Hawking Tall: UNESCO Boost for Singapore Street Food

04 February, 2021
Hawakers

Photo by: Mohamad Hafiz contestant of #OurHawkerCulture photography contest 2019, Singapore 2019

He is joined in jubilation by Paul Liew, third generation co-owner of Keng Eng Kee, a popular tze char (stir fry) eatery that operates out of an airy coffee shop in Bukit Merah Lane 1, for whom such recognition seemed inevitable. “Singapore has always been a gourmet destination offering the whole gamut of experiences, from fine-dining to hawker fare,” he said 

To market the local food industry in recent years, the Singapore Tourism Board has hosted multiple large-scale gourmet events like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2019, and the annual Michelin awards and gala dinner. With these, Liew says, tourists have been flocking to the city state to savour food served in award-winning restaurants, thus helping to put the ‘Little Red Dot’s’ dining scene on the map. But with Singapore’s hawker culture now officially recognised by UNESCO, he believes that tourists will also be educated about the local hawker culture, bringing a more holistic angle to the uniquely Singapore gourmet experience.

Chew agrees, echoing a similar sentiment that UNESCO’s recognition “will bring more tourists to seek out hawker food” when borders reopen. This being the one and only country whose hawker food culture is recognised on the list currently, Chew says that it will be a big boost to Singapore’s tourism. 

“Our hawkers should be really proud of themselves - they are our national heroes, toiling to serve quality food at affordable prices,” said Douglas Ng, the 30-year-old founder of Fishball Story. Ng should know - he operated his hawker stall from a cramped space measuring 68-square-feet in Golden Mile Food Centre for one and a half years before opening elsewhere, and picking up a Michelin Bib Gourmand listing in 2016. In February, 2020, after six years of sweat and blood, Ng sold his brand to a local conglomerate. Shortly after the sale, he opened Fishball Story with his business partners in an airy 680-square-feet shop at Circuit Road, a far cry from the shoebox space he debuted with.

While Ng feels that UNESCO recognition is an effective way to promote hawker culture to the younger generation, and to educate them about Singapore’s heritage and history, he says that the current working conditions for hawkers are “not attractive enough” to bring more of them into the trade. 

Liew feels the same way, saying that this alone “will not be the main reason young people will join the hawker trade - our hawker stalls are known to have small working areas,” he says, adding that while changes have been made in recent years to increase the floor area in newly-built hawker centres, the improvement in hawker space should also apply to older food centres so as to provide a more welcoming work environment.

Another issue is manpower. “Few Singaporeans aspire to work as hawkers because of the tough working environment,” Ng says, suggesting at the same time that the city should introduce measures - such as “permitting hiring of Malaysian work permit holders” - to ease the workload of hawkers so that they can achieve a better work-life balance.

Chew says “settling manpower issues” for hawkers “is a must” since most locals reject hawker helper jobs that many foreigners are willing to do. Additionally, Chew would also like to see the government putting in more effort to ensure the longevity of iconic local hawker fare  - like satay bee hoon, char kway teow, fried Hokkien mee, kway chap and rojak - that are part of the city’s cultural food fabric. To this end, he says, the authorities may consider introducing funding initiatives to support new hawkers who are willing to learn the traditional art of making hawker foods from scratch, which are at risk of disappearing.

As part of the UNESCO listing, it is a requirement for Singapore to submit a report every six years on its efforts to safeguard hawker culture. With these hot-button issues highlighted by the hawkers, it seems the hard work has only just begun in Singapore.

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