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

Cross Culture · Food · Research 🇸🇬 Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail

History of Singapore Hawker Culture. From Public Health Nuisance to UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Award

Holland Drive Food Centre
It would be beyond the wildest dreams of the British Straits Settlements colonial officers who created the final solution to the public nuisance of street hawkers, that it would a century later be awarded the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity Inscription in 2020.

Hawkers in Singapore 1890. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Street hawkers appeared as soon as the teeming masses arrived from China, India, and Indonesia from the 1820s to 1930s to feed British Malaya's insatiable appetite for labour to work its booming tin mines, rubber plantations and thriving ports.

Colonial officers had a rather dim view of hawkers and hawker food, though they acknowledged that customers relished it 😄 From the beginning, colonial officers perceived street hawkers as a necessary evil because they provide an essential service for the public but needs to be controlled. 

(For the record, "dogs, lizards and rats" were off the menu in Singapore long, long ago.)


During this era up to the Second World War, most of the street hawkers were already hawking food in their respective home countries. So, when they arrived in Singapore, they simply carried on their profession in their adopted home.

The dishes were pretty much "authentic" in the sense that they were very similar to what was sold in the home countries unless unavailability of ingredients dictated some tweaking of the recipe.

Examples of street hawker dishes from this era 1800s - 1945 were satay, char kway teow, bak chor mee, Teochew beef kway teow, etc.

There were a few exceptions like bak kut teh (meat bone tea) which was an herbal tonic concocted in the late 1800s as a cure-all for the overworked coolie's (indentured labourers) ailments.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
By the turn of the twentieth century, the colonial government decided that it was time to clean up the act.

Office of the Chinese Protectorate building at Havelock Road in 1911. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In 1903, a law was passed requiring street hawkers to register with the Office of the Chinese Protectorate.

The Office of the Chinese Protectorate was established in 1877 to deal with matters of the Chinese community like secret societies, abuse welfare of coolies, gambling, prostitution, control of venereal diseases, and other such unsavoury issues including street hawkers.

The fact that street hawkers came under the purview of the Office of the Chinese Protectorate tells us where the issue of hawkers stood in the minds of colonial officers (a pain in the neck that needed to be controlled, but ideally removed).

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore & Wikipedia
In order to give the matter of street hawkers greater focus, in 1906 purview over hawkers was transferred from Governor Sir John Anderson's Office far away in London to the 5-member Municipal Commission Committee in Singapore which included locals like tapioca planter Ong Teck Lim.

Anderson Road and several public places in Singapore were named after Sir John Anderson and there is a Teck Lim Road in Chinatown today.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The iconic Tong Ah building (Singapore's mini edition of New York City's Flatiron building) is at the intersection of Teck Lim Road and Keong Saik Road.
Sir William John Ritche Simpson. Image credit: Wellcome Collection
British India Calcutta's chief health officer Sir William John Ritche Simpson led the Singapore Sanitation Commission. Presenting his findings to the Municipal Commission in 1907, Sir Simpson urged urban reforms to improve public hygiene and health, among other things like morals etc.

Simpson proposed creation of back alleys for street hawkers to reduce congestion of shop fronts and streets.

Leading from that, a set of by-laws governing street hawkers was promulgated in 1907.

At a routine Singapore Municipal Commission meeting on 11 Sep 1908, following up on the Simpson commission proposal to create and move street hawkers to back alleys, deputy president John Polglase suggested constructing "shelters for hawkers" at these back alleys.

John Polglase's "shelters for hawkers" proposal could be considered the birth of the idea of the hawker centre as we know it today.

Singapore New Bridge Road 1906. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
John Polglase proposed that the idea of "shelters for hawkers" could be trialed in the area bounded by Macau Street, Hokien Street, China Street and New Bridge Road. However, the idea was not followed up due to cost.

Municipal Health Office Middleton. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In his 1913 memorandum, Singapore Municipal Health Officer Middleton was rather scathing in his remarks about street hawkers, calling them out for:

👎Fouling up streets and five foot ways
👎Selling contaminated food which endangered public safety.

