Singapore—Hawker food is part of Singapore’s DNA, and some have said that the country’s street food is not only the best in Asia, but in the whole world.
But even before the coronavirus pandemic, the hawker culture was already showing signs of being threatened, especially with this generation of ageing hawkers. The average hawker nowadays is 59 years old, and with backbreaking work from early in the morning until late at night in a business that often doesn’t have a high profit margin, not many young people have been eager to join the trade.
And when the Covid-19 crisis arose, which led to circuit breaker restrictions that forbade customers from dining at hawker centers, even thriving stalls took a bad hit.
One such hawker stall, Ji Ji Noodle House, was featured recently in a Reuters report that even made it to the New York Times. Ji Ji Noodle House isn’t just your ordinary, everyday hawker stall. The stellar quality of its noodle dishes made the stall a winner in the wanton noodle category of The Straits Times “Favourite Hawker”. And it was even listed in Michelin’s food guide for Singapore.
But ever since the pandemic began, Ji Ji Noodle House has experienced a 90 percent decrease in business. Forty-five-year old Kristen Choong told Reuters, “I really have (to) tell people, we’re still here. If we weren’t then it would be tragic…We’ll do our best to keep going.”
Ms Choong manages Ji Ji Noodle House at Hong Lim Market along with her elderly mother, Lai Yau Kiew, and the Reuters report says that Ms Choong had come to terms with the fact that the business may end when she retires one day.
The family business began as a pushcart decades ago and was started by the grandfather of Ms Choong, who said that she has branched out into food delivery, like other hawkers, in order to stay in business, and was given a 3-month rent waiver by the Government.
Ji Ji Noodle House was reviewed in danielfooddiary.com, one of Singapore’s top food blogs, in early March, a little over a month before the circuit breaker began. The reviewer, who wrote that the fare would be unlike “average Singapore-style wanton noodles” raved about the value for money customers get at the hawker stall, since the S$4.50 they pay for a regular bowl goes a long way. “Other than the more usual ingredients of char siew and soup wanton, you get ingredients such as braised mushrooms, deep-fried wanton, and vegetables. All at an inexpensive price $4.50.”
The review mentioned that the stall had put into place a cash-collecting payment system, “a bid to help with the lunchtime crowd” suggesting that just a few short months ago Ji Ji Noodle House was full of customers.
Other hawkers have also struggled amid the fallout from the pandemic. As a result, Melvin Chew, whose food business suffered a two-thirds loss, created a Facebook group called Hawkers United – Dabao 2020, which has grown to 285,000 members since it started in early April. Dabao means “takeout” in colloquial Cantonese.
Mr Chew told Al-Jazeera that he began the group because “a lot of hawkers and people in food and beverage won’t be able to survive. If you want to survive you have to accept the use of technology, you have to engage in social media and you have to do home delivery.”
The Facebook group provides a one-stop portal for Singaporeans to see what hawkers are offering. As it says, “Hello, Members! We are Hawkers United, and to combat this circuit breaker we bring you Dabao 2020 edition.” —/TISG