Sweat, the smell of grease, the drudgery, scorching heat and the long hours of work can make any man or woman quit. But, not the hawkers of Singapore.
With blazing determination and a persistence that is not easy to duplicate, Singaporean hawkers can be the next silk-stocking, well-heeled citizens of Singapore.
Improbable? Maybe, but not impossible.
Take the case of 62 year old Ng Son Yan who began getting involved in the hawking business at the tender age of six when his parents expected him to help out at their first stall along Jalan Bahar.
Compared to most hawkers, Ng took over his parents’ stall which had meant that he didn’t have to source business set-up funds. But, while he didnt have financial difficulties in the early years of managing the enterprise, he went through the same rigorous, long, and tedious work hours experienced by all hawkers, in order for his business to survive.
“Customers in the past were more difficult to deal with,” according to him. He attributes this to the fact that today’s customers are more educated so he finds them easier to talk to and easier to please. However, he lamented that compared to the 1980s, there is a diminished number of customers today which has led to a decline in sales. He credited this reduction to the continuous setting up of food centres, malls, and stalls around him, and obviously, to the increasing number of competitor hawkers who simultaneously vie for customer attention, and patronage.
In spite of rising competition, a hot working environment, and condescending outlook of some Singaporeans toward hawkers, Ng intends to stay in the business because of economic and practical reasons.
“There is high amount of profits,” Ng said, adding that the business allows him to earn lots of money in comparison to having a job outside of hawking. Proof of the business’ profitability is the presence of university graduates who are running their own hawking ventures instead of getting a job in some corporation.
Although hawking is a ‘greasy’ job and can exhaust one’s stamina, Ng isn’t quitting simply because there’s money in it.
Efi Rinawati, 43 years old and married, has a different story to tell. She admitted that working in Singapore is hard. She wasn’t just referring to the physical rigours of being a hawker but also the manner in which she has to adapt to her hot work place, various customers and government regulations. She further confides that from daily operations, she has to be able to set aside $5,000 just so she can pay the rent and her workers. Little is left after she meets her obligations.
Efi, however, is not giving up. After all, there are children to care for. Unfortunately, Efi’s children do not want to become hawkers like her because of the hardships that they see their mother go through everyday; they don’t want to experience the daily physical inconveniences that Efi has to contend with.
Ang Ann Chye is 58 years old and sings a different tune from Efi and Ng. He has been in the business for 40 years and gave up so much just to be in the hawking business. He left school and quit his job of seven years at the Ministry of Education (MOE).
Ang recounts how good the hawking business was thirty years ago. And because he got a share from the funds that her mother obtained from a Resettlement Case, he didn’t have so much trouble starting and making a go with his business.
But like Efi and Ng, Ang considers the hawking business a very tough job, all sweat and dirt. He believes that hawking is not good for old people and profit is very little. He does have a stream of loyal customers until now which keeps his hawking venture afloat.
When asked if hawking is good in this time and era, Ang didn’t believe that it is advisable for one to get into this business nowadays because the rents are high and the prices of the food have to remain low and affordable because, if not, you will lose customers.
He aspires to get into another type of business some day. He wants to engage in e-commerce and when asked what he can say about people’s opinion of hawkers, his answer can tear anyone’s heart. “My family is a little bit ashamed of me when they introduce me to other peoplembecause I am just a hawker.”
But even when his heart breaks knowing that people look down on him, this melancholy wont stop him (at least, not yet) from enduring the hardships of being a hawker. He knows that if he forges ahead and makes a headway, he will achieve what he wants to accomplish in the near future.
So, who says hawkers cannot be rich? They might just be the next crazy rich Asians whose wealth didn’t come from inheritance but from grit, hard work, determination, perseverance, and the will to survive.