Could you share with us your story on why you decided to go into food blogging?
When I retired, I didn't have much resources except for my passion for photography, writing and eating :-D I also love travel and meeting people. I asked myself what is the most good that I can do with the little that I have.
I found that using a free online publishing platform like Google's blogger (blogspot), I could create greater awareness and appreciation for our heritage food and hawkers. At the practical level, it brings more business to the hawkers, and hopefully a better living. At the personal level, the hawker feels joy that his/her life's work is recognized (even if it's from a total stranger from out of town). I encourage everyone to blog because it's amazing how online publishing has the power to do so much good for everyone.
What does Singapore hawker culture mean to you?
To me, hawker culture is a part of our identity as Singaporeans.
To me, hawker culture has two essential elements.
Firstly, it's our hawker food like mee rebus, mee siam, bak chor mee, Hokkien mee, chicken rice and roti prata. Many of these like Nyonya laksa, satay bee hoon and so on are unique to Singapore (and Malaysia, with which we have a shared history).
Secondly, the place, the hawker centre where people of all communities and all walks of life gather and eat together.
People often ask me, where are my favourite eating places in the world. I say, Singapore is the best.
When you go to Bangkok, the food is great but you get Thai food, Thai food and more Thai food from one end of the famed Soi 38 to the other end. It is the same in Taipei or Manila.
But in a Singapore hawker centre, you can have Malay, Chinese and Indian food all at the same table altogether at the same time.
This is something unique and precious, worth preserving.
Our hawker culture is also democratic.
At the best bak kut teh stall, we can find coolies like me and tycoons eating together.
Any decline of Singapore hawker culture is a sign of decay of this part of our identity, our Singaporeaness.
And already, when you look around some of our hawker centres, you will find that our younger generation is not as strongly represented as before.
Given your experience, where do you think the hawker trade in Singapore is going at the moment and could you give us a few examples?
Cost pressures have given rise to mass production of hawker dishes that do not use the old artisanal methods. This is understandable as affordability is part and parcel of hawker culture. But, needless to say, the products of mass production are not the same as artisanal hand made products.
While mass production is getting entrenched, artisanal hawkers are retiring and their successors are out priced by mass produced hawker food.
Artisanal dishes are well appreciated by foodies but the general public is ambivalent about it, especially when it is by necessity, priced higher.
For example, a bowl of noodles with factory made fish balls costs SGD3 and a bowl with hand made fish balls costs SGD5. The hand made fish balls tastes better but how many people are willing to pay SGD2 extra for it?
At the moment, many people are unconscious or oblivious to the difference between the mass produced fish ball and the hand crafted fish ball.
I understand that you straddle between Malaysia and Singapore for food reviews. Do you mind sharing with us some of your insights on the differences or similarities that you see between the hawker culture of the two countries?
In Malaysia as in Singapore, succession is a challenge. My blog is just four years old. Already, there are some JB hawkers whom I have written about who are retired now. There was a popular family run yong tau fu stall in Batu Pahat I wanted to blog about. Before I could write about them, the parents retired and the children closed the stall as no one wanted to continue.
In Malaysia, especially in the smaller towns, industrial scale food are not yet as entrenched as in Kuala Lumpur (and Singapore). The general public in Malacca, Penang, Ipoh and Johor Bahru are more conscious of the value of artisanal food, and thus, give them their support. I am sure you have read articles about how proud Penangites are about their food and artisanal hawkers. One look at a bowl of Penang asam laksa (no need to smell or taste) and the Penangnite will reject it, if it is not the "real thing".
In Malaysia, artisanal hawkers are folk heroes, spoken well of in social media and their business is thriving. More people are conscious of the difference between generic mass products and artisanal food, and are willing to pay a slight premium for it. This support holds back the advance of industrial generic mass produced hawker food.
A few articles we've read state that 'the golden age of hawkering' is gone, where one used to be able to make a generous sum of money through the craft. These days it is cafes who are able to sell food at high margins while attracting the majority of youths. What do you think could be done to level the playing field or create better incentives for young hawkers?
Cafe culture have caught the imagination of the new generation of customers in part riding on the rise of social media during the last decade. Cafe and trendy fad foods have a stronger following in social media than hawker food. Hawker food may rarely feature in the Facebook or IG feeds of some of the younger generation.
Our heritage food has to get the same social media bandwidth as cafe and fad foods. More young people need to write or IG about heritage food to give it an "in" image - it's not grandma, grandpa, or mum and dad's food, it's our food - all of us Singaporeans. It's doesn't help that it's mostly baby boomer bloggers who wax lyrical about hawker food through sentimental, nostalgia tinted lens. Young bloggers have to come in too.
Heritage food can look very sexy too on Instagram. The new generation like yourselves can help :-D
Look at Roast Paradise at Old Airport Road Food Centre, opened by two buddies in their twenties with zero experience in F & B. Not yet six months in the business and already one of the top, best known char siew stalls in Singapore, thanks to social media coverage and a good product. Roast Paradise charge premium prices for their char siew and they are sold out everyday in a couple of hours or less.
People know the difference between paint and boil "char siew" and roast till caramelised and charred at the edges char siew, and are willing to pay a premium for it.
There is still hope yet and opportunities are still there in hawkering.
During the Hawker Centre Upgrading Program, which concluded in 2014, many hawker centres were improved in terms of sanitization, ventilation, and dinning experience. How much do you think these improvement have helped the hawker centres to attract more customers?
