Monday, February 27, 2012

Hawker Food Soup Tulang, Hilang!

 Eating next to roads, drains, don't know how the hawker wash the dishes for the next customer but yummy dish...

Super interesting episode about hawker food, culture and heritage in Singapore over at Singapore Talking earlier.

The panelists, one guy from ieatishootipost, one from hungrygowhere and a food critic discussed that old hawkers sifu are retiring and there is nobody to hand their kungfu to, cos even their kids don't want to slog out a greasy, hot, blue-collar 12-hour day. That Singaporeans unrealistically expect hawkers to dish out great food at $2 or less although prices of ingredients has increased since the 1980s. That culinary schools in Singapore teach ang moh dishes and not focus on char kway teow, mua chi, hokkien mee. That hawkers who want to retire and have nobody to impart their skills to should sell their secret manual to culinary schools so that the dish does not die out once the hawkers go.

That guy from ieatishootipost talked a lot and quite yaya but his views were well argued especially that line of hawker food being cheap and no frills as that was where we came from as a society - poor migrants who slog it out here, who had to eat cheap food. It was an emotional appeal to our heritage err "our" means not those first-generation Singaporeans. He also suggested that "heritage hawkers" i.e. 2-3 generation hawkers should be given assistance in terms of grants by the government so that Singapore's hawker culture is preserved.

However, there is conflation of nostalgia, culture and heritage. They can mean the same thing, but should not always be so. Culture evolves through time because of changes in our society. Our hawker culture is changing. From unregulated illegal street hawkers to centralised regulated hawkers centres, now to kopitiams and food courts dominating the "cheap" food sector and sidelining hawker centres, the annex to the also evolving wet market.

Heritage is different slightly albeit it overlaps with culture. Heritage is one's past and we should generally preserve it for historical reasons and it is a story of where we came from and ideals of the past. However, spitting on the floor, illegal hawker stalls next to drains, squatting on stools at hawker centres, this is also our hawker experience heritage but nobody is that nostalgic about it as it is a turn off and offends our modern sensibilities on hygiene and social etiquette.

Whatever it is, there is truth that hawkers are finding it harder to survive and hawker food is evolving to a point that we don't like - the food is not tasty, the price is not right and "authenticity" is being lost. Hawking is a blue collar job and the younger generation don't see it as an art, or at least a lucrative career. Many of us don't want to pay $5 for hawker food as we cling on to the notion that hawker food should still be priced to that when we were kids. Hawkers can't survive if they don't increase the prices of their wanton mee, satay, soup tulang to keep up with inflation.

You know what is going to happen right as no local wants to carry on the hawker tradition although there is still a demand for it. The immigrants from PRC, Burma etc are going to take over the hawker industry. They already are. Hawker fare is the fare of immigrants - like our past, and our current.


  1. Very well-observed. This is a really serious issue. And you are right, hawker fare is fare of immigrants. We're all hoping the tasty and cheap food of yore can still be retained, but no one wants to do the sweaty, back-breaking work.

  2. Camemberu

    Yes, hawker cuisine and culture is literally dying as they can't find the right apprentices. Not easy as the hours are long and hard and no confirm-chop that their stall would be famous. Perhaps there should be hawker guilds! Association of Wantan Mee Sellers and Hainan Chicken Rice Clan. Hmmmm yummy idea.

    Also, we have to change our palate and adapt to the new hawker fare dished out by immigrants for immigrants. Lots of Tiong stalls now, up to us to learn to like or dislike their dishes.