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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Singapore Hawker Centre Story Part One

It's really long overdue. I was supposed to write something about hawkers and hawker food, and now I got to revisit some of the old posts I have saved to refresh myself as I try to think and write as it goes.

This whole thing about preserving Singapore's hawker food culture and heritage has somehow gone overboard and overloaded with emotive pressure, this is how I feel.

People want good old hawker food to be preserved and at the same time they want it cheap. Possible? Well, they are still trying even as one by one of these old hawkers bids goodbye.

Then people began asking themselves what went wrong with Singapore's hawker food culture that there is no done to stop its discontinuation. They started blaming high rentals, labour crunch, prohibition of foreigner workers, lack of succession interest and whatever other reasons they can find to give meaning to the entire hype they are trying to create.

There was also some fracas about hawker stalls ownership/leases being transferred at astronomical amount. If I had not recollected wrongly, this was even debated in parliament that eventually resulted in prohibition of transfers by the National Environmental Agency, people who call the shots pertaining to hawkers and their stalls.

That much being said, what really is hawker food? How it came about and where is it heading towards?

Hawker centres are the result of urban renewal and redevelopment. Many eating places that were frequented by locals and visitors were cleared to make way for modernization. Well known among these were Koek Rd, Orchard Rd Car Park, Bugis Street, East Cost Rd, Ellenborough Market, Pearl's Hill Market (People's Park), backlane opposite Capitol Theatre, Hock Lam Street, along the streets of Chinatown and Hong Kong Street. These were so to speak post war Singapore's first generation overlapping to second generation hawkers. Without saying, there were also hawkers across the island.

The draw then for these eating places of old were that they were located very near to cinemas, about the only entertainment ordinary Singaporeans could enjoy. There was practically no emphasis on quality or taste during a time when most people eat simple home cooked meals most of the time. Eating out was a luxury of sorts.

Given that such prime locations were limited with unending flow of captive patrons, stalls changing hands were mostly unheard of. Income was in a way fixed but lucrative. Prices were not exactly affordable then relative to the earnings of ordinary Singaporeans but it is also not a place where one goes everyday or even every weekend.

Owning real estate then was out of reach across the board, and there weren't investment options nor opportunities available. In that sense when everybody was about the same, these hardworking and well rewarded hawkers could lavish themselves with simple luxury like smoking "Abdullah 37", a more expensive brand of cigarette instead of the cheaper '555". Some who are better at managing their finances would save up for a second hand car instead of relying on taxis to ferry their daily stuffs.

This is one culture and heritage we can never replicate nor preserve. It can only be a documented history to reminisce for the older folks, but may be too bland for the post 65ers.


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