By Joey Lee and Gerald Tan

If there’s one thing that us Singaporeans stand united in, it’s our nation’s food; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. When Anthony Bourdain, American chef, author and television personality, arrived onto our shores a few years back, he proclaimed that our tiny island might just be the “best place on earth” if you love food.

Once a sleepy fishing island dotted with street hawkers trying to make a living, Singapore now houses them in our iconic hawker centres, where they’re still serving up mouth-watering plates of well-known local fare, albeit currently teetering on the brink of retirement.

Unassuming in their ways, unpretentious in their food, and unrivalled in their craft, these hawkers charge a minimal fee compared to the plush eateries that speckle our island. Newspaper cut-outs that adorn stall displays are their Michelin stars, and their legion of loyal customers stand testament to the consistent standards of their food.

In the recent challenge issued to Michelin-star-spangled chef Gordon Ramsay pitching him against local hawkers organised by Singtel, “Hawker Heroes” was the title the major Singapore telco had bestowed upon them, and with plenty of reason to do so. Their decades of real-world expertise and relentless honing of techniques in their dingy hawker stalls are practically what make them the embodiment of authentic Singaporean food.

“There’s an unpoetic forced sterility of a restaurant, compared to the accidental unforced beauty of a street kitchen. It’s the approximation of ingredients that makes it like home-cooked food. You find menus that are so hyper-specific in street food vendors; they don’t sell 80 dishes, they just sell food they’re particularly good at making,” enthuses James Oseland, the editor-in-chief ofSaveur, America’s most critically acclaimed food magazine.

Yet, slowly but surely, these heroic “oldies” that our nation of foodies has come to know for their delectable hawker fare are moving on, and their kids would rather trade in the spatulas for briefcases, keen on the lavish lifestyles usually associated with a more corporate career. Unfortunately, this spells the end for many hawkers who have developed their own recipes and unique flavor profiles in iconic hawker fare such as char kway teow, laksa and chicken rice.

Echoing these sentiments in the recent inaugural Partner’s Forum, Minister of Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said that there is indeed a “real concern we (Singaporeans) will not succeed because of manpower”.

The World Street Food Congress took place earlier on in Singapore this year in a bid to bring the issue of dying street food to light, drawing big names from the world of food such as Bourdain to the F1 Pit Building, where a street food fiesta was showcased by 37 of the world’s best street food masters from 10 countries.

“I see street food as a cause. It’s a mean of preserving whatever ‘authentic’ means, and what authenticity that still exists, such as the food your mother or grandmother cooked for you. Chances are, the last line of defence where you can taste such food, is in street food,” stressed Bourdain.

Thankfully for our wallets and more importantly, our discerning palettes, our government has recognised the urgent need to remedy the decline. In a bid to increase opportunities for new hawker stalls to start up, the government announced in October 2012 that construction of 10 new hawker centers would be completed by 2017, a move that has been unheard of since 1985. Reassuring the locals who might be worried by the rapidly increasing immigrant population, regulations stating hawkers must be Singaporean citizens and permanent residents (PR) were put in place.

Prior to this incident, hawker rents have also dipped to as low as $21 per month after the requirement for hawkers to pay reserve rents to the National Environment Agency (NEA) was removed by the government.

“The government sees the need for continuity. They’ve even set up a street food academy, and are willing to sponsor up to 90% of the funds. What we need, is participation. All the kerosene tanks are in place, someone just needs to light the fire,” said K.F Seetoh, Singapore’s most recognised and celebrated food enthusiast, and founder of Makansutra.

However, economic aid is hardly enough to counter the problem of the dying hawker. As Singapore’s generation of baby-boomers starts to age, there must be a new generation of young blood to helm the food scene of the future. Just like the proverbial magician and his secrets, the older generations, who pioneered these dishes, are naturally unwilling to divulge their recipes, as they often throw in their own ingredients unique to their stalls. As their sons and daughters enter more lucrative and less taxing professions, these recipes face the risk of extinction after the pioneers have passed away. Some of these hawkers do not even factor in monetary profit, as their recipes and reputation hold far more significance to them.

In the saddening case of Makansutra Hawker Legend Mr Ng Siaw Meng, who used to run the renowned Meng Kee Satay Bee Hoon store at East Coast Food Lagoon before he was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer, his pride and passion for his reputation and food also signalled the demise of an incredibly delicious recipe. Even after Mr Ng conceded and was willing to sell off his recipe in order to pay for medical bills, he could not find a buyer that aligned with his personal vision of being a hawker.

The 63-year-old complained about buyers who wanted to monetise his recipe by mass production, and said in an interview with Seetoh that he would “rather take his recipe to the coffin”.

Nonetheless, there still is a crop of youngsters keen on sustaining our hawker culture. Brought to light by a group of students from Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University, these new-age hawkers are not just able to churn out delectable street food, but also engineer with a business mindset, hence the title, “Youth Hawkerpreneurs”.

One such example would be Kenneth Lin, a 31-year-old hawker of La Cuisson with 2nd Class Honours in Banking and Finance, who abandoned the pursuit of corporate success to bring French bistro style food to the masses. Some might question his intentions on whether it’s truly a valiant individual attempt to bolster and add diversity in our hawker scene, but it’s precisely our critical questioning that is what has caused our hawker scene is have dwindled down to what it is now.

When we look beyond food as simplistic sustenance, and perceive the incredibly strong social bonds it is able to foster, the unifying effect that rallies our nation together, and even the gratification of buying top-notch food at frugal prices, we start to realise the magnitude of the declining number of hawkers.

In the words of Dr Balakrishnan himself, hawker fare transcends “value far beyond the economics”, as it manages to attract people from all walks of life and are “part of what has kept us cohesive as a society”.


Sound Bites

“If you’ve been here twice and not had chicken rice, it could lead to some awkward moments. I got booed by four hundred people. Also, I like laksa. I need it very badly.” – Anthony Bourdain

“My top dish is Bak Chor Mee, which is a vinegary dish of noodles with minced pork. It speaks volumes about the comfort and diversity of our Singaporean street food.” – K.F Seetoh