Can We Really Preserve Singapore’s Hawker Culture Heritage?

After two years, Singapore’s peddler culture was inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

It joins the ranks of the Angklung musical tradition of Indonesia, the Chinese shadow puppet and over 460 other articles.

According to the National Environment Agency (AEN), the list aims to raise awareness of the importance of practices and expressions of diverse cultures.

The inclusion of Singapore’s submission to UNESCO had to go through a 12-member evaluation body, which found it had met all the required criteria.

In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong thanked Singapore’s “generations of peddlers for feeding the stomachs and minds of a nation”.

However, despite a place on the prestigious UNESCO list, Singapore’s hawker culture is unfortunately at high risk of slowly disappearing.

Is Hawker a dying profession?

Singapore hawker culture
Image Credit: YP SG

Nowadays, it is more and more difficult for the younger generation to accept a job as a peddler.

There are currently around 6,000 hawkers in 110 hawker centers, and the national median age of hawkers is 59 years.

With retirement looming, that leaves existing hawkers with a dilemma: Who can they pass their stall on?

Recently, the 60-year-old Nam Seng Noodle House was forced to close, citing an inability to stay afloat due to low footfall caused by the breaker and safe distancing measures.

nam seng noodle house
Nam Seng Noodle House / Image Credit: Time Out

Even though the Covid-19 pandemic was a big contributor to the store’s closure, issues such as a lack of manpower and available workers were also factors in the decision.

With more and more hawker stalls shutting down lately, the NEA has stepped in to keep Singapore’s hawker culture from dying.

Last November, he introduced a new program that allows unsubsidized and retiring street vendors to pass their stalls on to non-family and non-relatives.

These older hawkers will be matched with newcomers for the ‘succession’ so that their recipes and culinary skills can be passed on, while allowing them to mentor new hawkers on how best to run their stalls.

“The idea is to facilitate the transmission of recipes, skills and practices that could be lost if the veteran leaves the premises without a successor,” said Dr Amy Khor, Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment. .

This raises the question of whether young Singaporeans are unwilling to take on the traditional peddler job.

The rise of young hawkers

a story of noodles
A noodle story at a Michelin food festival event / Image credit: Gwern Khoo

Despite the small number of Singaporeans who accept traditional hawker jobs, a significant number of millennials have started to set up their own hawker stands.

However, the food at these stalls has a twist. The stalls opened by young “peddlers” usually have something out of the ordinary.

For example, A Noodle Story serves ramen in Singapore. The store was started by millennials Gwern Khoo and Ben Tham and has grown in popularity.

a story of noodles
Noodles from a noodle story / Image credit: Daniel Food Diary

In February 2013, the duo opened a humble store on the first floor of the Amoy Street Food Center. In 2018, it launched its flagship franchise store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

Young entrepreneurs have even managed to modernize the traditional Kopi and toast.

A trio of siblings – Jack Sai, 36; and twins Faye and Anna, 33, are the third generation of Coffee Break.

Their menu offers a fairly diverse variety of artisanal coffee flavors. The team also develops homemade spreads for their toast with original flavors such as black sesame, coconut cream of matcha and taro cream.

Many other aspiring hawkers have entered the game, from “Ah Bengs” selling bowls of rice to a hawker from Har Cheong Kai, 29.

Should Singaporeans then expect all our hawker food to be hipster in nature in the future?

Hawker food is likely to change over time

Like most products, food also changes gradually over time.

As Singapore’s first generation hawkers begin to retire, they will likely take their recipes and concoctions with them.

In addition, more young entrepreneurs will enter the long established business, and there is bound to be an impact on Singapore’s hawker culture.

It is unrealistic to expect Singapore’s hawker culture to remain the same 50 years later.

However, that doesn’t mean that the hawker food we enjoy today will be gone completely.

What we can expect is, perhaps, a mix of traditional and modern dishes in the hawking centers, just like the rest of Singapore’s landscape and culture.

Featured Image Credit: Tiberiu Ana

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Jothi Venkat

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