In a year devastated by the terrible Covid-19 and the infantile antics of a self-serving man child American president, news that Singapore’s hawker culture has found a place in Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list comes as a nice year-end present. Well done, Singapore. The year 2020 has not been so bad after all.
I have gone through the Unesco list of existing awardees and notice that there is something special about our contribution.
Others in the list are deserving, of course. The range is remarkable. Some fascinating examples: Beijing opera (China), oxherding and oxcart traditions (Costa Rica), pencak silat (Indonesia), sauna culture (Finland), traditional Ainu dance (Japan), practices and expressions of joking relationships (Niger), worship of Hùng kings in Phú Thọ (Vietnam), traditional system of Corongo’s water judges (Peru), idea and practice of organising shared interests in cooperatives (Germany) and classical horsemanship and the High School of the Spanish Riding School , Vienna (Austria).
Most are indigenous and mono-ethnic, that is, practised by only one community or race, sometimes even by a few families. They all contribute to the diversity and richness of human civilisation, without doubt.
The very idea that our humble hawker culture is now considered a part of this world heritage will take some getting used to.
Did the char kway teow stall owner in the old Hock Lam Street ever imagine this would happen?
The nasi padang ma chik of Lorong 7, Geylang? The “gunpowder” chilly padi dosai stall of Jalan Sultan? The beef noodle people of Bugis Street? The “seventh milestone” Bukit Timah chye tau kway seller? The ah boling lady of Crawford Street? The Tekka mutton soup maker? The Adam Road nasi lemak people? The Waterloo Street Indian rojak man?
The original Ya Kun of the Telok Ayer Transit Hawker Centre? The old Orchard Road “Philips Square” carpark night stalls (particularly ‘Sheriff’, the eccentric guy dressed as a gunslinging cowboy who would pose for a photo op for a small fee or a cup of teh tarik)? The kiam chye pigs blood rice of Chulia Street? Chomp Chomp’s Chinese mutton soup? Newton Circus oh lua?
Lorong Tai Seng soya bean? Dunman Road duck rice? Bedok Road corner cheng tng? Beach Road satay? Jalan Besar stadium mee goreng? Pipit Road coffee? Whitley Road prawn mee? Eminent Plaza wanton mee? Haig Road power lontong? Taman Serasi roti john? Joo Chiat Complex mutton biryani? Bedok chwee kuay?
Marine Parade economy rice? Geylang East fish porridge? Maxwell Road chicken rice? Margaret Road laksa yong tau foo? Toa Payoh Lorong 8 Hainanese mixed vegetable rice? Beo Crescent tom yam fish soup? Tanglin Halt fried tau sar balls? Kovan teochew porridge? Harbourfront mee goreng? Tiong Bahru paus? Bukit Merah fish head soup?
To name a few.
I check the statistics. The National Environment Agency manages 114 hawker centres and markets. The number of hawkers should be around 13,900 (last data in 2013 that I could find online). There are also those that are privately run.
Hawkers are said to be a dying species. The first and second-generation hawkers are ageing and their children are not keen to take up the trade. The odds are stacked against hawkers. Rents are said to be high and the working hours are long.
There have always been attempts to preserve the hawkers heritage. In the past, every now and then, some private entrepreneurs would launch a project “to pick the best” of Singapore’s hawkers and house them under one roof, presumably to save them from extinction. The Singapore Tourism Board once tried that with its Tudor Court Rasa Singapura Food Court experiment which lasted for a while and died. Then came the indoor food court phase. Scotts had its Picnic Food Court with an array of hawkers. It also acquired Lau Par Sat and started another collection of hawkers. Picnic has long gone but the LPS place is still a hawker/food court centre under a different owner.
Government efforts have centred on cleaning up the hawker act. It has always wanted to move hawkers out of the streets and alleys into cleaner and more hygienic places. At one time, Singapore had its own colourful street hawkers, especially in the city at places like Beach Road, Chulia Street, Hock Lam Street, Hainan Street, Telok Ayer, Boon Tat Street, Chinatown and even Collyer Quay. Not now.
As more and more older hawkers have given up, it suddenly dawned on Singaporeans that not only have the hawkers disappeared from the street, these hawkers are themselves also vanishing totally, with no one eager to carry on – not even in clean centres that can attract younger customers.
It would have been extremely incongruent to have sparkling hawker centres (or food courts) if the food has ceased to be good. What’s the point? I am glad there are a couple of social enterprise projects to encourage younger hawkers to take up the challenge of preserving our hawker culture – Ci Yuan, Pasir Ris and Kampung Admiralty where the hawker food is up to par and fairly priced.
Singapore’s hawker culture is more than just another Unesco intangible cultural heritage. Unlike many of the other such legacies elsewhere, ours is quintessentially what this multi-racial country is all about. All types of food, all types of people. No one race here owns it, it belongs to all Singaporeans. Just like Singlish or the National Day Parade, it should never be allowed to become history. Happily, it has just made history.
With that, I wish all Singaporeans a Merry X’mas and a Better and Safer 2021. I will take a break next Sunday (December 27). See you on January 3, 2021.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.
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