, the sight of tissue packets placed neatly on the edges of tables – hawker centres are deeply ingrained in the culinary DNA of Singapore. These open-air community dining halls, a second home for many, are where Singaporeans from all walks of life fill their bellies.

They are where the elderly read their papers and sip on piping hot kopi (coffee) in the mornings. At popular lunch spots in the Central Business District (CBD), white-collared workers wait in line for half of their one-hour lunch break to savour their favourite dishes, a welcome diversion from the monotony of the corporate routine.

Hawker culture has even made it to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – a tribute to the toiling, backbreaking efforts of the hawkers who made this inclusion possible in the first place. 

But where did this respect for hawker food and its culture begin?

In the 1800s, immigrants from China, India, and Indonesia saw street hawking as a viable income source. Plus, it was a way to share the comfort food they grew up around with others. Hawkers in those days would “carry” their kitchens around with them, with ingredients and utensils balanced on a bamboo pole. Some vendors even milked their cows or goats on the spot for fresh milk.

“The old hawkers (street vendors) never sold food for the whole day. They only earned a couple of dollars to survive. Nowadays, hawkers are real entrepreneurs. Last time, all you had to think about was selling food. Produce at the market was only a few cents. And everything was so cheap back then.”

–        Richard Ng, 65, Hawker at China Street Fritters 

While this food scene was thriving and incredibly vibrant, it was mostly illegal. Garbage was left strewn on the streets. Water and ice could be easily contaminated. These issues led to the government building the first hawker centres in Singapore after independence in 1965.

One such hawker centre was Maxwell Food Centre, a market that opened in 1928 and converted into a food centre in 1987, housing relocated hawkers previously from China Square.

China Street Fritters, a stall famous for its ngoh hiang (fritters), has been around for about 60 years. Richard Ng Kok Eng, 65, who runs the stall with his brother and sister-in-law, recalls the rapid changes witnessed within Maxwell Food Centre itself, from when it was a market to when it became a hawker centre.

“When Maxwell Market changed into a hawker centre, the flooring wasn’t so good – it was cement, there were tiny drains, with only a few washing bays in front of the stall.”

“Hawkers also had their own tables and chairs. But that system caused a lot of tension. For example, when customers were sitting at one table eating food from two different stalls, and one stall had to keep their tables and chairs, this caused a few quarrels and unhappiness between hawkers.”

“Now everything is neat and clean. When my mother passed away eight years ago, she never dreamed of having a stall like this at Maxwell, from the days she was a street vendor. Last time, we couldn’t rent a shop space or a built-up place because it was more expensive. So, she felt a real difference between being a street vendor and a hawker with a proper stall. There has been a tremendous change.”

Today, Richard and his family want to sell the business and retire in 2022. The decision came after suffering what many ageing hawkers face – physical ailments accumulated over the years because of the heavy toll of being a hawker.

“These days, a lot of hawkers are giving up. Why? Because of health reasons. We call it hawker sickness. Our legs or arms have problems, mostly from standing too long or from the limb motion of cooking. You can even see the veins in my brother’s legs swelling up.”

Currently, the family is looking to sell their fritter recipe for SGD 1 million.

Another heritage stall that many Singaporeans would be familiar with is Jian Bo Shui Kueh at Tiong Bahru Market & Food Centre, known for its chwee kueh (steamed rice cake). The business began when Mr. Wang, an immigrant from China, walked around the original Tiong Bahru Market with a pushcart vending his food. The old market was formerly known as Seng Poh Road Market, which opened in 1951, constructed with wood and zinc roofs.

Everything from umbrellas to joss sticks could be found there, with stalls arranged according to the goods they sold. In 2004, Seng Poh Road Market was shut down for a complete rebuild, culminating in the current two-storey complex, with a market and a hawker centre preserving the kampong spirit of old.

But unless the younger generation takes over, this heritage could soon disappear. 

Winnie, 62, a hawker who has worked at Jian Bo Shui Kueh for 22 years, is sceptical about young people wanting to become hawkers due to the hard work and long hours involved. However, she still holds onto the hope that that may change for the sake of upholding local culinary traditions.

“I don’t think the younger generation wants to carry on the hawker tradition as it is hard work and very tiring – you get oily and dirty every day. The only way is to be a lao ban (big boss) yourself by hiring someone to do it for you. Even then, it takes a lot of grit to oversee the business for generations.”

“I am hopeful for change as the government provides many subsidies to encourage young people to strike it on their own as hawkers. If the next generation does not want to learn the hawker trade, and the old people stop working or retire, it will be difficult to uphold the traditions of our food, so I think it is important.”

“Nowadays, young people want air-conditioning. Standing in front of the stall here will make you sweat and feel sticky because of the humidity. My children only help me when I need them, but I do not know if they want to take over because they are educated.”

–        Ianon, 58, Hawker at Stalls 7 & 8

One hawker centre bound by law to maintain its historical significance is Lau Pa Sat, gazetted under the Preservation of Monuments Act in 1973.

Formerly known as Telok Ayer Market, and originally a timber-and-attap structure, the market opened in 1823 before being reconstructed in 1890 to become the high-ceilinged, octagonal building it is today, complete with its Victorian cast-iron elements and iconic clock tower.

A defining feature and one of the contemporary charms of Lau Pa Sat is Satay Street – a smoky, open-air seating area and a closed-off street surrounded by towering skyscrapers from all corners of the CBD, lined with ten stalls serving satay (grilled skewered meat).

Ianon, 58, the owner at Stalls 7 & 8, one of the longest-running stalls at Satay Street, is perfectly fine with how the place has changed through the years.

“At Lau Pa Sat, there are constant upgrades to the facility, yet the heritage of the place is maintained – you cannot knock down certain parts of the centre. And there are many regulations for the building as it is a heritage building. However, Satay Street has remained mostly the same as before.”

If anything, Ianon is grateful for how the hawker trade, while tough, is easier than from the days her dad worked as a street vendor, when he had to cycle from village to village to sell satay, shouting at the top of his lungs to attract attention.

“Whenever people wanted to buy my dad’s satay, they would stop him on his trishaw and buy their fill. But once he sold it to all the customers in an area, he would have to begin cycling again – it was a hard life. He was based at Kampong Melayu, Jalan Masjid, Kampong Kembagan, Lorong Melayu – all the places where there were many Malay people.” 

The production that goes behind her prep work has also now moved on with the times. Home-based operations in the 60s have modernised and switched to the production lines of commercial kitchens. 

“Back in the 60s, all of our satay was made at home by family members. There were hardly any regulations, unlike today where you must have a central kitchen. In the past, customers would ask someone to prepare satay at home, and they would come over and pay them on the spot, per stick. Sometimes, when we didn’t have enough manpower, people from other homes would come over and help.”

One thing is for sure. Despite hawker culture gaining the recognition and international fame it deserves thanks to the UNESCO Heritage List, all that will count for nothing if the next generation does not take up the mantle of preserving the food culture of Singapore.

And that is something we as a nation must take responsibility for.

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