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UNESCO’s nod will mean “better trade” for over 36,000 hawkers, cementing Singapore’s culinary legacy – KF Seetoh

KF Seetoh: "What if a respectable group declared that a humble satay vendor in a developing nation was the Best Street Food Vendor in the world? It would do magic ... ."




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Over 36,000 hawkers will make Singapore proud if hawker culture gets into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List come end-2020.

Crystallising Singaporeans’ aims to gain global recognition of their street food hawker traditions and raise the status of local hawkers, the National Heritage Board (NHB), the National Environment Agency (NEA), and The Federation of Merchants’ Associations Singapore (FMAS) jointly submitted a Mar 27 nomination to inscribe Singapore Hawker Culture on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

KF Seetoh, the famous photojournalist turned “hawker-culture champion,” said, “If SG gets the nod from UNESCO, then folks far and wide will come devour the hawker food culture as an experience, not as some ‘where to eat good food’ event. It’s like climbing a Wall in Beijing or eating fries in Belgium. It will greatly heighten the appeal of local food because when foreigners come in droves and give it approval, more locals will pay more attention and respect to it.”

The Makansutra blog founder refers to how the hawker culture would enhance Singapore’s identity. In a  HuffPost write-up, Seetoh states, “I think this industry, because it’s such an organic — even underground — culture that reeks of a rich and comforting heritage, will be, like kung-fu legend Bruce Lee once said, “like water.” It will find its way through the tightest fist and hurdles to nourish the needs of a new world order of street food culture worldwide. For starters, what if a respectable group declared that a humble satay vendor in a developing nation was the Best Street Food Vendor in the world? It would do magic for that nation’s development and brand, plus it would provide demand and better employability for people with these useful entry level job skills.”

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How the nomination came to be
The choice of nominating Hawker Culture in Singapore for the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage was determined after a series of public engagement efforts with Singaporeans.

Early in 2018, the NHB conducted a public poll that drew more than 3,000 respondents who pointed to “Food Heritage” as the most important aspect of Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage.

From Apr to Jul 2018, a series of focus group discussions were conducted with academics, heritage experts, youths, cultural practitioners and members of the public. Hawker Culture in Singapore emerged as a firm favourite among the participants, who indicated their support for it to be nominated for UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Many participants shared their views about the importance of local hawker culture to Singaporeans, and how the multicultural dishes and hawker centres shape a significant part of people’s daily lives.

The bid includes community letters and videos, and photographs from entries to the #OurHawkerCulture photography contest as well as from Singapore’s people in general. A 10-minute official video providing a better understanding of the country’s hawker culture was also submitted.

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Evaluating the nominaton will be six UNESCO experts in different fields of intangible cultural heritage and six representatives of accredited non-governmental organisations.

Singapore’s bid will be assessed on five criteria, such as how it meets UNESCO’s definition of intangible cultural heritage. The bid must also how current and future steps towards the promotion, transmission and continued practice of the hawker culture.

The submission documents will be available for viewing on UNESCO’s website and the three agencies’ websites by July. Singapore will find out if its bid is successful come end-2020.

KF Seetoh on his continued ‘fight’ for hawkers/hawker culture
In an interview with The Independent Singapore, Seetoh made clear why he continuously works for the recognition of the hawker culture and hawkers’ causes, “I champion their plight because I advocate heritage and street food culture for 3 meaningful reasons: it sells destinations which means better trade for the hawkers; it provides for jobs and all sorts of peripheral businesses like supplies, and the dynamic food delivery services now; and it cements a nation’s culinary legacy.”

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Seetoh further stressed that it would be a shame if Singapore does not get a slot in the UNESCO 2020 list “because we lead the world in this space, as in how government, community and commerce play a seamless harmonious song in the game. There are more than a few naysayers who thinks this is a joke but I hope they can muzzle themselves for a while until we get it. The humble hawkers will appreciate it much.”

The island’s hawker culture is a vital aspect of Singaporeans’ way of existence, where people from all walks of life gather at hawker centres to dine and bond over their favourite foods. Over the years, this unique combination of food, space and community has evolved into a microcosm of Singapore’s multicultural society; stalls sell Chinese, Malay, Indian and many diverse types of dishes.

Since many of these hawker dishes originate over time from food cultures of the country’s different immigrant groups, they have evolved to become unique and favourite local dishes of Singapore’s food heritage.

The question is — why should food or food preparation be so important to the point that it is pushed to become a national heritage icon? The answer lies on what Seetoh’s good friend, the late Anthony Bourdain said, “Food is political, and a reflection of who we are.”

Related stories:

Hawkers share their sauce for success

Hawker shows her gratitude to KF Seetoh as expenses and working hours at SEHCs go down

Acts of kindness: Whampoa hawker before having his dinner gives prime part of roast duck to elderly cleaner

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