SINGAPORE: KF Seetoh remembers a time when hawkers were viewed with “utter disdain”.
“Hawker food was something from the streets and in the 80s, in an industrialising, developing potential First World Singapore, a lot of people loved hawker food but they didn’t want to be associated with hawkers. It was seen as a profession of folks who could not get on in life, ex-cons or people who are jobless, drug addicts and all that.
“There were gangster stories about how hawkers were fighting with the authorities as they were cleaning up the streets.”
However, he saw them quite differently as he was growing up.
“I’m not perfect also and I believe in what people do, not what they did and if somebody can put out that perfect platter of pleasure for the masses, something has to be right about that person.”
Today, the 56-year-old food consultant, photographer, writer and television host, who is best known for creating the popular hawker food guide Makansutra in 1998, promotes food culture through specialised events such as The World Street Food Congress that have garnered him international fame in culinary circles.
To listen to the full interview, click here.
The New York Times hails him as a “food guide maven” and CNN calls him the “Guru of Grub”.
He is also the owner and operator of Makansutra Gluttons Bay which offers Singapore’s favourite street food in one location.
As more and more pioneer hawkers retire or pass on without passing on their skills, Mr Seetoh is growing increasingly worried.
He sees hawker food as the most important aspect of Singapore's identity.
“The migrant generation came and created it because they had to survive and ingenuity made this food culture of ours.”
There's a faraway look in his eyes as he proceeds to speak passionately about the early years of Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore.
“Back in Hainan, everybody served poached chicken with rice and a ginger dip.”
He explains how this evolved here into rice cooked with chicken stock that boasts an intense flavour.
The chilli sauce that goes along with it “is non-existent in Hainan”, he points out.
Today, he says, Singapore’s Hainananese chicken rice is being “re-exported” to Hainan and it’s something to be proud of.
“I’VE NEVER FOLLOWED THE RULES”
Over the years, he has sought to showcase hawkers who are often underrated through several TV programmes such as Makansutra Raw and The Food Surprise that have made him a household name in Singapore and other parts of Asia.
His signature irreverent presentation style has made him stand out among other food show hosts.
He confesses that he has never been “normal”.
“I’ve never followed the rules. I always take the other fork in the road.”
One could say he’s been this way since childhood.
He went to what are considered prestigious schools - St Michael’s Primary and St Joseph's Institution - before going to a vocational institute.
“I was supposed to go to college, university and all that, but I struggled with studies. I’m one of those for whom learning what one plus one equals, doesn’t do it. It just didn’t feel right. But I thought there must be something right about me.”
He embarked on creative pursuits at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute.
He learnt graphic design, photography and advertising.
“The creative side of my mind could settle in and I enjoyed it.”
I ask him if the stigma of studying in a vocational institute, especially in the late 70s or early 80s, bothered him.
“Yeah, there was a stigma, but I didn’t see it like that. I had very, very good years there. I played football there, I had friends who were like-minded.”
The first job he was offered was as a graphic designer, but he rejected it to work as a photojournalist at a local newspaper.
“That job really shaped my thinking. Every day, we were out seeing, touching, hearing, photographing things.”
It made him realise that experiencing things was the best way to learn.
“In schools today, they say they want to do away with rote learning. But have they really put it to action? Implementation is the hardest. You’ve got to let students out in the real world. You’ve got to release these fish from their cosy cages and let them touch and see the real world. Let them get an idea of what the real tomorrow is going to be because what you learn today is irrelevant tomorrow. Don’t teach them how to change. Let them decide how they want to change. That’s how teaching should be.”
CHAR KWAY TEOW IS A “PORTAL”, “NOT JUST A DISH”
While he encourages unconventional approaches to education, when it comes to food, he seems like a traditionalist. It was this that ignited his fire to advocate the preservation of Singapore’s culinary heritage.
“It just clicked for me one day. I looked at a plate of char kway teow and I realised that it’s a portal. It’s not just a dish. That plate of char kway teow is actually a portal into a world of education, culture, tourism, entrepreneurial opportunities, all in one plate.
“If you’ve mastered cooking that dish, you can be an entrepreneur. Through that dish, you can learn about the Teochews. I learnt about the “Silk Road of char kway teow” because it has a version in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. That’s history and culture. In terms of tourism, it’s obvious. Don’t we enjoy taking our friends from around the world to eat a plate of char kway teow when they’re here?”
It was this realisation that made him want to dedicate his life to food. But he is well aware of the possibility that such food may not exist in the near future.
Recently, the death of Hill Street Fried Kway Teow founder, Mr Ng Chang Siang, was on his mind.
“Do you know how many people Mr Ng has pleased over the decades? People just went there without thinking, ate it and felt comforted by his char kway teow. It’s an unspoken culture in our food. It’s good that his son has taken over he was actually quite reluctant at first.”