Then, the First World War came (1914 - 1918) and hygiene issues got put on the back burner.

Satay hawker in Singapore 1907. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
After World War I, it was time for the British Empire to refocus their energies on their colonies.

In 1919, Municipal Health Officer Middleton taking up John Polglase's idea of "shelters for hawkers" suggested that these could be built with priority given to house the "two basket hawkers".

Kreta Ayer in the 1910s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
And so, hawker shelters, the granddaddy of today's hawker centres were build at Kreta Ayer (1921), People's Park (1923), Carnie Street (1929), Queen Street (1929), Balestier Road (1929), and Lim Tua Tow Road (1935).

These hawker shelters were simple pitches for shelter from the elements and were supplied with piped water. It's a huge leap from plying the streets bare feet with two baskets on a bamboo pole slung across the shoulder. Street food hawkers paid a nominal rental to be allotted a space to trade inside.

People's Park Market in 1965. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The hawker shelter at People's Park was thriving until it was destroyed by a fire in 1966.

Balestier Food Centre
All the "hawker shelters" built during the 1920s - 1930s had been redeveloped. The Balestier hawker shelter is still a food centre today (2020) but it is now privately owned and run.

The fact that the "hawker shelters" scheme expanded to well beyond Kreta Ayer and extended to 1935, showed that it was meeting the authorities' objectives.

Image credit: National Library Board Singapore
But, there were way too few.

The Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore in 1931 found that there were more than 10,000 hawkers (6,043 licensed and some 4000 unlicensed) plying the streets. The six shelters housed a mere handful of 383 hawkers. (My own hunch is the number of unlicensed hawkers was likely to be underestimated and could be well over 4000 as declared.)

Japanese troops marching at Raffles Square in 1942. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The Second World War came to Singapore and we were occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. Most hawker trade ceased during the Japanese Occupation due to food shortages.

After the British returned in 1945, not much attention was paid to street hawkers until University of Malaya professor Thomas H. Silcock's Report of the Hawkers' Inquiry Commission in 1950.

Silcock's findings echoed the 1931 "Hawker Question" Committee's report about the issues of congestion, disruption, hygiene and threats to public health caused by street hawkers. But, by 1950, the situation was much more acute as the slow economic recovery of post-War Singapore forced many jobless people to resort to the hawker trade for survival.

Seng Poh Road Market (Tiong Bahru) under construction in 1950. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Silcock's recommendation was more "hawker shelters" which led to the building of shelters at Tiong Bahru, Whampoa, Red Hill, Cambridge Road and the Esplanade amongst others.

Still there was not enough shelters to house the hawkers - the number of hawkers grossly outnumbered shelter spaces available.

Sin Kee Chicken Rice
In the immediate post-War era, many hawkers were first time hawkers forced into the trade due to joblessness. Not knowing what to sell, some simply took what they cooked at home and sold them in the streets.

That was how Wong Yi Guan started selling Hainanese chicken rice in the streets of the Hainanese enclave around Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street. That was also when Ng Juat Swee started to sell Nyonya laksa in the streets of Katong. Peranakans are very proud and protective of their cuisine and would loath to think of hawking them in the streets. But, the immediate post-War years put many people in dire economic straits.

Chili crab
Moving into the 1950s and 1960s, this was a time of great innovation in the Singapore food scene. Many iconic Singapore dishes were created during this era, as hawkers mixed and blended their own culinary heritage with traditions adopted and adapted from those they were exposed to in the Singapore melting pot.

Examples of Singapore dishes from this melting pot are chili crab, fried Hokkien mee, Indian rojak, roti John, curry fish head, tu tu kueh etc.

Minister of Environment Lim Kim San visiting a hawker centre in 1975. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
A concerted effort to move street hawkers into hawker centre was finally launched in 1972 by the newly formed Ministry of Environment led by Lim Kim San.

Lim Kim San set up a hawker department with three sections overseeing licensing, planning and development (i.e. building hawker centres), and enforcement.

