In December 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture was added to UNESCO representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Singapore had been lobbying for this since 2018. What does this mean? UNESCO is the United Nations Education, Scientific and cultural organization. A nation can nominate a a physical attraction (Singapore also has the Botanic Gardens as a world heritage site) or something of cultural significance. For reference, the USA has 24.
Recognition by UNESCO is a boon for tourism, but beyond that, it means the country is committing to the preservation of the world or cultural heritage. For Singapore, where the average age of a hawker stall owner is 59, they need to focus on how to encourage new generations to continue the tradition. This is a HUGE task in Singapore where it is a decidedly “high end culture”. Being a hawker stall owner and driving a Mercedes are a difficult mix… traditionally, tasks that are considered “menial” are outsourced to foreign workers. The trick for Singapore is to keep this tradition from being considered “menial” by the general population. Right now, with no tourists, they’re busy updating older hawker centers and making a big fuss in the press over chefs running stalls, people switching careers to being a hawker and families keeping the tradition alive. I have no doubt they will succeed.
But let’s take a step back…. what’s a hawker anyway? According to the Cambridge dictionary, it’s a noun meaning, “someone who sells goods informally in public places”. It’s important to know, Singapore is a nation of immigrants. In the early 1800’s, the British colonized Singapore and it became a bustling port city. This created a huge need for laborers. These workers came from Malaysia (the indigenous population), China, India and Indonesia primarily. These laborers lived in extremely cramped quarters and frequently had no access to a space to make food. This created the opportunity for some of the immigrants to cook and sell food, in the style of their home country. This was done primarily via carts or a “mobile kitchen” which was basically 2-4 buckets attached to a bamboo pole draped over the hawkers shoulders. These hawkers became integral to the city. Not only did they provide food, but they provided a link to home for many homesick laborers. People hawking their food in this way continued, essentially unchanged until Singapore’s independence in the 1960’s
Initially, young Singapore wanted to do away with the Hawkers. They were seen as a dirty nuisance. Singapore was on a mission to modernize its city to become a business hub for the world, not just Asia. They were moving their people out of the kampong and into modern public housing (HDBs). These HDB blocks needed something to “center” the community on. What better than a gathering place for the community than to eat together? The hawkers were slowly moved over the decades from the streets into “centers” and regulations were passed to ensure cleanliness (today you can see their rating displayed). Many physically in HDB blocks (these are the truly “local” experiences that most tourists never see) and some in “centers” (where you, tourist, will go). To this day, if you ate every meal at a local hawker center, it would be cheaper than buying the groceries and preparing the same meal yourself. It’s no wonder many Singaporeans (and expats) never use their kitchens!
In the US, we don’t do cheap food well. At home, I would only eat at the food court of a mall out of desperation. Eating “cheap food” in the US is equated with lower class and unhealthy. In Singapore, everyone eats “cheap” food. It can be healthy or unhealthy, but it’s almost always made with fresh ingredients, cooked to order. It crosses classes and cultures. Hawker food is everyday food. Restaurant food is for special occasion. Some western culture has creeped in. They have McDonald’s, but this is seen as separate from hawker food and has a different menu than what we are familiar with in the US.
In Singapore, I often frequent mall food courts (modified hawkers) and actual hawker centers. Some are overwhelming to me. But if you take your time, and know what you want to eat (this is so hard to choose!) it becomes easier. I try to eat lunch at hawkers as much as possible. My favorite is Tiong Bahru Market. It’s closest to my home, has a great wet market and food center. How does Singapore keep their food so delicious and cheap? Hawkers exist on volume. Each stall really only makes 1 dish (there might be variations, but the foundation is the same). This enables them to crank out many dishes quickly and keeps their food supply costs low. It’s very common to see someone getting their lunch and food for “take away” for dinner. If you ride the MRT or bus at evening rush hour, many riders will be carrying their dinner home.
When we return home, I think this is what I will miss the most. Food can be culture and I am so happy Singapore is committed to preserving theirs.