I feel food hygiene and safety are essential. Needless to say, better dining environment would lead to more visitors. But, people also take into account affordability, accessibility and subjective taste preferences when they visit a food outlet.
We can only do so much for hardware and I think the government has done a lot there already, the software and heartware (love of hawker culture) must come up to speed too.
There needs to be a civic, ground up, "love our heritage hawker food" movement.
That's where I think social media by the youth brigade comes in :-D
Are there still room for improvement in hawker centre environment and dining experience?
All the essentials are there - hygiene, accessibility, and comfort.
Maybe some features like wall art etc that will look good on social media where people want to take a selfie or wefie with? You know, hawker centres can take a leaf from the hipster cafes.
If your question is about air conditioning, I think we have to exhaust all possible ways of natural ventilation before taking that route with it's obvious capital, operations and maintenance cost consequences (which will eventually end in higher food prices - not good when it is avoidable).
How do you think the young hawkers are different from the older generation of hawkers?
In the old days, where job and educational opportunities were scarcer most hawkers enter the trade out of necessity.
Today, young people enter the profession by choice. Quite a few hawkers have formal culinary training and have the option of working in large restaurants and hotels. Some even have professional degrees. Joel and Deniece have degrees in Finance but they chose instead to be hawkers because they believe in our heritage food and hawker culture.
So, the passion is strong for those who choose to enter the hawker business today.
But, I am afraid there are not enough young hawkers, just as there are not enough young customers at hawker centres at the moment.
Another challenge is how to make sure that young hawkers who have many options, do not switch to more conventional careers. I have seen this happen quite a few times.
We have read about the hawker food recipes not being able to pass down due to the older hawkers’ lack of teaching skills, as well as the young hawkers’ preference in bringing in new food to the hawker centres. Do you think the food served in hawker centre will experience a shift?
Of course, the types of food served at hawker centres will shift.
New types of food are already brought into our hawker centres. In our global village, I am sure this will continue as the profile of Singapore residents change and I think it is a good thing. Pizza, pasta, risotto, paella, cupcakes, soft serve ice cream and craft beer are no longer novelties in our hawker centres, which by nature is an inclusive institution. By the way, have you tried the African food stall at Jalan Berseh Food Centre?
During the “Our Future Hawker Centres” discussion, someone mentioned that the government should give young hawkers heritage status to enjoy subsidies by taking over old hawker’s stall. Do you think this suggestion is practical (to the government)?
Hey, your questions are very tough and sensitive!
Subsidies are complex social political issues which I am not qualified to comment. I can only offer some personal, general observations as a consumer.
In Singapore hawker centres, there are hawkers paying 1st Generation subsidized rent, 2nd Generation subsidized rent, Market Rate Minimum Bid Tender rent, Market Rate without Minimum Bid Tender rent. So complicated!
Any discussions about subsidies have to take all these legacy policies into consideration as everyone is affected differently.
Subsidies mean consumers are not paying the true price for something - it just makes someone else pay for the "discount", in this case the tax payer.
So, subsidies are given to meet specific objectives. Subsidies serve as a bridge to reach a goal. Without a clear goal, it becomes a bridge to nowhere.
In the past, subsidies are necessary because affordability is an issue for the Singapore public. Now, with mass produced hawker food (though it is not the same as artisanal food), affordable hawker food is available without subsidies.
The problem our young artisanal hawkers face is a public which is mostly unconscious or oblivious to the difference between mass produced hawker food and artisanal hawker food - and, thus unwilling to pay a premium for it. At the moment, to the general public, the perceived value of artisanal food is not much higher than mass produced food. The queue at the hand made pure fish ball noodle stall will be much shorter if they raise the price by even 50 cents above the factory made fish and (don't know what) filler compound balls ......
To put it bluntly, the market for artisanal hawker food is undeveloped.
The young hawker selling artisanal food paying market rate rental faces the additional challenge of pioneer hawkers serving the same (often better) food but paying 1st or 2nd Generation subsidised rent.
The suggestion is to subsidise young artisanal hawkers, those that make heritage food with hands and so cannot mass produce food. Subsidizing young artisanal hawkers bring the price of artisanal food down to the level of mass produced food.
Such a subsidy further blurs the distinction between mass produced and artisanal food. Artificially lowering artisanal food price could mean that the public will not realise it's true value. Consequently, the market for artisanal food does not grow. Subsidies alone may perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.
I think a more permanent solution is to build a true and bigger market for artisanal hawker food than just artificially lowering the price through subsidies. Only when one knows the true value then can we begin to truly appreciate something.
So, the subsidy for young artisanal hawkers must go hand in hand with concerted efforts to raise the public's consciousness about the true value of artisanal food and our food heritage.
The subsidy for new artisanal hawkers if implemented should also have a clear withdrawal date - not be a bridge to nowhere. Perhaps, it can be pegged to the withdrawal of the last 2nd Generation subsidised rent policy.
The temporary reprieve should be used to actively build a true and larger market willing to pay more for artisanal food. We need to rise the perceived value of our heritage food made the old way - by hand from scratch.
If this was to be implemented, do you think more young people will be willing to take up hawkering as a job?
Giving subsidies may bring in more young hawkers. But, this may not necessarily lead to better heritage food or young hawkers with the right motivation.
->> Interview by National University of Singapore (University Scholars Programme).
Please share your thoughts with us :-D
Date: 19 Mar 2016
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