You are reading

Hawker Culture On UNESCO’s Heritage List Means Nothing If No One Takes Over

Hawker Culture On UNESCO’s Heritage List Means Nothing If No One Takes Over

  • Culture
  • Food
Photography by Marisse Caine and the author.

“We’re a new breed of hawkers armed with fresh ideas, but still rooted by the past.”

Caught between the old ways and new techniques, young hawkers face an uphill task of changing Singaporeans’ set notions of what defines hawker food and culture today. Two camps have surfaced: loyal traditionalists and innovators.

With hawker culture recently added to UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage—along with introductions of a new hawker course and scheme targeted at youths—what does it all mean for this aspect of Singaporean life?

Today, succession problems loom large, threatening the future of Singapore’s much-loved hawker fare. If youths aren’t willing, who will take up the mantle after veteran hawkers hang up their woks? To better understand the motivations of new generation hawkers, we hear personal accounts from three Singaporeans who chose to place family and culinary legacy above all else.

Mike Loh, 29
Third-generation Hawker, Blanco Court Beef Noodles

1
I had a sudden realisation one day while watching my Dad prepare Hainanese beef noodles. I thought to myself: “Big household brands have so much history, yet they are still good and well-liked by the public. If they can be so successful, why can’t we?”

From then on, I started thinking about ways to grow the family business. Plus, traditional beef noodles is a dish that is rarely seen in the local market; it would have been such a waste if we discontinued.

My aunt, who is the first generation of our family’s business, retired back when I was still in primary school. Thankfully, the business was passed down to my dad, and eventually handed to my brother and I. This makes us the third-generation hawkers of Blanco Court Beef Noodles today.

Mike and his Dad, Max Lo.
Mike and his Dad, Max Lo.
I took a Diploma in Sports Science but shifted gears because the continuation of our family’s legacy was of priority to me. My dad, being a traditional man, insisted that I start from the bottom. So I began scrubbing pans, manning the stalls, and learning to cook right after my National Service.

There will always be stress when running a hawker business. Long hours aside, I find that it’s also tough maintaining the quality of our food as we grow. Taste can become inconsistent if brands fail to honour authentic flavours. This is of utmost importance to us and we make it a point to never play a fool with our roots. You have to get this right and naturally, results will show. 

3
With our Food Republic outlet at Parkway Parade, it was a point where we took a leap of faith. Our businesses were already affected due to Covid-19 and we had to do something about it.

There are a wide variety of delivery and contactless payment modes in partnership with Food Republic, so we were able to cater to a larger audience even during the pandemic. These modern approaches allowed us to bounce back from the bleak circuit breaker period. 

It’s a partnership that we trust because they’ve also helped us to grow fast at lower costs. Since then, we have expanded to several other Food Republic outlets islandwide. 

4
I’ve heard about new initiatives like the Hawkers Succession Scheme — those are great steps moving forward. Singapore is known for our food so we must do something to sustain it.

I’m certain more hipster hawkers will emerge in the future, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New age hawkers will honour our heritage food with finesse, perhaps even adding new things like plating to the mix.

I believe that any trend can die out, but one thing won’t: tradition. Things may evolve but our roots will always be there. Let’s say my future kids take over and they pick a retro signboard for the business. If it suits that generation, then okay lor! Ultimately, our cherished recipes will still remain.

Blanco Court’s Superior Beef Noodles
Rather than dollars and cents, the job is more about people and the relationships fostered. “Thank you for continuing this” are some precious words I’ve received from returning customers. Each time someone gives us a thumbs up, that makes my job satisfying.

If any young person wants to join the trade, I really wish them well. But first, they must really love what they do.

Mastura, 35
Second-generation Hawker, Hjh Maimunah

6
Hjh Maimunah? This is all that I’ve known. It’s my livelihood, my family, our heritage.

My siblings and I grew up with the familiar sights and smells of our family’s dishes. Our love for food was cultivated from a very young age. We helped out in little ways through simple tasks like cashiering, waitering and washing of dishes.

Back then, customers would say things like: “Aiyo, you guys know how to do it or not?” Those doubts have vanished.

My mother opened our very first restaurant back in 1992 with the support of my grandmother. Prior to that, she worked in small stalls selling traditional Malay kueh and pastries. I joined right after I graduated from university in 2008.

The reason was simple: If no one took over the business, the following generation would never get to taste certain foods that we grew up with. I refuse to let that become a reality.

7
I’ve heard some people express their worries as we expanded — things like our business being taken over by external parties. That’s untrue. We’re still us! We safeguard our family’s legacy by ensuring that recipes remain original. Each and every dish is tried and tested every step of the way. Even when using automated woks and combi ovens, we don’t simply innovate without conducting any tests. 

These days, the biggest challenge is in getting young blood and Singaporeans to join the trade. Some people hesitate to join a small company like ours as they think it is less stable compared to large corporations. To address this manpower issue, we had to learn to be more adaptive. 

Hjh Mainunah Mini at Food Republic @ City Square Mall
Hjh Mainunah Mini at Food Republic @ City Square Mall
For us to really grow, we needed to collaborate with others. Our partnership with Food Republic has helped us to expand without having to spend too much on renovations. At the same time, our manpower issues have been reduced. 

Since the food court provides their own staff who handles the clearing of dishes, we manage to save on hiring costs. There is also a dedicated team who manages the operations of the food court as a whole. This has been a great help and an effective solution to our problems.

We were unfamiliar with the process of setting up a stall in the food court, but thankfully, Food Republic provided us with ample resources like branding and operations assistance. From equipment to stall design and the type of licenses to acquire, they’ve guided us through all these different aspects. 