Glutton's Square in 1977. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The hawkers from the famous Glutton's Square at Orchard Road were moved to Newton Road Food Centre and Cuppage Road Food Centre in 1978.

Newton Road Food Centre. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Newton Road Food Centre soon became one of the most popular food centres in Singapore (but later became a tourist trap).

Newton Road Food Centre featured in the movie Crazy Rich Asians (2018). Singaporeans don't really go there one leh..... 😜

Smith Street & Trengganu Street junction in 1983. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Smith Street was a food haven well known for their Cantonese dishes like chicken rice, chicken porridge, wanton mee, chee cheong fun, steamed song fish, sweet sesame seed, peanut & almond paste etc.

Chinatown Complex in 1984. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Most of the Smith Street hawkers were moved into Chinatown Complex Food Centre which houses almost 200 hawker stalls, making it the largest in Singapore.

Today, Chinatown Complex is still one of the most popular hawker centres in Singapore.

Public health inspectors in 1963. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
But, it was not a straightforward case of "If you build it, they will come".

Not all street hawkers want to be licensed and moved into hawker centres as there were fees involved (even though it was nominal). Health inspector raids can go awry and occasionally scuffles broke out.

Lim Kim San visiting a health inspector slashed by a hawker while on duty in 1975. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Sometimes, health inspectors were injured by angry unlicensed hawkers.

Maxwell Food Centre. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The last hawker centre to be completed under this programme was Maxwell Road Food Centre, opened in 1986.

China Street Hum Jin Pang in 1986. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The last hawkers to be moved into a hawker centre were from Macau Street, Hokien Street, China Street and New Bridge Road.

There is a little irony that these were the same streets that John Polglase first proposed to build "shelters for hawkers" 78 years ago in 1908. The first earmarked were the last to move in.

Today, Maxwell Food Centre is one of the most famous hawker centres in Singapore. Many of the hawkers that moved in here in 1986 are still here (in 2020), including the most famous Hainanese chicken rice stall in the world.

Ong Boon Boon at the opening of Amoy Street Food Centre in 1983. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The work started by Minister for the Environment Lim Kim San in 1971 was completed in 1986 by his successor Ong Pang Boon.

It was a Herculean feat, a fine example of little Singapore's Can Do spirit - how the Little Red Dot solved seemingly impossible challenges with sheer effort and determination. In all, 108 hawker centres were built between 1971 and 1986.

Boat Quay Hawker Centre was built by the URA in 1973. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
It was a concerted and co-ordinated effort of multiple ministries and government agencies. The Urban Renewal Authourity (URA) for hawker centres in the city core, Housing and Development Board (HDB) for hawker centres in the new public housing estates across the island, and Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) for centres at more upmarket public housing projects.

Mission Accomplished, all street hawkers were now housed in hawker centres. No more hawker centres were built after 1986 until 25 years later in 2011.

Taisho Ramen at Maxwell Food Centre
By the 1980s - 1990s, non traditional cuisine started to appear in hawker centre, reflecting a more cosmopolitan Singapore. Examples are Italian pasta / spaghetti, American pizza, burgers, Thai tom yam, Korean cuisine, Taiwanese bubble tea, Japanese ramen etc.

Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre
In the 1990s to post-2000, Chinese cuisine from beyond the traditional Guangzhou and Fujian provinces start to emerge in Singapore, reflecting changes in our immigration sources. Examples include the popular ma la xiang guo - a Sichuan dish adapted and localised to Singaporean palates.

The government announced in 2011, a plan to build 10 new hawker centres. In 2015, they announced plans to build an additional 10 more.

Why did the government decide to start building hawker centres again after a 25 year hiatus?

Hill Street Food Centre demolished in 2000. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
During the 25 years between 1986 and 2011, several hawker centres were attrited to make way for redevelopment without replacement. These include Hill Street Food Centre, Commonwealth Avenue Food Centre, Taman Serasi Food Centre, Boat Quay Food Centre, Empress Place Food Centre, Ellenborough Market just to name a few.

