Recently, a series of films featuring some of our hawkers have been released as part of Tiger Beer’s street food movement which got us thinking.
Can you ever imagine a Singapore without your favourite hawker dish – you can never head down to ABC Brickworks market just to get your power chendol for dessert or have some barbecued chicken wings simply because they aren’t there anymore.
What rubbish, you may think. But this is the exact mindset that will slowly kill our local hawker fare tradition. How so – simply by being complacent and not showing adequate appreciation to these hawker heroes.
We’ve already seen closures of popular hawker stalls like Hai Seng’s Ah-Balling, Lim Seng Lee Duck Rice Eating House, Bukit Purmei Lor Mee, Yue Lai Xiang Chng Tng and many more. These stalls did not close because business was bad, but because of old age and the lack of people who are interested in taking over.
Granted, some stalls have relocated and gotten new vendors but these are the lucky ones and we all know how rare that is. You might argue that you do show appreciation by patronising them, which is very true but only in a face value manner.
Showing true appreciation is to realise the hard work that is put into the dish, it is to not only give credit to them but also thoroughly respect this tradition by understanding the value of it.
Uncle Chen from Teochew Beef Kway Teow at Amoy Street Food Centre wakes up in the wee hours while we all sleep soundly, or are just returning home from a night out. He says, translated from Mandarin, “of course it’s tiring but used to it already”.
He toils from 5am to 7pm everyday and the cycle repeats continuously. How many of us sees that side, almost nil.
I’ve tried to rationalise the situation and here’s why we if we don’t change our mentality, hawker food will be vanishing very soon.
Unwilling to take over
Take the last Muah Chee Man from Toa Payoh for example, the art of making muah chee isn’t going to continue if no one appreciates it enough to learn the ropes from him and continue this tradition. Evidently we are all guilty of indulging in it and passing that off as appreciation without really feeling passionate about our local hawker fare. Truth is, we take it for granted.
Because the idea of hawker stalls are usually associated with hard labour and is definitely not glamorous at all, the younger generation aren’t willing to give up their cushy jobs for it. Why would they want to trade an entirely air conditioned office for a hot, smoky and cramped environment where you have to stand throughout the preparation, cooking and cleaning the entire day.
First generation hawker stalls started from roadside stalls, and were later being pushed into a food centre and that image has never left anyone’s mind. The younger generation continues to entertain that image and they do not want to be linked to it, causing the unwillingness to take over or start up new hawker stalls.
Uncle Cai Jing Shui owns a Char Kway Teow stall in Amoy Street and I asked what are his struggles.
Translated from Mandarin, he replied, “It is super tiring, and there is no one to take over when I’m retired. It can’t be helped, I cannot force anyone to take over, I will just retire.” with exasperation in his tone.
The younger generation is only seeing the negativity of it, we have failed to appreciate the true value of hawker dishes and stalls. Not to be blamed though, imagine if your child aspires to grow up to be a hawker, I wonder how many parents would encourage that instead of taking a nice office job.
Rising Cafe Scene / Narcissistic Culture
All hell broke loose when the cafe scene started taking off. Cafes were sprouting out faster than I could spell out supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. And yes, people were obviously visiting them frequent enough to fuel the whole scene, leaving lesser crowd for the local food fare.
If you think that’s too far-fetched a link, here’s why I’m not presenting hogwash to you. Scroll through your Instagram – how many photos are of fancy schmancy cafe food that are oh-so-pretty and how many are of that glistening plate of char kway teow?
You see, the problem is not just about the cafe scene, it is how the younger generation is obsessed about making themselves look good. The narcissistic culture is evident on Instagram – we portray only the beautiful aesthetics that we curate because social media has now defined our ‘perfect ideal life’.
Instagram is how others, even strangers, see us. So we post only what we want them to see, and we only want the beautiful, spontaneous and carefree things in life that are aesthetically pleasing. Who is going to want others to see a life filled with ban mian and laksa? That ain’t glamorous.
Push all of that aside, there’s still the troubling factor of rising rental and food costs. Sure, the government is helping with giving out grants and the management of hawker centres have been greatly aided by the National Environment Agency. But the fact is that rentals are always on the rise, while ingredient cost is going up.
In order to cope with that, hawkers either give up or increase their prices.
And when they do increase their prices, consumers start to complain because they expect prices to remain the same sans inflation. Here’s where empathy needs to come in, we need to understand that they’re forced to do so in order to continue their jobs.
This is also one thing that I simply cannot wrap my head around, why is it that we can afford to pay sky high prices for certain foods of the Western sort, like instant pasta, but not for a bowl of bak kut teh that requires more effort and tastes simply comforting.
Should we be paying more for bak chor mee than carbonara pasta? I would think so.
Lack of Manpower
Last but not least, is the lack of manpower. Other than just not having people to take over the business, there isn’t enough people wanting to work in the industry as employees. One such example is the bak kut teh stall opened by 27 year old Tan Jun Yuan, who has a first class degree in Management from University of Manchester.
His bak kut teh stall did very well, “You probably didn’t know, but we actually went as far as to put down a deposit for a second outlet at Lau Pa Sat, only to eventually have to rescind due to a lack of manpower.”
Our local hawker fare is truly a defining trait of our nation. Tourists are always commenting on how we are a food paradise and we definitely can’t agree more. We have a whole variety of choices in one hawker centre and there’s always something for someone.
So why are we letting all of these go to waste when it is such an integral part of our national identity?
Though so, it is still rather comforting to know that all is not lost and that there are a pool of younger hawkers that are starting their own business.
Founder of Grandma’s Daily Pot at Maxwell, Julie, together with her partner Yu Quan, recognises the true value of hawker fare and decided to preserve such an important heritage.
Not only them, Roasted Paradise at Old Airport Road Food Centre by Randall Gan and Kai Koh, both of whom decided to give up their desk bound jobs to further pursue a passion that they love more. Now they’re serving up delicious plates of roasted char siew and they’re happy with where they are.
And there are those that are taking over as second generation hawkers simply because they recognise the beauty in it.
One such example is Kent Thong Turtle Soup situated on the second level of Chinatown Food Centre. It was first started by Kent himself and now that he is getting on with age, his daughter together with her husband has decided that they want to continue on preserving this legacy of theirs as it would be a waste to just let it shut down.
They revamped the whole stall, gave it a new look and started looking at ways to get its name out. Turtle soup used to be very accessible in the past but it has declined in recent years because it is getting harder to get turtles. She did not want turtle soup to become a lost tradition.
Essentially, it is as simple as getting to appreciate the hard work a hawker puts in, the value of that is immeasurable and compared to the price that we are paying for it, that’s nothing. We should not let this age old tradition go to waste; we should not let our local food fare disappear slowly.
Recently, Singapore’s iconic local beer, Tiger Beer, wants to shine the spotlight on our hawker heroes and celebrate our pride, and is currently championing a street food movement to increase awareness of the efforts these hawkers put into creating their prized dishes such as our beloved Hokkien Mee and Char Kway Teow, instilling a sense of gratitude and appreciation towards our street food.
Taking it one step further, Tiger Beer will set aside 20 cents for every purchase of a six can pack to the street food movement, and this will be reinvested in the hawkers in the second phase of their movement later this year.
So, no more excuses from us but more actions. Save our hawker heritage today.
To support this street food movement, the next time you dine at a hawker centre or coffeeshop, snap a photo of your food with the hashtag #uncagestreetfood to show your appreciation and let our street food trend in the social space!
For more information on Tiger Beer’s new street food movement to celebrate and preserve our nation’s unique food heritage, visit www.tigerbeer.com.sg.
*This post was brought to you in partnership with Tiger Beer