The Big Read: With Unesco listing in sight, will new breed of ‘hawkerpreneurs’ rejuvenate or erode hawker culture?
SINGAPORE — Hawker stall owner Lee Syafiq Muhd Ridzuan Lee has a dream: To be on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
- Hungry and ambitious, young hawkers are aiming to serve up unique cuisines and go beyond just running a stall
- Experts note that younger hawkers aspire to higher economic goals due to the higher cost of living
- But some older hawkers have expressed reservations about what the plans by their young counterparts would mean for the hawker scene here
- The entry of a new wave of next-generation hawkerpreneurs comes as Singapore’s hawker culture is on track later this month to be inscribed on the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
- A successful bid would be a fillip to efforts to preserve the hawker culture, say observers
SINGAPORE — Hawker stall owner Lee Syafiq Muhd Ridzuan Lee has a dream: To be on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
The esteemed list, published annually by the American magazine, lists top entrepreneurs and leaders under the age of 30.
“That’s where I hope to be in two to three years,” said the 28-year-old owner of gourmet burger stall Ashes Burnnit.
Even as other food and beverage outlets and hawker stalls have struggled to stay afloat this year due to the impact of Covid-19, Mr Syafiq has been undeterred, choosing to expand his hawker business during the economic slump.
The success of his first stall at Golden Mile Food Centre — which he bought over from his partners and rebranded in September last year — gave him the confidence to expand.
He opened a second outlet at Alexandra Village Food Centre in July and two months later, a third stall was set up at a coffeeshop at Block 69 Bedok South Avenue 3.
“We knew we were taking a risk (to open the new outlets) during this period, but we wanted to test if the brand had enough pull-factor for customers,” said Mr Syafiq.
His gung-ho spirit reflects the aspirations of some young hawkers, also known as “hawkerpreneurs”, in Singapore who are not content with just eking out a living and having a stream of regular customers.
They are selling traditional hawker fare with a twist, others are modernising their store front, and all are turning to social media to market their brands with an eye on making it big.
Food blogger Leslie Tay felt that unlike older hawkers who entered the trade for economic survival, young hawkers — like other young Singaporeans — aspire to achieve economic goals such as owning a condominium or a car.
As a result, most young entrants join the trade thinking about the possibility of franchising, noted Dr Tay.
“Most are not content with just opening one stall. They are in it to create a brand, start a franchise and expand to a few different stalls,” said Dr Tay, who runs food review website ieatishootipost.sg.
Indeed, several young hawkers told TODAY that they had put a lot of thought into how they conceptualised their stalls and marketed them. While some are keen to preserve traditional hawker fare, several others aim to grow their stalls and shake up the hawker scene with a greater variety of offerings.
The entry of a new wave of next-generation hawkerpreneurs comes as Singapore’s hawker culture is on track later this month to be inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (Unesco) Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
Last month, an expert panel from Unesco which evaluates countries’ nominations said that Singapore’s hawker culture had fulfilled all the criteria in the nomination process, including demonstrating how being added to the list will increase awareness of the hawker culture, how there are existing and future safeguards to promote hawker culture and whether the nomination process involved the community.
Unesco recognises intangible culture heritage as “living heritage” where traditions and practices are passed on from one generation to the next.
In its recommendation, the 12-member panel noted that hawker culture is an integral way of life in Singapore and provides a sense of identity and continuity across generations.
However, some older hawkers have expressed reservations about what the plans by their young counterparts would mean for the hawker scene here.
Mr Kang Kaiming, 62, owner of Ming Yun Famous Fried Hokkien Prawn Noodle at Block 117 Aljunied Avenue 2, said that over the years, he had observed how newer entrants try to cut costs on their operations by compromising on the quality of their ingredients.
For example, they may include monosodium glutamate (MSG) to add flavour to the soup or put in fishcake in the dish instead of other meat.
However, this leads to changes in the traditional taste of the dish, said Mr Kang.
Franchising — a common strategy for business expansion — may also compromise the quality of the food, said Dr Tay, giving the example of how some roast duck or wanton noodle stalls “drop off the foodie radar” after becoming franchised.
Franchising may result in the loss of individuality and artisan quality of the hawker, he added. “Frying a plate of char kway teow is a skill, and people come to eat that skill. It’s hard to franchise that skill.”
WHEN NEW MEETS OLD
While skills cannot be franchised, some young hawkers shared how they had put a lot of thought into their business, even before they launched their first stall.