Siput Sedut Lemak, one of Hjh Maimunah’s signature dishes
Siput Sedut Lemak, one of Hjh Maimunah’s signature dishes
Compared to our other outlets, Hjh Maimunah Mini in Food Republic is strategically set up to serve the more popular dishes. We wanted it to be a convenient option for customers to get their all-time favourites.

Being in a heartland mall, some of them even come during office lunch times to satisfy cravings. Either choice is great; they simply offer a different dining experience.

The goal has always been constant: to build our brand and trust of the community. Whenever people see us, we want them to equate that to good food. We have reached that point after years of hard work. Now, it’s a matter of maintaining that and improving along the way.

In the future, I’d be more than willing to hand the business over than to ever see it come to an end. It doesn’t have to be a family member; the main thing is continuity. Otherwise, it would be a huge loss for both our community and heritage.

For those looking to join the trade, I’ll offer them three words: Never give up.

James Wang, 29
Third-generation Hawker, Haikee Soy Sauce Chicken

11
We’ve come a long way since the 1950s. Haikee (海记, Hai Ji) first began along Upper Cross Street where my grandad sold steamed chicken rice in push carts. He soon concocted his own soy sauce recipe and made it unique to our family.

Most of our customers remember us. They’d say: “Aren’t you guys from Upper Cross Street? My parents used to always buy from you.” It makes me smile knowing that we’re playing a crucial role in the lives of others and it’s not just an eat-and-go situation.

As much as possible, we want to honour past hardships and memories. My dad, who first took over from my grandfather, managed to secure a small stall. At first, he didn’t even have enough money to change our signboard, resorting to a plain red cloth for recognisability. It’s the reason why red is still prominent in our current one today.

Before I joined the trade, I was reflecting on our family’s slogan: “Taste of the past, sharing the future.” How can we move forward but preserve the old? It’s not as simple as it sounds and a challenge that many new hawkers face.

12
I first began by learning to cook, serve and chop the chicken. It’s tough work but when being on the ground, you slowly get to understand people and become a better problem-solver.  

Unlike the older generation who entered the trade for economic survival, youths aspire to create a brand, start a franchise and expand to different locations. Things are simply not the same anymore and we can’t always expect them to be. To survive, we must stay relevant.

13
When my brother and I first took over, we started to incorporate new technologies into our business operations as well, such as the auto-lifting of noodles. Among the older generation, seeing is believing. If they personally witness how new methods help to save time yet produce similar results, they will come to accept it. Change is a hard thing for everyone. 
14
Our new outlet at Food Republic @ 313 Somerset recently launched in February. This partnership was a bold step for us but one that we felt is necessary. Apart from being a well-established brand in Singapore, Food Republic shares the same vision as we do when it comes to heritage preservation. You see it in their food court designs and in the tenants they pick — they all deliver a nostalgic, familiar feel.

15
When I heard about hawker culture being listed in UNESCO’s list, it felt like the Grammy Awards. It’s the recognition that hawkers like my granddad deserves. With upcoming hawkerpreneurship programmes, we’re also on our way to destigmatising hawkers as failures.
16
It’s impossible to sustain the hawker culture alone. Moving forward, it’s clear that hawker business will become a dynamic ecosystem. Living in the digital age, it’s also important that we explore new means of communication. That way, we can then connect with a wider audience. 

When working with brands like Food Republic, we’re opening doors to outreach opportunities. Chats like these, for instance, can be hard to come by. We’re grateful to be given a platform where we can share our humble story to a wider audience.

Above all, I am just glad to pursue the dream of continuing the family’s business. Food has always been where my heart lies. It’s an honour to preserve Singapore’s hawker culture – it’s becoming increasingly endangered and we mustn’t let that go on.

It’s clear that Mike, Mastura and James embody the spirit of new generation hawkers dedicated to preserving the old while moving forward with the times. Frustrating as this process can be, it is this shared belief that keeps them going: With time and effort, things will fall into place.

As a youth myself, I can see why fewer are looking to join the trade. Most of us were taught to strive for a cushy 9-5 job. Better still if you’re a doctor or lawyer earning big bucks; never mind if you have no social life or are constantly fatigued from inhumane working hours. And therein lies our problem, isn’t it? Life as a hawker may not be as glamorous from the get-go, but there is certainly more than meets the eye. 

Hawker food is the Lion City’s cub to protect at all costs. It has become so central to our lives and identities at this point that I’m certain none of us would ever like to witness its death. Till then, preservation remains an uncertain but hopeful journey — and we’re happy to let these young hawkers lead the way. 

Show your support to hawkers mentioned in this post: 

Blanco Court Beef Noodles
Food Republic @ Parkway Parade
Parkway Parade, 80 Marine Parade Rd, Singapore 449269

Food Republic @ Wisma Atria
Wisma Atria, 435 Orchard Rd, 238877

Food Republic @ Westgate
3 Gateway Dr, #B1-28/29 Westgate, Singapore 608532

Food Republic @ Vivo City
1 HarbourFront Walk, #03 – 01, Singapore 098585

Food Republic @ Suntec City
3 Temasek Blvd, #B1 – 115 to 120, Singapore 038983

Hjh Maimunah Mini
Food Republic @ City Square Mall
180 Kitchener Rd, Level 4, Singapore 208539

Haikee Soy Sauce Chicken 
Food Republic @ 313@Somerset
313 Orchard Rd, Singapore 238895

This article is sponsored by Food Republic.
If you love hawker food, let’s connect. Grow fat with us at Instagram, Spotify, Facebook, and Telegram.
Quick poll: Nasi Lemak v.s. Roti Prata v.s. Prawn Mee. Please let us know your pick at  community@ricemedia.co

Author

Eve Lock Staff writer