Pasir Ris Food Centre opened in 2018. Image credit: Wikipedia
At the same time, the population of Singapore almost doubled between 1986 and 2011 (5.2 million people), so there was increased demand for affordable meals which the hawker centres provide. In addition, many new housing estates were built or expanded to house the growing population so more hawker centres had to be built in tandem. Accessibility is one of the guiding principles for building of hawker centres since the days of "shelters for hawkers".

Marsiling Mall Food Centre was opened in 2018
There was also a need to rehouse hawkers from demolished hawker centres. Marsiling Mall Food Centre was built in 2018 to rehouse hawkers from the demolished Woodlands Town Centre Hawker Centre.

The Road from Public Health Nuisance to UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Award

For more than 100 years, street hawkers were maligned as a threat to public health and a problem to be solved. But over time, instead of disdain for humble hawker food, Singaporeans grew to identify themselves with Hainanese chicken rice, char kway teow, bak chor mee, roti John, Indian rojak etc. 

Singaporeans from all walks of life wear their love for hawker dishes like a badge of honour. You know the passion Singaporeans feel for their hawker food by how they respond when any other country try to claim it as their's.

Maxwell Food Centre
Singapore hawker centre stall mix has always been a microcosm of Singapore's multicultural heritage. Indian, Malay, Chinese and Western food stalls operate side by side. Anyone and everyone can just walk right in, sit at any table to eat a meal - there are no fences, no boundaries.

Singapore hawker centres have become the community's space, everybody's space and have an essential role in community building. Expanding on the phrase "A family that eats together, stay together", Singaporeans have taken to heart that "a nation that eats together, is stronger together".

Officially, hawker centers are dubbed "community dining rooms".

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Politicians go to hawker centres when they want to meet the people.

I've also seen politicians and their families eat incognito at hawker centres just like every other citizen. In Singapore hawker centres, there is no privilege given for rank or social status (except for accommodating the elderly or disabled out of respect and courtesy). Everybody queue and take their own food back to their tables - the hawker centre is a great leveller.

Douglas Ng of Fishball Story

While most pioneer street hawkers were forced into the trade by circumstances, more and more young Singaporeans are choosing the hawker trade as their career choice. Singaporeans increasingly see the hawker trade as a respectable essential service and viable profession. Many enter the trade to preserve their parents or grandparents' legacy.

Then, there is the overdue due recognition that hawker dishes and recipes are artisanal crafts worthy of deeper appreciation beyond meeting sustenance and palate pleasing needs. From a sentiment bubbling up from the ground, there is growing national consensus that hawker dishes and its whole cultural ecosystem need to be preserved for future generations. (So far, preservation of the craft is left pretty much to natural succession within the family but recently more effort have been channeled to do that more systematically and institutionally e.g. by Temasek Polytechnic, Institute of Technical Education or ITE etc.)

Meanwhile, not only did Singapore hawker food evolved from something to be tolerated (at best) to something truly loved by locals, its positive reputation abroad also grew.

Lien Ying Chow in 1991. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore 
Lien Ying Chow, the founder of Overseas Union Bank also founded Mandarin Orchard Hotel in 1971. At the hotel opening, Lien decided to put three Singapore hawker dishes in the menu of Mandarin Orchard's 24-hour Chatterbox coffee house. The dishes were laksa, char kway teow and Hainanese chicken rice.

The three hawkers dishes were very well received by international guests, in particular the Hainanese chicken rice. The success of Chatterbox's Hainanese chicken rice put Singapore chicken rice on the world map.

Back in 1971, it was a bold and visionary move to put humble street hawker dishes into a 5-Star hotel menu. The dishes were sold at premium prices and the legendary Chatterbox chicken rice is still the most expensive chicken rice in Singapore today.

But, by this move, Lien Ying Chow set in motion the change in public and the world's perception of Singapore street hawker food.

