Walking into a hawker center during lunch hour may seem daunting at first, especially when the place is bustling with chatter and noise coming from people from all walks of life. Majority of the stalls are manned by unclesand auntieswith an average age of 59. The distinct aromas emanating from chicken rice, wanton noodles and prawn noodles fill the air. They certainly make one’s hunger pangs stronger. However, this common scene may soon turn into a distant memory in the near future.
Evolution of Singapore’s hawker culture
Singapore’s hawker culture started a long time ago in the 1800swhen our ancestors sold affordable and accessible food along the streets. At that time, although the hawkers’ stalls were makeshift, the relationships built between patrons and the hawkers were lasting. This is the culture that we speak of. The conversations, laughter, hollers and screams of orders heard at these makeshift stalls. The sense of familiarity and recognition cultivated through the delicious food served. The taste of these dishes were important in pulling people together from different walks of life, and over time, these dishes became delicacies we cannot live without - wanton mee, chicken rice, laksa and many more. (ok)
Fast forward to today, this hawker culture is no longer present in makeshift stalls, but rather in a neater and more hygienic hawker centers and food courts. Despite the physical change, the unwavering parts of this hawker culture are the food and the relationships built between people of different races, religions and backgrounds. That’s what motivated us to submit a nominationfor our hawker culture to be inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (ok)
Presence of challenges and prejudice
However, submitting the nomination is only the first step in preserving and sustaining our hawker culture. Without continuation in practical efforts and support, our hawker culture is at risk of disappearing. There are two reasons.
First, old hawkers may not have anyone to pass on their recipes to, as the idea of working long hours in hot and humid conditions deter many. The second reason is that even if there are aspiring and passionate hawkers, they will still face many tangible and intangible challenges.
For instance, one tangible challenge is overcoming the barrier of costs. Setting up a stall requires many equipments, ingredients and utilities, and all these can cost between $18,000 and $20,000. It does not take into account the cost of rent, and the intangible risk of not having an established customer base in the first few months. They might also lack the knowledge of how to start up and sustain a hawker business.
Facing the tangible barriers of costs and lack of mentoring, it is comforting to know that there are avenues that aspiring hawkers can turn to when it comes to building a hawker business. Run by the National Environment Agency (NEA), the Incubation Stall Programmehelps aspiring hawkers to offset most initial costs of setting up a hawker business. In addition, theHawkers’ Development Programme, a joint effort by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and SkillsFuture Singapore, aims to act as a bridge between experienced and new hawkers. Through this programme, aspiring hawkers are mentored bv veteran hawkers, while also acquiring skills to manage their business and reach out to customers.
Though these two programmes help aspiring hawkers to overcome the barriers of costs and lack of mentoring, these younger hawkers may still face an intangible problem – prejudice. Some people may view them as inexperienced, and therefore have a preconceived notion that the dishes these hawkers serve are not as tasty as those served by the more seasoned hawkers.
More often than not, we may not realize that we are subconsciously avoiding these stalls manned by younger hawkers as we seek out the signs of aging on the hawkers’ faces, which indicate to us how tasty and authentic the food is. This prejudice may be a huge challenge that these younger hawkers face in preserving the hawker culture.
While we savor each drop of Teh Cor Kopi Siew Dai, we might just lament on how our hawker culture could die off together with the older generation of hawkers. But perhaps we should put our money where our mouth is and support younger hawkers by patronizing their stalls regularly. Encouragement can be given through providing constructive feedback so that improvements can be made. While traditional flavors should be preserved, maybe it is time to also welcome new flavors and support younger hawkers so that the hawker culture in Singapore can be kept alive for generations to come.