SINGAPORE: Mr Syed Habeebullah’s father used to sell mee rum on the streets from a tricycle. He and his son now run an Indian cooked food stall at Block 11 of Telok Blangah Crescent and Food Market.
“I’ve been at this hawker center since 1974, my father got the license on November 16, 1974,” he said with pride.
He struck when asked about the likely inscription of Singapore’s hawker culture on UNESCO’s untouchable cultural heritage list.
“It’s very good for Singapore’s name,” he said, but he went on in the same breath to say that many young Singaporeans do not want to become hackers these days.
READ: Singapore hawker culture one step closer to being on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list
Commentary: Hawker food is not what it used to be. And it’s partly our fault
Even as Singapore’s hawker culture is about to be inscribed on next month’s UNESCO list – a formal recognition that it is a living culture worth preserving – some say it’s hard to keep the traditions and tastes in live as Singapore develops.
Chef Damian D’Silva, an advocate for heritage cuisine, said this may be “just another credit” for Singapore.
“Is it going to change what I think of hawker food? To be really honest with you, no. Because, because at the end of the day, okay, it’s a living … The only thing that I think is good for Singapore is that it encourages the younger generation, ”he said.
But he lamented that hawker food is changing and that some dishes that take time, effort and skill to make it are in danger of disappearing.
“Char kway teow is an art, you need to fry it for 10, 15 years before you become a master. You need to know when to add the egg in, when to throw in water, when to turn up the heat or when to turn the heat down … everything is timing, ”he said.
“It’s not just about getting awards, it’s about preserving food that we see disappearing in three, five, 10 years, because we don’t want to lose this, I don’t want to lose this.”
Food writer Annette Tan said hawker culture is “part of who we are”, but believes it will inevitably evolve with the times.
“I think it makes me very proud that something we treasure and something that’s so much a part of our lives is being recognized,” he said.
“But as times change, ingredients change, techniques change… Hawker food won’t disappear because it’s so much a part of the fabric of our lives, but the quality we’re used to in the hackers – it could that’s changing. ”
He added: “But with everything that disappears, something new comes and replaces it.”
Hawker culture has already evolved with successive generations of Singaporeans. Decades ago, the ubiquitous hawker centers known for the island were built to house traveling peddlers who fed the masses as they sat on sidewalks on sidewalks.
That worked when many families lived in kampungs and shophouses, but with new public housing came hawker malls and markets – where many of Singapore’s hawker ticket now thrive in the form of traditional dishes or upward fusion chick.
More change can be expected, said those spoken to by CNA, as today’s young people are better educated, have better job opportunities and want something more than to make a basic living.
READ: Nearly a third of hawker stalls in Singapore offer e-payment
Mr Anthony Low, who chairs the hawker division of the Federation of Trades Associations (FMAS), left the Singapore Armed Forces 23 years ago to run his father’s ghoh hiang stall. He was 29 at that time, and no one else would take the mantle, he said.
Now a veteran hacker with two stalls in Jurong and another coming up in Chinatown Food Street, he recalled how he had felt “paiseh” (feeling ashamed at Hokkien) to serve his former colleagues at his food stall. But things are different now, he said.
“The UNESCO nomination is a confirmation for us, I think people see hawking as a low-paid occupation… but in recent years, the reputation has improved,” Xin Sheng owner Ngoh Hiang Prawn Crackers told CNA.
“It feels like our hard work behind the scenes to improve our food is recognized.”
While an earlier generation of hackers are laboring over hot woks and open flames out of necessity, a new generation of “hawkerpreneurs” is becoming armed with modern business plans and cooking chops.
“I think young people, when they come into the trade, also want to achieve something. They are not content with just running one stall, ”said Mr Low, 52.“ They have ideas, they want to build a business and even aim to expand abroad. ”
Jiak Song, Masterchef competitor hawker stand Aaron Wong in Telok Blangah, serves a discounted bowl of mee hoon kueh for S $ 3.50 to S $ 5, and has attracted long queues since opening in August.
While cutting back hours is a common complaint among hackers, Mr Wong said his team can prepare all the ingredients for the day in two hours – even with custom-made dough, meatballs and prawns. His stall assistants start work at 7am, they sell 250 bowls by 2pm and leave by 4pm, he said.
He believes it is possible to blend traditional tastes and a streamlined operations system to make hawker food sales more palatable to a new generation.
“I think it’s not about reinventing the food – we kind of want it in the way it has for some time. I think the thing that needs to be reinvented is the way a hawker stand is operated, ”he said.
While showing this reporter around his small kitchen, he showed how an insulated boiler and induction cookers make the stand more comfortable and safer to operate in, and all the ingredients are neatly arranged .
“These systems are not new, they have been used by restaurants for a long time. It’s about incorporating them into a hawker stand, ”he said. He already has plans to open a few more stalls and a central kitchen.
Although Mr Wong’s stand has only been operating for a few months, he has also hired a mentee under the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Hawker Development Program.
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Nearly 150 participants have completed training under the program, 50 of which have progressed to apprenticeships and 35 participants go on to start incubator stands. These stalls are equipped with basic equipment and rent rebates for the first 15 months of operation.
These recent programs aim to train potential hackers, providing an easier way into a tradition traditionally passed on to family members. While the median age of hackers is 59, the median age of newcomers since 2013 is 46, NEA says.
But with the UNESCO listing in sight after two years, more can be done to keep hawker culture brewing, industry insiders say.
“Receiving rewards won’t mean much unless we do something about it – if the Government takes advantage of this and looks at all the fringe and related opportunities this can offer,” said Makansutra founder KF Seetoh .
Hawker food from Singapore can be promoted worldwide, he said and he hopes the authorities will find merit in supporting hackers who want to venture abroad: “The possibilities will be immense.”
Mr Low of FMAS offered to have a hawker appreciation day or month in recognition of nails, while Mr D’Silva suggested that hawkers should be given a “fair rent” that really stands out.
Dr Wong King Yin, a tourism and marketing lecturer from Nanyang University of Technology’s Nanyang Business School, said that while listing UNESCO will not have an immediate impact on food businesses, it can have a lasting impact on how Singaporeans identify themselves.
“I think the value is more about how the hawker culture can connect all Singaporeans and gives everyone a sense of belonging,” he said.