For Mr Syafiq, who had previously worked at one Michelin-starred restaurant Terra Tokyo Italian, everything — from the choice of product to the design of the stall — is aimed at changing the hawker environment.
Rather than serve up regular local cuisine such as nasi lemak or even Western food such as fish and chips, Mr Syafiq chose to go with gourmet burgers to bring “a new vibe” to hawker centres here.
There are also large neon lights which scream “Hawker Burgers” on the store fronts at his outlets to capture the attention of patrons.
Mr Darren Teo, the co-owner of fish soup stall Seafood Pirates at Yishun Park Hawker Centre, invested in a S$2,200 sushi display case to showcase his fresh food and attract customers.
Even the name “Seafood Pirates” is meant to help him stand out from the crowd, said Mr Teo, 30, noting that some customers have come to refer to him simply as “the pirate guy”.
Ms Claire Huang of Carrot Cubes spent a month deciding what to name her carrot cake stall before opening it early last year at Block 339 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1 to set herself apart from her competitors.
She also serves her carrot cake in a bowl rather than the usual brown paper popular among hawkers to give a “fancy” café-like feel to her stall, which has since shifted to Cheng San Market and Cooked Food Centre in Ang Mo Kio.
However, as some budding hawkers have found, just getting the basics right is a challenge in itself.
While former taxi driver Mr Louis Wong, 39, was mentally prepared for the long hours and physical demands of the hawker trade, it was still overwhelming when he started the first week of his apprenticeship with Mr Kang under the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Hawkers’ Development Programme launched in January this year.
It took Mr Wong, who had cooked only instant noodles at home before, over two hours to wash half a kilogram each of the vegetables that his mentor Mr Kang could complete in five minutes.
“Two-inch prawns, he (over) cook until become one-inch,” recounted Mr Kang, who has over four decades of experience under his belt.
The programme, which was jointly developed with SkillsFuture Singapore, puts aspiring hawkers through a five-day training course, followed by a two-month apprenticeship programme with a veteran hawker to learn the skills of the trade.
Once completed, aspiring hawkers have the opportunity to set up their own stalls under a separate NEA programme which gives them an average rental rebate of 40 per cent for a period of 15 months.
To date, 50 people have participated in the apprenticeship stage, of which 35 will be setting up their stalls at various hawker centres soon.
Even those with a culinary background, such as Mr Lim Wei Keat, 25 who graduated with a diploma in baking and culinary science from Temasek Polytechnic in 2016, found that what he learnt in the classroom did not apply to hawker stalls.
Mr Lim, who was used to measuring his ingredients through the metric system such as grams, had to switch to measuring ingredients the way his 60-year-old mentor, Mr Neo Cheng Leong, who runs a chicken rice stall at Shunfu Market did — through scoops of ladle and sight.
Other aspiring hawkers, such as Ms Sally Wong, realised that marketing her products could even boil down to how you addressed customers.
The 46-year-old who left a corporate job in the hopes of running her own kueh stall found that customers did not approach the stall even though she called out to them.
Her mentor, Madam Sandy Tan Puay Puay, 55, who runs nyonya kueh stall Kueh Ho Jiak at Tanjong Pagar Plaza, suggested that she try addressing them as brother or sister instead of “uncle” and “aunty”.
The results were instant, with Ms Wong starting to see repeat customers the following day.
“You must call them ‘da ge’ (elder brother in Mandarin) or sister. Then they feel good, correct or not? Then they will remember you and come back to you,” said Mdm Tan.
Early hiccups aside, young hawkers reiterated that they have their sights set on bigger things.
Ms Huang, who opened a carrot cake supply factory on top of her carrot cake stall this year, said that she hopes to have at least five outlets in Singapore in the next decade.
Likewise, Mr Teo of Seafood Pirates does not plan on staying behind the wok forever.
Having opened a second stall called “51 Noodle House” which sells minced meat noodles in May last year, he aims to expand his business and move to a management role in future.
“I don’t want to be cooking for people until I die. End of the day, I still want good things to bring home like monetary benefits or family time,” he said.
Mr Syafiq said that the hawkers of his generation are more willing to take risks compared with older ones who may have been happy with what they have.
“We want to push further. We want to have two or three stalls…Even if a concept fails, we are prepared to try a new concept rather than work for someone else again,’ said Mr Syafiq.
