Commentary: Hawker food isn't what it used to be. And it’s partially our fault
We are all custodians of our hawker culture – and it takes more than a UNESCO nomination to preserve it, say Annie Tan.
SINGAPORE: Our national pride – hawker culture – is a step closer to being inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
An evaluation body from the agency announced this recommendation on Monday (Nov 16).
For Singaporeans, the likelihood that our beloved local food may find a spot on the international hall of fame is both gratifying and affirming. After all, many of us have long sworn by our favourite stalls and food centres.
From Maxwell Food Centre to Chomp Chomp and Adam Road Food Centre, most of us grew up eating at these open-air food havens. The scents and sounds, heat and smoke – each little detail is inextricably entwined with intimate memories of family, friends and dates.
Yet, for a generation brought up on hawker fare, one cannot help but feel that in recent years, some of these familiar haunts are slowly losing their magic.
With the median age of hawkers at 60, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA), many heritage hawkers are at risk of dying out without succession. Will this feel-good inscription be enough to preserve our cultural legacy?
RESHAPING CULTURAL PERCEPTIONS
After polishing off a most delicious bowl of mee rebus recently, I had the chance to speak to third-generation Yunos N Family hawker, Afiq Rezza.
The young hawker studied interior design at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts before joining his family’s hawker stall at Ang Mo Kio Central Market and Cooked Food Centre.
Today, the 30-year-old is sole custodian of recipes his grandfather used to offer from a pushcart at Hastings Road way back in the 1960s.
To preserve his family legacy, each day, Mr Rezza tirelessly starts food preparation at 6am, hand-kneading some 12kg of flour for mee rebus gravy in an almost man-sized pot, as well as preparing other ingredients.
But Mr Rezza is one of the few exceptions. With hawker culture dominated by the older generation, many of whom have children pursuing more lucrative career endeavours, heirloom recipes and decades of culinary expertise may fade when our current batch of hawker aunties and uncles retire.
Among these are crowd-favourites – Guan Kee Char Kway Teow at Ghim Moh Food Centre and Tiong Bahru Yi Sheng Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee at ABC Food Centre.
Chinatown Complex Market and Food Centre, a famous hawker centre erected in the 1980s was estimated to retain only 20 per cent of its original cooked food hawkers by 2016, according to the National Heritage Board (NHB). Some moved elsewhere, others have simply left the trade.
It seems despite our nation’s well-known devotion to local hawker food, Singaporeans rarely give the people who toil to make it due recognition.
Hawking has never made it on any list of the most popular professions among young Singaporeans.
Indeed, while there is a certain “cool” factor to being a struggling artist, designer or any other artisan, hawking has rarely been perceived as much more than a blue-collar job.
This UNESCO nomination may finally place it among other respectable crafts and traditions such as watchmaking craftsmanship in Switzerland and France, and Yeondeunghoe lantern lighting festival in South Korea, also recommended for the UNESCO list.
This may go some way towards lifting negative social perceptions.
THE PROBLEM WITH ‘CHEAP AND GOOD’
All that however will be little more than lip service if we continue to undervalue hawker food in other ways.
The fact is, “cheap and good” has become an integral part of the DNA of hawker food. We even pride ourselves on having the world’s cheapest Michelin meal – S$2.80 chicken rice at Liao Fan Hawker Chan.
While many point to the handful of exceptionally successful and wealthy hawkers, the average hawker makes S$2,500 to S$3,000 monthly for ten hours of backbreaking work, seven days a week, according to a local finance and money blog. It is not hard to see why this arrangement may not be appealing to younger and more educated Singaporeans.
Moreover, while we cannot reasonably expect prices of bak chor mee to rise to ramen levels – after all, part of the cultural significance of hawker food stems from its affordability and relevance for the vast majority of Singaporeans – we also cannot in good conscience profess undying love and claim national pride for something if we constantly complain about 50 cents price hikes.
With the UNESCO nomination, the Government could also do more to safeguard hawker culture by keeping rental costs affordable.
After all, to preserve hawker culture, it is necessary to go beyond symbolism, and make it economically viable for the new generation of young hawkers.
THE FUTURE OF HAWKERS
The continuity of young hawkers is vital for hawker culture to remain a living heritage instead of a fading trade.
To break down barriers of entry, NEA and SkillsFuture Singapore launched a Hawkers’ Development Programme in January. This includes a two-month apprenticeship to experienced hawkers, as well as a 40 per cent average rental rebate for 15 months so that new hawkers may test the feasibility of their ideas.
A wave of hipster hawkers has been sprouting up in Singapore recently.
For instance, 3rd Culture Brewing Co., founded by former lawyer, serves 10 to 12 rotating beers on tap at Maxwell Food Centre and Old Airport Road Food Centre.
A Noodle Story has won accolades, including a Michelin Bib Gourmand, but its signature bowl with quality ingredients costs many more times that of typical hawker fare.
The relatively new Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre also offers modern, hipster cuisine on its second floor.
Heritage stalls too are evolving to survive. Successful hawker stalls such as Liao Fan Hawker Chan, ENG’s Wantan Noodles and No Signboard Seafood have commercialised and expanded to many branches.
While some complain that this has eroded brand authenticity, small batch handmade food at low costs is not always economically viable today. And in a world of automation, commercialisation and scalability may be necessary to make a hawker career a more realistic aspiration for enterprising youth.
When it comes to hawker culture, “heritage”, “handmade”, “original” and “affordable” may still be the golden standards, but moving forward, it may be necessary to expand our definition of “authenticity” and “reasonable prices” so that hawker food may continue to find a place in our modern world.
After all, we need more than an inscription to safeguard our diverse and rich hawker culture.
Hawkers cannot be expected to be the only ones to “sacrifice” to protect this legacy. We are all custodians of this cultural heritage.
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.