Thursday, 17 September 2015

What's the Singapore Hawker Scene got to do with the Story of Swiss Watch Industry? JK1238


The lack of continuity - very few young people willing to become hawkers - is often cited as the cause of decline of the Singapore hawker scene.

In my humble opinion, the lack of continuity is not the root cause of decline of Singapore's hawker food heritage. The root cause is the availability of technology that makes mass produced generic food more affordable than artisanal hawker food.

Mass produced food creates a low price ceiling on hawker food which keeps profit margins unattractive for new entrants who use traditional, manual food preparation methods. (Subsidised rental of pioneer hawkers also contributed to a low price ceiling but this is gradually being phased out.)

So what's the Singapore hawker scene got to do with the story of the Swiss watch industry?

Like artisanal Singapore hawker food, centuries old Swiss watchmaking is rooted in meticulous manual labour. Swiss watches are famous for their precision and craftsmanship - they are actually exquisite jewellery.

In the 1970s, centuries of Swiss tradition was suddenly disrupted by a new technology: quartz watches. Quartz watches are more accurate and far cheaper than mechanical Swiss watches. 

In a similar way, mass produced generic food is cheaper to produce than artisanal hawker food.

The “quartz crisis” disrupted many traditional Swiss watchmakers. By the end of the 1970s, the number of craftsmen in the Swiss watch industry plummeted to 30,000 from 100,000. Very few young Swiss want to enter the dying industry. Centuries old brands evaporated like dew in the morning sun.


In Singapore recently, some famous old hawker stalls have closed because there was no one to take over the business. More are expected to meet the same fate.

It's only in the 1990s, that Swiss watchmakers finally found the response to quartz watches - a brilliant profitable strategy that decisively turned the tide.


Swiss watch makers began marketing their products as luxury items. Swiss mechanical watches became status symbols. Those willing to spend more on a traditional Swiss watch marks themselves as people who appreciates the finer things in life (and, of course, as someone who has "made it").

The strategy worked brilliantly.

While sales and value of Swiss luxury watches rebounded strongly, quartz watches remained as cheap commodities serving the general public (like myself).

It was not appeal to nostalgia or sentimentality that saved the day for fine Swiss watches. It was change in perception of it's value. 

Does the story of swiss watches have something to teach us about the unfolding story of Singapore hawker food?

Mass produced generic food is less delicious to some but it fills the stomach just as a quartz watch tells the time very well. Indeed, for the same price, generic food can fill the stomach better than artisanal food, just as a SGD10 quartz watch is more accurate than most expensive Swiss mechanical watches. In my humble opinion, mass produced generic food and it's producers should be valued and appreciated for this important social function.

But, just as quartz watches and traditional Swiss watches cater to different market segments, generic mass produced hawker food and artisanal hawkers can co-exist and cater to different market segments.

The challenge of the moment is how the perception of artisanal hawker food can be raised to the level of fine foods (like fine Swiss watches).

What must we do for this to happen?

How do we get from where we are today to there?

And, how do you think generic mass produced hawker food and artisanal hawkers can co-exist in Singapore? Mass produced hawker food is definitely here to stay - economic realities make sure of that. The survival of artisanal heritage hawker food is not so assured - it needs a coherent strategy and concerted action.

What are your thoughts on this?

My earlier muse on the emergence of two streams of Singapore hawker food <- click

The good bye Chye Kee story <- click

Disclaimer: Please note that I am just a casual observer, a Singaporean man in the street. I have never worked in the food and beverage industry. I have no affiliation with any corporation or government agency. But, I care passionately about our food heritage. I do write a hobbyist food blog and in the process interact daily with hawkers, foodies, restaurateurs, and others who know a lot than me about F & B. Bearing in mind my limitations, these are some of my uninformed thoughts on the future of Singapore street food and the hawker scene.

Return to Johor Kaki homepage.


  1. hi, posting from office terminal (oops!) hence the anonymous status. apologies for that.

    For the artisan hawkers to survive till 2015, means that they are likely to have a product that sells and have a customer base. So it means they already have "headstart" over others. To survive further, probably means they have to move out of their comfort zone by improvising and adapting.

    There is a constant argument that hawker food needs to be kept affordable to the less well off, which i totally agree for it is the roots of hawker food. However, maybe what these artisan hawkers can offer is option(s). Options to upgrade, not only in terms of portions and chilli vs no-chilli, but in terms of quality of ingredients as well.

    in the CBD, tai wah noodles offers up to $6/bowl options, and there remains a constant queue at its stall.
    Mass market seller - MacDonald, offers up-sized version but has also started offering create your own burgers.
    In both cases, it involves an established brand/product that offers consumers options.
    Improvising and adapting is applicable to all, even the purchasing power of consumers. So it should be applicable to hawkers as well.
    Strongly believe that if you try, you may succeed but if you don't even attempt, you will surely not.

    Improvise, adapt but stay close to your roots.
    This may be over simplifying but probably worth some discussion.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts! I am preparing a series of sequels to this post and your suggestion is certainly valuable. I do agree that a same stall offering affordable and artisanal options is a possible approach. I will speak with hawkers to appreciate the feasibility from a practitioner's point of view. Much appreciate your sharing :-D

  2. Its unfortunate that many hawkers choose to switch to lower quality ingredients, reduce portion or take a shortcuts in recipes in order to combat rising rental cost. Those taste in the 1980s, I can say 99% are all gone.

    1. Let's give our wholehearted support to those that still do :-D


I share hoping that everyone will have a good time but your experience may differ from mine. I love to know how you enjoyed yourself or if you didn't.

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