Rasa Singapura in the 1980s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In 1978, in a farsighted move, Singapore Tourism Promotion Board set up Rasa Singapura Food Centre in Tanglin, in the tourist belt to showcase Singapore hawker dishes. Rasa Singapura which means the Flavours of Singapore was made up of hawkers handpicked to represent Singapore's best. Out of 700 hawkers who applied, only 29 were selected to set up stalls in Rasa Singapura.

SGT Kiang
All the popular Singapore hawker dishes were represented - char kway teow, satay, Indian rojak, there was a Peranakan stall, egg omelette (orh luak) and also SGT Kiang's Hainanese chicken rice stall. SGT Kiang was the local chef who created Chatterbox's famous Hainanese chicken rice set under the direction of Lien Ying Chow and executive chef Gunter Peter Gehrmann.

Rasa Singapura was one of my favourite lunch spots as I worked nearby in the 1980s. The food was delicious, the environment nice and prices were highly affordable. (Though I remember looking for a car park slot was a nightmare.)

(Ironically, the hugely successful Rasa Singapura Food Centre was demolished in 1989 to make way for Singapore Tourism Board's new headquarters, and it was never replaced.)

Hawker Chan in Chinatown Complex Food Centre
Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken (better known as Hawker Chan) became the first street hawker in the world to clinch a Michelin Star (in 2016). Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles also earned its Michelin Star in 2016. Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice too won a spot in the Bib Gourmand list. After Hawker Chan opened the gates, several more lesser known (now famous) hawker stalls were admitted to the Michelin honours including A Noodle Story, Hock Hai (Hong Lim) Curry Chicken Noodle, Chuan Kee Duck RiceTo-Ricos Guo Shi Blanco Court Kway ChapTiong Bahru Yi Sheng Fried Hokkien Prawn MeeTai Wah Pork Noodles (Hong Lim), Sin Kee Chicken Rice, Bedok Chwee Kueh, etc.

Anthony Bourdain at the World Street Food Congress 2017 in Manila
The huge global success of international celebrities like Anthony Bourdain's food and travel shows such as A Cook's Tour (2002–2003) and No Reservations (2005–2012) which shot Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice to fame might have re-highlighted the potential of Singapore's hawker centres as a tourist attraction. Travelers now seek out street food experiences as part of their itinerary.

World Street Food Congress 2017 in Manila
Launching the World Street Food Congress in 2013 (conceived by KF Seetoh, founder of Makansutra) positions Singapore as the world headquarters of street food culture preservation and promotion. It puts Singapore as the repository of world street food ideas past, present and future.

So, with a fortuitous confluence of ideas (opinion leaders, policy makers), infrastructure (hawker centres), practitioners (hawkers) and community of supporters (diners), it seemed natural that in Mar 2019, the Singapore government took the step to submit Singapore hawker culture for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity inscription.

From a pain in the neck of colonial officers to a place in every Singaporean's heart, that's quite a wild ride.

The inclusion of Singapore Hawker Culture in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Inscription was confirmed on 16 Dec 2020.

Acknowledgement: This post was inspired by and based on insights gleaned from professor Lai Chee Kien's seminal seminar "History of Hawker Centres in Singapore" held on 21 Jun 2020. 


Singapore Hawker Centers: Origins, Identity, Authenticity, and Distinction

Date: 23 Jun 2020
Update: 16 Dec 2020
Update: 6 Oct 2021


  1. Very informative, good insights and writing!

  2. This was very informative! It saved my essay, Thank you very much!

  3. Michael Pang-Larsen said on Tony Boey Facebook:
    "Great news. My heroes always from the early seventies whenI first spent hours with these humble guys watching them contributing to sustaining life in a wonderful enjoying manner for so many. I never understood why they didnt get a lot of praise and recognition, maybe people thought that the price would raise and the quality drop? When I first tasted a hawker meal on Changhi beach almost 50 years ago I dreamt of having a stall of my own. Later I wanted the whole world to come and experience the incredible food scene, in the eighties I presented a detailed prospect to STPB to have them highlight the hawker culture to be the pride of Singapore. So great that this honour from Unesco will be benificial for the way of being a hawker and attracting lots of talented people."


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. All comments with genuine identities are published.