Singapore Hawker Food: Past, Present and Future
Singapore’s Shifting Scene
Singapore is a global financial juggernaut and it boasts too many amazing and varied restaurants to count. The same could be said for Tokyo, New York, London, Paris, and a hefty handful of others. But there is one thing at which Singapore is still unmatched by any city on Earth: street food.
Well, not exactly street food in a strict sense. Not like the street-side stalls of Montevideo or the steamy pushcarts of Bangkok. In a Singaporean sense, street food refers mainly to its famous hawker centres. These large spaces are mostly indoors, containing thousands of stalwart stands and ample public seating. The prices are low, the hawker food largely delicious, and the range of dishes on offer is phenomenal. A vibrant reflection of Singapore’s unique social history. These hawker centres are the envy of foodie-fuelled cities around the world. What’s more, they’re the stated inspiration for Anthony Bourdain’s ambitious project to create an international food mega-market in New York.
Perhaps the best known food centre in Singapore today is Lau Pa Sat, surrounded by skyscrapers in Downtown Core. Although the food is fantastic, Lau Pa Sat’s popularity is better explained by its enviable central location and architecture. Built in 1894 by Scottish engineers, the orange octagonal structure was listed as a national monument of Singapore in 1973. Lau Pa Sat displays the full spectrum of Singapore’s culinary heritage, including Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Peranakan, western and uniquely local dishes (like fish-head soup), and it is particularly popular for its myriad desserts illustrating this cultural tapestry.
But even this colourful culinary scene is a gaunt version of what Singapore hawker centres used to be. In fact, Singapore hawker food may be on its way to becoming the stuff of legend. Something that parents and grandparents will talk about to newer generations who are too busy drinking at Starbucks to listen.
A History of Hawkers in Singapore
Like many other places, Singapore’s vibrant street-food scene closely aligns with its immigration heritage. After becoming a British colony, the island swelled over the course of the 19th century. It became a major trade port and hub for the rubber industry, attracting workers to its ever-expanding harbour. Most of these workers were from India and China, joining the small population of indigenous Malays and Peranakan traders. This concentrated cultural mixture laid the groundwork for Singapore’s unique food web. The spices of India and imperial dishes of China started to intertwine with Malaysian and Peranakan flavours. But it was after the Second World War that Singapore’s modern food culture really developed. After the Japanese surrendered the island, Britain reasserted shaky control before Singapore finally split from Malaysia, becoming independent in 1965.
During these decades Singapore went from a war-ravaged city where unemployment, poverty, hunger and violence were rife to an international financial, manufacturing and transport powerhouse. Its blend of Asian and European characteristics – and its Cold War neutrality – made Singapore a uniquely attractive place for people and business interests from all over. Big industry moved in, the local economy skyrocketed, and people came in droves in search of a better life.
The Birth of Hawker Food in Singapore
A lot of people struggled to find stable work, and many of them fell back on what they knew – cooking. Without the money to rent permanent spaces they simply set up shop wherever was possible and likely to attract customers. Usually on busy streets, serving from a trolley or from temporary spots set up with a few plastic chairs. Such hawkers grew so much in number and popularity that they became a vibrant part of the city’s modern fabric. Feeding labourers with cheap, filling meals and introducing people to enticing new tastes. Unofficial groups of street hawkers sprang up, busy places where you could find a huge variety of food for cheap.
Unfortunately, though, the prices were not the only dirty thing. The early hawker centres developed a reputation for being unsanitary places where rats and other pests were common. Prompted by repeated reports of widespread food poisoning, the government stepped in and funded purpose-built hawker centres. These became market halls with proper sewage systems and running water – offering hawkers affordable rental prices for a spot. Eventually almost all of Singapore’s street-food sellers moved into hawker centres like this and they became a city icon. Hawker centres showcase the full array of Singapore’s phenomenal culinary influences in one place.
Over time these high standards turned a lot of hawker centres into watered-down versions like shopping mall food halls. They are more like structured, air-conditioned spaces shared with retail shops or chain food outlets nowadays. Still, many authentic hawker centres survive, particularly those feeding residential housing estates. These centres are the trump card in any argument Singapore makes for being the street-food gold standard.
The Future of Hawker Food
However, as always, the times are a-changin’. A lot more hawker centres than those that have already been destroyed or transformed into shopping malls are at risk. Some fall victim to new building developments, bulldozed for commercial space or condos in Singapore’s scorching property market. But possibly a bigger threat to the hawker culture comes from within. Young Singaporean’s parents and grandparents inherited the family business, largely by default, with few viable alternatives. Today’s generation are less likely to take over the early starts and long hours of operating a hawker food stall.
Like in other developed economies, young people are pushed towards careers in medicine, finance, law, engineering and the like. In Singapore, too, the notion of having ‘face,’ or prestige, is very present. It’s hard to avoid social discrimination introducing yourself at a cocktail function as a fast-food vendor rather than a doctor. Finding somebody with the same work ethic to take over your stall proves a difficult task for retiring Singapore hawkers. Some of them sell the small business to anybody interested; others have too much pride. They fear the standards and quality, which they built through hours and decades of graft, will slip.
The Constant Evolution of Singapores’s Hawker Food
It is uncertain what Singapore’s hakwer food scene will look like after the next decade and beyond. Superstar Singaporean film-maker Eric Khoo is concerned about this. His latest film, Wanton Mee, is a love letter to Singapore’s hawker centres, and it has the feeling of a farewell, a parting adieu to this unique culinary creation rather than a call to arms to save it. Quisine spoke to Khoo at the 2016 Berlinale film festival (where Wanton Mee had its world premiere). Here we give him the last word:
‘There is lots of great food in Singapore that you would also find in Malaysia, India, China and other places. But there are some things that you cannot get anywhere else. One is Hainanese curry rice. It’s not Hainanese chicken rice. It’s its own beast, and man is it a beast. It looks like sludge when you get it, something you might not want to eat. It has a whole lot of stuff: chicken, pork, squid, fish, and about five different sauces. Mix it all together and you have the equivalent of about 15 dishes on one plate. But it tastes so good!’
‘To me this is something you cannot replicate, it came from the muddled mess of Singapore. It’s like the social DNA of Singapore on a plate. It doesn’t make sense, but it works. I think unfortunately this dish will disappear, as the old hawkers pass on. It will still be served but it will change, especially if it becomes a global thing. Copied versions of it will not be the same. You can’t just look at a picture of something and understand what it is or where it came from. There’s way more to it than that. And the best part is that we can’t even explain what that more is. It just is.’