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Singapore's National Treasure: Hawkers

By Theodorus Ng

We have a saying in Chinese “民以食为天” which literally translates to how citizens view food as a deity. In Singapore, food is part of the very fiber of our national identity. To be Singaporean is to love food.

Singaporeans can go for hours talking about and bonding over food. Perhaps the most authentic servings of Singaporean cuisine come from the very humble and familiar hawker centers.

Pre-pandemic lunch at Maxwell Food Centre, Ypsilon from Finland, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The open-air complexes we see today which host a multitude of stores offering different cultural cuisines actually find roots way back in the mid-1800s. Early settlers, most of whom had migrated from surrounding regions, had to find a means of livelihood. Given the low overhead and little skill required, many set up street food carts or stalls, especially in populated places such as Chinatown and Orchard Road. The most important capital they possessed was recipes from their hometown that had been passed down for generations. We owe it to them for contributing immensely to Singapore’s multicultural scene. In a move towards tighter regulation of sanitary standards and city replanning, these stalls were resettled into aggregations in the late 1900s to what we have come to know as hawker centers. Today, Singapore has 114 hawker centres and counting.

Street hawker at the doorstep, Singapore 1920s (Courtesy Michael MK Kor)

Much like the American Diner, hawker centers can be considered an egalitarian melting pot. Not only do they house the most culturally diverse menus of any foodplace in Singapore, but they also attract patrons from all walks of life, where regardless of race, religion or class, everyone rubs elbows at the same tables and consume dishes from the same stalls. The ability to partake in a culture outside one’s own heightens a mutual appreciation between ethnicities, a mutual social understanding and, thereby —hopefully — a collective social cohesion. The accessibility of locations and prices also makes hawker fare beloved by everyone. It is no surprise that on December 16 of last year Singapore’s hawker culture was recognized by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

However, hawker centers do face an uncertain future. Many who run stalls belong to Singapore’s graying demographic that only seems to be accelerating with time. While these masters have been honing their culinary skills over the span of lifetimes, it is difficult to teach these skills to willing successor. Instead, large F&B chains have swooped in offering huge sums, even few millions, to purchase original recipes. While these deals enable stall owners to enjoy the restful retirement they deserve, it casts doubts on how well the original quality can be retained. Ultimately, the result is a dilution of heritage and, unfortunately, there is no clear solution in sight. Perhaps more recognition from highly regarded agencies, such as from UNESCO like mentioned above, could heighten valuations of hawker fare as a mere commodity of the commonplace to a prized national asset that needs to be preserved.

Jnzl's Photos, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

To rub salt in the wound, the pandemic has further catalyzed this loss. Due to a lack of patronage, many hawker stalls have been forced to close. However, it is heartening to see Singaporeans band together in support groups to help hawkers in such times. Here are some you could be a part of, too! Perhaps for your next meal, consider supporting our hawkers – either dine-in in pairs as per regulations or dabao (takeaway). Behind every dish lies a story of toil and sweat, of a legacy that survived time and change. And every dish counts towards a longstanding and priceless heritage.

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