According to Mr Seetoh, it was years of encouragement that led to the younger Mr Ng, Yeow Kiat’s decision to embrace the profession.
“I was telling him he had to continue as his father was getting old and sick. Then people came, started giving him feedback, started giving him recognition. We invited them to do the Singapore Day in London events. Recognition is very important.”
THE YOUNG GIVE UP TOO EASILY
But few want to do this job because it is seen as a hard slog. Also, over the years, many more attractive and higher-status job opportunities in other sectors have opened up for Singaporeans,
He remarks that even among those who do enter the business, many unrealistically expect instant recognition.
“Some of them think, “Maybe Gordon Ramsay will come and eat at my stall and I will be famous.’ They’ll tell me, ‘I am the son of so-and-so and I’m taking over. Can you tell all your bloggers, writers and influencer friends to come?’ When they are not spun into the sparkling limelight, they give up. They quit within three months.”
He claims he has seen this happen too many times.
But he has met a few who are genuine and patiently put in the work.
“They say, ‘It’s what I want to do. I ditched my degree, I ditched my previous job to do this'."
I ask him what he thinks can be done to encourage more to commit to the business.
It’s an issue that is receiving the Government’s attention too.
In fact, a few years ago, the Government convened a Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee which came up with a list of recommendations to attract more to the hawker trade.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) and the People’s Association have introduced the Hawker Fare Series of culinary classes with each class conducted by veteran hawkers.
The NEA and Institute of Technical Education jointly developed the Introduction to Managing a Hawker Business course.
A One-Stop Information and Service Centre which provides information such as the various types of equipment that can help in food preparation and contacts for suppliers of raw ingredients, was also set up.
One of the most important initiatives is the Incubation Stall Programme for aspiring hawkers.
They would have to attend the Introduction to Managing a Hawker Business course or equivalent courses, submit a business plan to the NEA and undergo a food tasting evaluation before they qualify.
Under the programme, they are offered a stall for six months at half of the assessed market rent. The stalls also come pre-fitted with basic equipment so that applicants’ start-up costs are greatly reduced.
“THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD STAY OUT OF THIS”
One would think such efforts to keep the hawker trade alive would be lauded by advocates like Mr Seetoh.
I’m surprised when he says otherwise.
“I think the Government should stay out of this. They are not fit. They are not qualified,” he says definitively.
I ask him to explain his statements.
“Because they’re only throwing money at you. Hawker work is tough. Just because the Government wants to incubate you, doesn’t mean this job is easy. You have to cook well, know how to reach people, know how to cook a hundred portions an hour and so on. A short course is not enough and pumping money into the industry to fire this up may not be helpful. It gives people the impression that it is so easy. They say, ‘Let's go and do a ‘try, try’ thing’. It’s easy to walk out when you are funded by somebody else’s money, but if it’s your own and you realise that this is good, this is what you really want to do, it’s a different story.”
I suggest that if the Government stopped these initiatives, it would be even harder to keep the trade going. Even the ones who currently try may not consider it.
“Let’s attract the real ones. I'd rather encourage you to come out on your own because that will be more organic and you will be in it not because you got funding. It’s your own money. It’s your own belief. Go and learn as an apprentice. Go and work for a hawker for one year. The hawker may or may not teach you everything, but if you have slightly more than half a brain, you will be able to figure out the entire story and do it on your own later.
"If you just take some funding and go for some Government programmes, you will still wind up with not much. The more successful newer-generation hawkers are those who came out on their own and they are still around despite the failures. They took time to learn. They didn’t fall the minute they came across the first wall."
What would he suggest to encourage more such hawkers then?
“It’s the same story as in the past. People went into the hawker business back in the day because they were desperate. Today, I think there’s more reason for you to be desperate again. A lot of jobs are going to the machines, the computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Maybe food is something AI cannot fully take over because people are spoilt with the pleasure of artisanal food.”
But even though consumers enjoy hawker food, in some quarters, being a hawker is still seen as a profession that lacks status.
“If we enjoy food, we can’t see it that way. It’s a very noble profession today. If you can think about it: ‘Wow, hey, maybe I like to dredge up this food that I believe in and love and I know that I’ve got a story to tell about this food and I want to sell and tell. And I want to go out and do it because it makes me happy and because I know I can generate some money from this'."
“LET THIS FOOD CULTURE DIE”
I’m sceptical about whether enough people will realise this on their own, but he reiterates the Government should “stay out of this”.
"Just give people very good, reasonable rents and tell them where to get their supplies. Let them figure out on their own how to be good, how to be better."
Often, the issue of rent is raised as a hurdle to hawkers’ success. However, the NEA has taken a few measures to stabilise rents. This includes disallowing subletting and not setting a reserve rent when tendering out vacant stalls.
In July last year, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said that rental rates at NEA hawker centres remain in check.
