SINGAPORE: Attending to his customers, Mr Chieng Puay Chui and his ice-cream cart have been a familiar sight along Orchard Road for about three decades.
The 71-year-old, more commonly known as Uncle Chieng to his customers, has been an ice-cream street hawker since 1965. About 30 years ago, he decided to start selling ice-cream along Orchard Road outside the old Tangs building, and moved to his current spot in front of Ngee Ann City when it opened 26 years ago.
But his ice-cream cart and six others along the stretch of shopping street could become a memory when their licence holders pass on.
Street hawkers like Mr Chieng hold licences that are personal to the holder and non-transferable, said the Singapore Food Agency (SFA).
They cannot transfer their licence to family members or friends who might want to take over.
“It’ll be a pity if there are no more ice-cream uncles, especially because this is Singapore’s traditional ice-cream,” said Mr Chieng in Mandarin. “I don’t know if anything will be done to make sure Orchard Road will still have ice-cream uncles in the future.”
Mr Chieng is among 13 street hawkers allowed to sell ice-cream on any "public land”, according to SFA, with seven choosing to operate along Orchard Road.
Tourists from Indonesia, China, Thailand and the Philippines have heard of his ice-cream cart, and many of them visit Orchard Road to meet him, he told CNA.
Mr Chieng is the only one there who sells scooped ice-cream, with the different flavours mixed together.
As shown by the numerous photos displayed at his stall, many celebrities in the region also come to try Mr Chieng’s ice-cream. Most recently, former Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra visited the stall on Sep 9.
His son, Mr Alvin Chieng, often helps out at the stall when he can. The younger Mr Chieng even helped his father set up a Facebook page about two years ago, to reach a younger audience on social media.
“He’s getting old and he can’t sell ice-cream on his own anymore. This traditional scooped ice-cream is a Singaporean speciality, and many tourists come to Orchard Road to eat it. It’ll be sad if it’s gone,” said the 39-year-old.
In a written reply to a parliamentary question in 2016, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said that street hawkers were licensed in 1994, in a one-time exercise to control their numbers, and “no more licences were issued after that".
“The intention was to phase out these street hawkers through natural attrition and allow such trades to move into proper premises,” he added.
Mr Masagos explained that the street hawking scheme was reopened in the early 2000s to temporarily help those who are needy and less employable tide over their financial difficulties.
SFA did not respond to further queries about the number of street hawker applications to sell ice-cream on Orchard Road it has received, how many were approved and whether there are plans to ensure that ice-cream street hawkers will continue to operate in the area.
All the ice-cream street hawkers on Orchard Road hold an islandwide licence, which allows them to sell ice-cream and canned beverages in public areas in Singapore.
Mr Chieng explained that newer street hawkers hold a licence that only allows them to operate within the town council where they live, which is why there are so few ice-cream street hawkers on Orchard Road.
SFA said there are about 200 street hawkers who have chosen to sell ice-cream.
“IT IS WHAT IT IS”
Not all ice-cream street hawkers are sad to see their trade go. Mr Tan Ah Hock, who has been selling ice-cream since 1967, said: “I’m quite tired, but I still have to continue to work even if I’m tired,” adding that he plans to retire in two to three years.
“About 75 per cent of my customers are tourists,” he said.
When asked about the trade dying out, the 75-year-old said in Mandarin: “I’m not very sad. It is what it is.”
About 20 years ago, there were more than 30 ice-cream hawkers along Orchard Road, with many of them gathering where Ion Orchard now stands, recalled Mr Tan, whose stall is located outside Wisma Atria.
Mr Chan Yong Leng, who started selling ice-cream along Orchard Road in the 2000s, thinks his trade will disappear in a few years. “Technology is taking over and there are nice ice-cream shops in the air-conditioned malls too,” he added.
“There were so many stalls back then and the competition was very strong. Now there are seven, and that’s enough for the whole road.” The 74-year-old added that he plans to sell ice-cream in Orchard Road until he can no longer work.
All seven ice-cream hawkers know each other, and have their designated spot along Orchard Road, said Mr Chan.
“We won’t go to someone else’s spot to sell ice-cream. In the past, people would fight over that,” he added.
Tourists and locals CNA spoke to said they would miss the ice-cream street hawkers.
Ms Grace Yohanna, a tourist from Indonesia who was visiting Singapore with her husband for the second time, told CNA that Singapore’s ice-cream street hawkers along Orchard Road are a must-see for most Indonesian tourists visiting Singapore.
“It would be strange to not see people holding this traditional ice-cream while walking down Orchard Road,” said the 34-year-old.
Mr Mixie Ky, 26, thinks more should be done to help improve the livelihood of the ice-cream street hawkers.
“They are quite old, maybe more can be done to use technology to upgrade the stalls or enhance the facilities available,” he said.
The tourist from the Philippines who is visiting Singapore with friends for the first time said the ice-cream street hawkers “give character” to Orchard Road.
“I didn’t know that there are so few left here. It’s like Singapore’s special product, so it’s quite sad,” he added.
For many Singaporeans, the ice-cream street hawkers were a common sight growing up. Mr Lucas Lin, 29, remembers buying ice-cream from street hawkers in his HDB estate, as well as at Orchard Road.
Noting that the ice-cream street hawkers are also part of Singapore’s hawker culture, he said: “Once they are gone, it will really be a pity. I think we will lose an important part of our traditional heritage. It’s just like seeing hawker centres replaced by food courts.
“I’m not saying that someone must definitely take over the ice-cream uncles, but if we can still retain this tradition, that would be good. It’s unique to Singapore, just like our hawkers.”