Food blogger Seth Lui noted that unlike the previous generation, younger hawkers were joining the trade out of passion rather than necessity. These hawkers, who are educated and savvy, bring “innovation and fire” to their cooking.
As such, they are striving to achieve more than what the previous generation could and are willing to elevate Singaporean cuisine beyond just affordable staples, said Mr Lui.
They will also make branding and marketing their “highest priority” as the rising cost of living in Singapore means that they are at risk of being replaced quickly if they cannot market themselves fast enough, noted Mr Lui.
HAWKER CULTURE DEFINED
As more young entrepreneurs make their presence felt in a long-established trade, there is bound to be an impact on Singapore’s hawker culture. But first, what is the country’s hawker culture?
In her 2013 book “Eating her curries and Kway: A Cultural History of Food in Singapore”, historian Nicole Tarulevicz observed that in a society such as Singapore which has gone through huge changes in a short period, food serves as a connection to an ever-changing past.
Places where Singaporeans spend their time buying and consuming food, such as hawker centres, also hold meaning at a personal and national level as these are where Singaporeans form relationships with friends, family and colleagues or meet their neighbours.
“In a sense, that shared table or queue at a favourite stall is the nation,” says Assoc Prof Tarulevicz, who teaches at the University of Tasmania.
When Unesco’s evaluation body announced that Singapore’s hawker culture had fulfilled all the criteria in the nomination process, Ms Chang Hwee Nee, the chief executive officer of the National Heritage Board (NHB), also noted that “hawker culture has evolved into a microcosm of our multicultural society, and is an integral part of our living heritage”.
“It provides a sense of identity and continuity in Singapore over generations and through urbanisation and development,” she said in a press statement.
In the nation’s bid for Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list, the organisations involved in the submission — NEA, NHB, and The Federation of Merchants' Associations — highlighted several aspects of the hawker culture.
These include hawker centres as community dining spaces, the culinary skills of hawkers, hawker centres as a reflection of Singapore’s multicultural society, and a “thriving culture” in a highly urban environment.
These themes were also raised by hawkers and patrons alike when TODAY asked what hawker culture means to them.
Ms Noorulain, a 31-year-old dental assistant who goes by a single name, described the hawker culture as “one big family gathering” where the community comes together to eat.
Likewise, Mr Low Teck Seng, who runs a soya bean stall at Tiong Bahru Market, said that it is the sense of familiarity, such as knowing his customers well enough that he could predict their orders, that describes the culture of community.
The hawker culture is also part of Singapore’s brand identity, with even other places, such as Chinese cities, now trying to replicate the hawker setting, he added.
Architectural and urban historian Lai Chee Kien said that hawker centres have become a community space for people to meet. It has also become a space to encourage inter-ethnic relations, where most Singaporeans have their first taste of food outside of their ethnicity.
For others, hawker culture evokes a sense of nostalgia. “It gives me a fond memory of drinking Milo and having prata in a carefree environment in flip-flops and shorts,” described aspiring hawker Mr Lim.
His mentor, veteran hawker Mr Neo, said that the hawker culture is also about providing affordable food to Singaporeans regardless of their social status.
Even though the cost of ingredients have gone up, Mr Neo felt that hawkers such as himself must keep prices affordable to the masses, especially during this economic downturn.
EVOLUTION OF HAWKER CULTURE
While some may lament at the way new entrants are changing the heartland makan landscape, experts pointed out that the nature of hawkers and hawker culture itself have evolved over Singapore’s history, and this would continue even in the future.
Dr Lai, who authored the book “Early Hawkers in Singapore: 1920s to 1930s” published this year, said that he had mapped four phases of changes in the history of the hawker centre, starting from 1908.
While the centres had first started off as “hawker shelters” to reduce the congestion of street-hawkers on the roads, the number of these shelters were substantially increased in the 1950s, before the construction was taken up by government authorities in the 1970s.
The fourth and final phase was from 2011 when the Government announced that it would build new hawker centres in new residential estates after a close to three-decade hiatus.
Dr Lai noted that elements of the hawker trade had evolved over this period.
For example, the sounds of street hawkers, who would hit their bamboo instruments to inform customers of their presence, are no longer something common to the hawker culture here.
Likewise, hawkers have become associated with food, even though the term refers to those who sell all types of wares, such as brooms and chopping boards.
Given such changes over the years, Dr Lai said that Singapore’s hawker culture will continue to evolve.
