“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
If any young person wants to join the trade, I really wish them well. But first, they must really love what they do.
Second-generation Hawker, Hjh Maimunah
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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