Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · History

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Do New Hawker Centres Secure the Future of Singapore's Hawker Heritage?


I was chatting the other day with a friend about the future of our hawker heritage. She said most people she spoke with are optimistic about the future of Singapore's hawker heritage because the government is building more hawker centres.

With more hawker centres it follows naturally that the future of our hawker heritage is safe and secure.


On the surface it does appear to be so.

But, that chat set me digging a little deeper about the future of our unique hawker heritage.

Singapore's hawker food has it's roots in street food peddled by hawkers to irk out a modest living by providing cheap cooked meals to the public (mostly hard labourers).

Sungai Road Laksa ^ click

The hawker pioneers applied a lot of ingenuity to create many delicious dishes out of whatever cheap ingredients that were available. Indeed, they created an entire food genre and culture with dishes not found anywhere else.

Chye Kee shut it's shutters for the last time in Mar 2015 ^ click

Some of these hawker pioneers and their original dishes are still around but their number is dwindling fast as they retire.


From the original recipes and methods, a hawker dish can stay basically the same and also evolve in two other directions.  All three trends are in motion together.

One trend is towards gentrification. For example, use lobsters in prawn noodles. Wagyu beef in beef kway teow. Hawker food find themselves in the menu of exclusive hotels and restaurants. Think Chatterbox chicken rice at Mandarin Orchard Hotel.

This kind of development is natural as society becomes more affluent and when the appeal of hawker food reaches into more affluent markets. I cheer such developments in the same way that I have that fuzzy warm feeling when I hear about a child from a humble background making it into high society.

The other trend is towards commodification - driven by the need to keep hawker food affordable for most people in the face of higher rental, labour, utilities, ingredients and other costs.  This is principally achieved by economies of scale, mass production, mechanization and reduction of skilled labour. For example, food is prepared in central kitchens or factories. Food is cooked by robots/ machines. More processed and synthetic ingredients are used. The "hawker stalls" become merely distribution points manned by employees or even hawkers with limited training.  

The trend at hawker centres is towards this type of "hawker food". It has began some time ago and will pick up pace as mass produced food fill the gap as more heritage hawkers retire.  

The new hawker centres being built and this type of "hawker food" serve a very important public need (to be fed safely and affordably). Preservation of hawker heritage is probably not central in this calculation and rightly so.

Where then do "authentic" hawker food using the old recipes and methods stand in the changing environment?

Actually, it seemed that most original labour intensive, artisanal hawker dishes have not yet found a secure place in the new Singapore.  Gentrified hawker food have their comfortable homes in hotels and exclusive restaurants. Generic mass produced hawker food is increasingly firmly taking hold at hawker centres and coffee shops.

Where then is the future home of artisanal hawker dishes like hand made fish balls, Hakka yong tau foo, satay bee hoon, mee kuah and so on?

Making Nyonya kaya at home ^ click

One place is the homes of people who love such dishes in the form of home cooking. I feel home cooking is an important arm in our body of efforts to preserve our hawker food heritage.

But, what about authentic hawker food in our public spaces?

Fu Xin Teochew Kueh ^ click

For that, the consciousness present among foodies (live to eat people) need to pervade the general public.  Perhaps when the public is more conscious of the nuanced difference between mass produced and artisanal hawker food, the latter may be able to realise it's true value and command a fair price. The public may be willing to pay more than the price of generic mass produced "hawker food" for a taste made with carefully selected fresh ingredients, less use of preservatives and synthetic flavour enhancers, cooked with costly, time consuming traditional methods by skilled hands.

Wee Nam Kee chicken rice shop at Marina Square Shopping Centre ^ click

Actually higher margin hawker food like bak kut teh and chicken rice have already found their place and are thriving in specialty restaurants. It is dishes like satay bee hoon, bak chor mee, fish ball noodles, fried Hokkien mee, Teochew kueh, mee siam etc in the original forms that doesn't seemed to have found a firm foothold in our future public spaces yet.

What can be done to give authentic artisanal hawker food it's due recognition and let it's true value be realised?

Please share your views with me on this.

Date: 14 Nov 2015

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1 comment:

  1. The 'Gentrification' of food is natural, alike the evolution of our species. Some efforts will live on while others die a natural death....while the rest will linger (for the longest time) and antagonize the sensibilities of the more astute. The best fare is universally found where passionate chefs wield their craft. Be it at a humble hawker stall, the finest restaurants or home. The key to it all is the Chef, who presides over the choice of ingredients, cooking technique & presentation. Match that with an appreciative customer base and you have the 'Perfect Storm' for success. (Tay Lawrence)


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