Comment: Hawker food is not what it used to be. And it’s partly our fault

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SINGAPORE: Our national pride – the culture of hawkers – is one more step towards inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

An agency assessment body announced this recommendation Monday, November 16.

For Singaporeans, the likelihood of our beloved local food finding a place in the international hall of fame is both gratifying and affirming. After all, many of us have long sworn by our favorite stalls and food centers.

From Maxwell Food Center to Chomp Chomp and Adam Road Food Center, most of us have grown up eating in these outdoor food havens. The scents and the sounds, the heat and the smoke – every little detail is inextricably linked with intimate memories of family, friends and dates.

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Yet for a generation raised on peddler fare, one can’t help but think 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 (AEN), many heritage hawkers are at risk of dying without succession. Will this well-being registration be enough to preserve our cultural heritage?

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REPLACE CULTURAL PERCEPTIONS

After polishing a delicious bowl of me rebus Recently, I had the chance to speak to the third generation peddler of the Yunos N family, Afiq Rezza.

The young hawker studied interior design at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts before joining his family’s hawker stall at the Ang Mo Kio Central Market and the Cooked Food Center.

Today, the 30-year-old is the sole keeper of the recipes his grandfather used to offer from a stroller in Hastings Road in the 1960s.

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To preserve his family heritage, Mr. Rezza relentlessly begins preparing food at 6 a.m., hand-kneading some 12 kg of flour for me rebus sauce in a pot almost the size of a man, as well as the preparation of other ingredients.

But Mr. Rezza is one of the few exceptions. With the culture of hawkers dominated by the older generation, many of whom have children pursuing more lucrative professional pursuits, heirloom recipes and decades of culinary expertise may fade when our current group of hawker aunts and uncles take their toll. retirement.

Afternoon crowd at the food center in Chong Pang town. The stalls of this food center will be moved to a new community center when it is ready in 2027. The space currently occupied by the food center will be transformed into a community place in 2028. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Among these are the audience favorites – Guan Kee Char Kway Teow at the Ghim Moh Food Center and Tiong Bahru Yi Sheng Fried Hokkien Prawn Mee at the TBEN Food Center.

According to the National Heritage Board (NHB), the Chinatown Complex Market and Food Center, a famous hawking center erected in the 1980s, would retain only 20% of its original hawkers. Some moved elsewhere, others simply quit the business.

It seems that despite our country’s well-known dedication to the food of the local hawkers, Singaporeans rarely give recognition to people who struggle to recognize it.

Hawking has never been on any list of the most popular occupations among young Singaporeans.

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Indeed, while there is a certain “cool” factor to being a struggling artist, designer or any other craftsman, peddling has rarely been seen as much more than blue collar work.

This UNESCO nomination could finally place him among other respectable trades and traditions such as watchmaking craftsmanship in Switzerland and France, and the Yeondeunghoe lantern lighting festival in South Korea, also recommended for the list of UNESCO.

It can help to remove negative social perceptions.

THE PROBLEM WITH ‘CHEAP AND GOOD’

However, all of this will be little more than lip service if we continue to undervalue the hawkers’ food in other ways.

The point is, “cheap and good” has become an integral part of the food hawkers’ TBEN. We’re even proud to have the world’s cheapest Michelin meal – S $ 2.80 of chicken rice at Liao Fan Hawker Chan.

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While many point to the handful of exceptionally successful and wealthy hawkers, the average hawker earns between S $ 2,500 and S $ 3,000 a month for ten hours of backbreaking work, seven days a week, according to a local finance and money blog. It’s not hard to see why this arrangement is unattractive to younger and more educated Singaporeans.

In addition, although we cannot reasonably expect prices of bak chor mee rise to ramen levels – after all, part of the cultural significance of hawker food stems from its affordability and relevance to the vast majority of Singaporeans – neither can we in good conscience profess undying love and claiming national pride for something if we constantly complain about 50 cent price hikes.

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Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles (2)

With UNESCO’s candidacy, the government could also do more to safeguard the culture of hawkers by keeping rental costs affordable.

After all, to preserve the culture of hawkers, 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 if the culture of hawkers is to remain a living heritage rather than a declining business.

To break down barriers to entry, NEA and SkillsFuture Singapore launched a hawker development program in January. This includes a two-month apprenticeship with experienced hawkers, as well as an average rental discount of 40% for 15 months so new hawkers can test the feasibility of their ideas.

A wave of hipster hawkers has recently sprouted in Singapore.

For example, 3rd Culture Brewing Co., founded by a former lawyer, serves 10-12 rotating cask beers at the Maxwell Food Center and the Old Airport Road Food Center.

A Noodle Story has won accolades including a Michelin gourmet bib, but its signature bowl with quality ingredients costs a lot more than the typical hawker fare.

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The relatively new Pasir Ris Central Hawker center also offers modern hipster cuisine on the second floor.

Heritage stalls also evolve to survive. Stalls of successful hawkers such as Liao Fan Hawker Chan, ENG’s Wantan Noodles, and No Signboard Seafood have marketed and expanded to many branches.

While some complain that this has eroded the authenticity of the brand, small batches of low-cost, handmade foods are not always economically viable today. And in a world of automation, commercialization and scalability may be needed to make a peddling career a more realistic aspiration for young enterprising people.

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When it comes to hawker culture, “heirloom,” “handmade,” “original” and “affordable” may still be the golden standards, but moving forward may require some development. expand our definition of “authenticity” and “reasonable prices” so that hawker food can continue to find its place in our modern world.

After all, we need more than registration to safeguard our rich and rich culture of hawkers.

The hawkers cannot be expected to be the only ones to “sacrifice” to protect this heritage. We are all the custodians of this cultural heritage.

Annie Tan is a freelance writer.

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