How Singapore’s hawker culture started
In the lead up to Singapore’s submission of its hawker culture for Unesco listing, the official government website on the submission said that street hawking in Singapore can be traced back to the mid-1800s when street hawkers sold a variety of food along the streets of Singapore.
On March 27, Singapore submitted a nomination for Singapore hawker culture to be inscribed on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a year after after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the move.
In the lead up to the submission of the nomination, the official government website on hawker culture in Singapore described that street hawking in Singapore can be traced back to the mid-1800s when street hawkers sold a variety of food along the streets of Singapore.
The narrative leaps forward to the time period 1968 to 1986 when the Singapore government resettled street hawkers into hawker centres and markets.
There may be more detailed information on the history of hawker culture in Singapore contained in the nomination documents but they will only be available for viewing on Unesco’s website in July. Until they become available, perhaps it is worth tracing the history hawker culture in Singapore so that we can understand it better.
Street hawkers appeared in Singapore almost immediately when the British established a port on the island in 1819.
By 1903, the number of street hawkers has grown to the point that the British colonial government felt that the hawkers were nuisances along the city streets and had to be controlled.
But it was only in 1908 that the police were finally granted powers to remove hawkers from areas where street hawking was not permitted.
In 1913, the Municipal Health Officer described street hawkers obstructing streets in the city, and the food they sold prone was to contamination.
He recommended that all hawkers be licensed and free shelters erected for hawkers selling cooked food. The licensing of street hawkers started in 1915.
In 1924, the Municipal Health Officer made a radical proposal to eradicate street hawkers in Singapore.
He argued that street hawkers were unsanitary, caused traffic congestions, and they competed with the licensed eating houses and coffee shops, which he described as a “honourable trade”. His proposal was met with widespread opposition from hawkers and locals who rallied behind the chant, “vote for the hawkers, you may not be able to get anymore satay.”
The proposal failed to gain any traction and was dropped.
By 1932, Singapore has grown into a city and the Government acknowledged that street hawkers served an important role in the city.
There were insufficient eating houses in the city to feed all the office workers who work there, and the coolies who worked at the wharves and harbour areas depended on street hawkers to provide them with cooked meals near their work sites.
The Government decided that it would instead limit the number of street hawkers by not granting licenses to new migrants, and capped the number of existing hawker licenses at 12,000.
The number of licenses that would be issued thereafter every year would be reduced by 10 per cent per year until the minimum number of hawkers needed to help feed the population was reached.
At the same time, more hawker shelters would be built to reduce the number itinerant street hawkers in the city.
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in World War Two, the Japanese military administration continued to issue hawker licenses.
When the war ended, the British recognised the hawker licenses that were issued by the Japanese, and those who held a license before the war. However, it would cap the total number of hawker licenses at 10,000.
As Singapore recovered from the war, more and more licensed street hawkers started to congregate in the city areas leading to congestion problems and pollution.
The city streets were a popular choice for street hawkers because the working population there created a huge demand for cooked meals.
The big change came in 1970 when the Singapore government announced that all licensed hawkers would be cleared off the streets over the next five years.
The Housing Development Board (HDB) started building hawker centres across Singapore, and the 24,845 licensed street hawkers would finally have clean and hygienic stalls to work in.
When street hawking started in Singapore, hawkers preferred to operate in the city area to cater to the large labour force that work there.
Numerous attempts over the decades to control their numbers in the city were futile. Why did it finally succeed in the 1970s?
It had to do with where all of the new hawker centres were sited. The many families living in new HDB estates became a large reliable and permanent source of customers for the hawkers.
By the late 1970s, the street hawkers left in the city operated at car park food stalls. They were eventually resettled to new hawker centres built in the city like Cuppage Road Hawker Centre, Maxwell Food Centre, and Newton Food Centre, just to name a few, which later became popular with tourists.
While Singapore’s nomination to Unesco is not about tracing origins, the history of street hawking, especially between 1819 and 1968, show the forces that have shaped hawker culture in Singapore today. It was not simply a policy in the 1970s that resettled all street hawkers to hawker centres.
It was the resettlement of street hawkers from the city to the HDB estates that made hawker centres “community dining rooms” in an urban setting, and a key characteristic that make up hawker culture in Singapore.
Hawker centres ended street hawkers in Singapore and what emerged after the 1970s is a hawker culture that is familiar and celebrated in Singapore. As Singapore puts up Hawker Culture as its nomination to Unesco, it is important to know how it all started.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr John Kwok is a Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. A historian, he was formerly an Assistant Director at the National Heritage Board, where he worked on community engagement projects on Singapore’s Intangible Cultural Heritage that contributed to the nomination of Hawker Culture in Singapore to Unesco.