“Having diversity and younger vendors is not a bad thing. The most important thing is that we have to get people recognising it’s a place we can still meet and get food,” he added.
Despite concerns that prices could rise with young hawkers gravitating towards food which promise higher profit margins, Dr Tay believes that most of the hawker food will still be accessible to the masses, with perhaps 10 to 20 per cent offering higher prices.
While hawker prices on a whole will likely rise over time due to inflation, regulation by the Government means that the food will still remain at an affordable price.
Nevertheless, Dr Tay said there will be a need to find a balance between affordability and the need for hawkers to make a decent income to attract more into the trade.
To this end, the public must be prepared to pay more for food of better quality.
“The main thing is being able to differentiate good quality stuff and the normal stuff. If they are providing something of better quality, it is up to the general public to have discernment that not all hawker food must be cheap,” said Dr Tay.
Echoing his sentiments, fellow food blogger Mr Lui said that there is a “mental barrier” that foreign food is better and more expensive, even though the time and effort to produce a S$10 spaghetti or S$5 minced meat noodles is very similar.
He added that the younger generation of hawkers are “fighting” to ensure that Singapore’s hawker culture is not just brought up to standards, but also provide a sustainable and profitable livelihood compared with any other corporate job.
To strike a balance between keeping hawker prices low and the hawker business economically-viable, Professor Lily Kong from the Singapore Management University suggested allowing a range of food and prices within the same premises.
This could see different business models at play even within one hawker centre, said Prof Kong, whose research background includes culture and heritage.
"The issue of cost is a complex one. For hawker food to remain attractive, cost is a significant factor, though not the only one," she added.
"But if we insist on low prices that make it economically unviable, then we will drive hawkers out of business, or else expect that this is a subsidised activity. In other words, taxpayers’ monies go towards subsidising rents, for example.”
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL UNESCO BID COULD MEAN
In 2011, then Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan announced that 10 new hawker centres were to be built over the next decade, mostly in the new housing estates such as Pasir Ris and Punggol.
A report by the ministry the following year found that the economic downturn in the preceding years of 2008 and 2009 had brought greater attention to the cost of food and its impact on the overall cost of living.
It also found that public demand for hawker centres had grown in housing estates lacking affordable dining options.
The demand for new hawkers then, years after the last hawker centre at that time had been built in 1986, shone a spotlight on the importance of hawker centres to the Singapore fabric.
Stressing the need to preserve the hawker culture, Dr Tay said that in a fast-changing country such as Singapore, places and buildings which root Singaporeans to their past, such as the old National Library or National Theatre, had been redeveloped to make way for other things.
Hawker culture, on the other hand, links Singaporeans to their past better than other tangible heritage icons.
“Our hawker culture is a shared memory of where we came from. It is based on immigrants who came to Singapore long ago bringing their food and cultural influences from their home. It is that food which anchors us to past generations,” said Dr Tay.
Likewise, Mr Victor Yue, honorary treasurer of Singapore Heritage Society, said that with fewer Singaporeans cooking at home, many people will lose touch with heritage food.
In this regard, it is worth preserving hawker centres as they are the “lifeline” for Singaporeans who want to keep the link with traditional meals cooked by their grandparents.
If Singapore’s hawker culture is successfully inscribed in Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list, there will be greater impetus for stakeholders such as government agencies, hawkers and patrons, to improve the infrastructure and cleanliness of hawker centres, added Mr Yue.
Dr Tay said that if successful, the Unesco bid will improve the profile of hawkers here, with the Government putting in more resources to upgrade hawker centres and attract more patrons.
As it is, the buzz over the hawker culture has grown in the last 15 years since he started his food blog, said Dr Tay, with more people discussing issues such as keeping the hawker trade alive and how to help hawkers earn a better living.
Mr Low, the soya bean stall owner, said that in addition to elevating the status of hawkers, being recognised by Unesco will benefit them by drawing tourists to hawker centres once the tourism industry in Singapore picks up as the Covid-19 pandemic eases.
Young hawker Mr Teo, who co-owns the Seafood Pirates stall at Yishun Park Hawker Centre, said that with Unesco requiring state parties to update the committee on measures they have taken to maintain their intangible heritage every six years, there will be more impetus for the Government to attract new blood to the trade and keep it going.
And perhaps then, Mr Syafiq could take a step closer to realising his dream.