The average successful tender bid for cooked food stalls over the three years leading up to her statement had been $1,370 per month, with bids ranging from S$1 to S$4,888.
Mr Seetoh believes that more can be done to ensure even lower rents.
If even under the right conditions, the traditional hawker food scene doesn’t flourish, “so be it”, he says.
"If it doesn’t happen organically, then let this food culture die. Then let the soil rot and let new shoots come out. Burn the whole forest down. Right now, the future looks bleak, but I still believe down the road there will be some kind of a sub-culture coming up. Somebody will realise that it’s not just about running a food stall. You can become the world's best one-dish entrepreneur and your hawker store concept can go worldwide."
In the meantime, he offers would-be hawkers something to aspire to.
“I will tell you how to get into it, who you can meet, who you can talk to and get into it because you love the food culture that you grew up with. It is very sexy. I just came back from New York and one of the biggest food markets, street food players down there who has hawker stores, pop-up hawkers – he’s the only vendor in the entire United States who’s been given permission to set up pop-up stores in the heart of Times Square. 20 to 30 million people traverse that area and that guy was saying, ‘I would love to have some Singapore hawkers.’ Imagine you are selling chicken rice balls in Times Square or nasi lemak packs and people talk about you. Those are very, very worthwhile goals."
He’s quick to urge patience though.
“Don’t expect success overnight.”
"HIPSTER FOOD IS NOT FOOD"
As more hawker centres are built to cater to changing tastes, Mr Seetoh cautions against going overboard.
While he laud efforts to automate certain functions, such as dishwashing, to keep manpower costs down in newer hawker centres, he doesn’t agree with the hipster feel that some have and other initiatives to inject vibrancy into the centres through events such as musical performances, digital art showcase, interactive games and art and music workshops.
“It’s irritating. When I eat, please shut up. I’ll give you S$5 for you to shut up.
“I feel hawker centres should be comfortable, but there's no need to be fancy or hipster in terms of design. This takes away from the fact that you are selling food. It also shows desperation when you put on concerts and talks to attract people. Make sure the food is good and ventilate the hawker centre well, make it more comfortable. That’s all people want.”
He also attacks the many young hawkers who have started serving up hipster cuisine.
“Hipster food is not food," he declares.
"With hipster food, you target the millennials who are not loyal. They will come once or twice, take a nice picture, post it on instagram and they won’t come back. You have to remember that millennials are people too and all people ultimately love good food. The traditional fare, if done well, will keep them and everyone else coming back. Focus on the food.
“Hipster food like putting curry in a waffle cone is also not going to attract tourists. The tourists want to eat char kway teow, hokkien mee, bak chor mee - stuff they can’t pronounce. If you always focus on new, new, new, I think the Singapore food culture will die within 10 years.”
When I remark that he might be too much of a purist, he clarifies that he doesn’t object to traditional food being infused with new elements.
“If you start putting giant prawns or lobster in your noodles, I wouldn’t fault you. Because you are still expressing who you are and if you are using fancier produce, you’re placing it nicely, serving it in a nicer environment, I won’t fault you because you’re still expressing who you are.”
A COMMITMENT TO TEACHING AND LEARNING
In order to keep this going, veteran hawkers have to be willing to teach. He claims he has heard that many of them are reluctant to do so fully even when they are paid to do so.
“The full recipes are not taught.”
But should we expect veteran hawkers to give their recipes away so easily?
“Yeah, we shouldn’t, but at least teach them the thinking behind the recipe, the taste notes, tell them about the techniques that go into the cooking and inspire the younger ones to come up with even better things.”
The younger ones, on their part, need to be patient and inquisitive when learning, he says. Hawkers tell him it can take several years to perfect a dish.
“Beyond that, you need to know how to design a stall, how to promote, how to scale, how to trend. All these are very, very important. Also, if you want to expand, who do you look for when you go overseas.”
He used to conduct such programmes to help would-be hawkers, and intends to do so again in the near future.
In the meantime, he continues to spread the stories of Singapore’s heritage cuisine far and wide and gain exposure for Singapore’s hawkers through special events.
I ask him if he has ever considered cooking for a living.
It’s something that has crossed his mind, but he loves what he’s doing today and intends to continue.
“I still have some energy left to do what I love doing. So one day, maybe as a retirement project, I will come out and be the next hipster hawker,” he says with a raucous laugh.
When forced to get serious, he says he “will go back to tradition”.
“I think in 10 years, old food will be new again and put on a nicer plate maybe. I’ll sell you char kway teow and chicken rice with fancier cuts of meat and better ingredients.”
Today, his focus on preventing the death of Singapore hawker cuisine remains unstinting as he encourages younger hawkers to continue our traditions.
“I want to make people realise that the pleasure of eating is not just a function. It is about who we are. The pleasure of eating can be heightened if we realise this and I want to help people enjoy this journey a whole lot more.”