Singapore Hawkers Share: The Future of Hawker Culture

What will Hawker Centres look like 50 years from now?

I’ve been eating Hawker Food for the past 20 years of my life. Not that impressive, but enough time to see the hawker landscapes changing — the older hawkers retiring and younger hawkers taking over, many of which hail from countries like China, Thailand and even Vietnam, who started bringing food from their culture into the system. 

The saddest part being a #hawkerfan is seeing many hawker uncles and aunties closing shop and retiring, with many choosing not to pass on the trade. Each time I see another hawker telling me they’re thinking of retiring, I smile and tell them yes, they’re getting old and should rest. Yet, I can’t help but feel my heart sink as I think of the loss of another of my go-to favourites. 

Perhaps it was due to the string of these hawker stalls closing down that started this fear within me — the fear that one day, hawker centres would be no more. No more Bak Chor Mee under $5, no more Cai Fan uncle giving me extra steamed egg because I told him a good (dad) joke. Before I knew it, the quest to quench my fear turned into something much bigger — full-fledged interviews with hawkers all around the island. 

So what’s in store for our beloved hawker centres? Here’s more stories by hawkers, on the future of hawker culture. 

Looking for successors to continue the trade

It’s no secret that hawkering is a tough job. Long working hours, low profit margins and stuffy working conditions are just many of the difficulties encountered by hawkers on the day-to-day. So when I asked Uncle Sng, the cutest carrot cake master and uncle behind Delicious Fried Carrot Cake over at Redhill Food Centre if there was anyone to take over after he retired, he laughed and shook his head. 

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He told me he was conflicted. Uncle Sng learned the art of carrot-cake-making some 50 years ago from his dad, who was a street food vendor back in the 1950s, before Hawker Centres were even a thing. Much as he would like to pass down the generational business to his family, he would rather his son take on a “more comfortable job”. 

“So far [my son] has no interest… He’s still serving in the army so maybe he also doesn’t know what he wants to do [in the future] yet. If he tells me one day, “Pa, I want to take over the stall”, I will ask him, “you sure or not?”, because it’s really not easy. But if he has the interest I will teach him.”  

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And it’s not just Uncle Sng. Albert, one of the three brothers behind the famous Sean Kee Duck Rice at Geylang echoes similar sentiments. 

Sean Kee Duck Rice is also a family business passed down from parents to their 3 sons. The brothers have been running the stall for the past 30-something years, and it’s hard work — the daily grind involves working from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day for 6 days a week. 

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Albert’s the youngest of the 3 brothers that have taken over the stall. He’s approaching his fifties and tells me the long working hours and physically demanding job isn’t something he can do for much longer. “Honestly, I feel like retiring. Not just me, all 3 of us.” He says his brothers are ready, and are just waiting for him to give the cue since he still has young children to take care of. 

When asked about Sean Kee’s future plans, Albert laughed and said “I’ll take the family recipe and bury it. I’ve received many offers before, people tell me they want to buy the stall and franchise it. But I don’t want to.” 

He knows better than anyone the effort that goes into each plate of duck rice, and isn’t confident that others will be willing to do it the same way. He fears that upon selling the business, others would outsource the work, or cut corners to save time, which would affect the recipe and how it tastes. 

He uses the chili Sean Kee serves as an example. “Imagine, 辣椒就好。辣椒我们还要自己炒,炒100kg, stand down there to [fry] for 4-5 hour[s]. (Just imagine our chili. We need to fry it ourselves, with 100kg at a go for 4-5 hours.) “There’s no shortcuts for cooking.“ Albert concluded. 

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Getting more hands on deck

Randall, the hawker behind Roast Paradise at Old Airport Road, thinks that manpower is the main difficulty for hawker culture today. In this line of work, the food preparation process and cleaning up of the stall takes up a lot of time, and every extra pair of hands on deck would make it more manageable. 

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“For example, if you want something to be handmade, but there’s only 2 people running the stall, it would be very difficult. So sometimes hawkers will have to outsource, like get their noodles pre-made at a factory. Then it won’t taste as fresh as before.”

As a hawker himself, Randall sympathises, but as a hawker fan, he also understands the disappointment coming from the customers. “Oftentimes hawkers are willing to hire, but there’s just simply not enough people that would be willing to take on such a job.” 

He also urges us to be more understanding as customers because hawkering really isn’t easy. “Yeah, stop saying the food doesn’t taste as good as before!” I chimed in, and he laughed before pointing out that as a hawker, if he heard that, he would feel really sad as well.  

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“Sometimes they also know their food is not the same, but no choice mah. I hope customers will come to understand that also.” 

Appreciate Your Hawkers

Over the past 5 months, we went deep with our hawkers and asked them about all kinds of things hawker-related. And that’s when I started discovering who these hawkers are as people — through their hospitality shown in the plates and plates of food, and their readiness to share their life. 

One article wasn’t enough to quite do justice to their stories, so I’ve written 4, with this being the final one. And I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve come to know these hawkers as more than just the people that prepare my food, but I’ve come to know their struggles, motivations and passions. 

And I urge you to do the same. This National Day, let’s take the time to appreciate another facet of Singapore culture that makes us unique — hawker culture. 

Smile at your hawkers. Talk to them. Ask them to share their stories with you, and do the same in return. Be kind, because hawkering is hard, and let’s do everything we can to ensure we have our beloved hawker food for a long, long time. 


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