Singapore Hawkers Share Why They Chose (And Continue to Choose) this Difficult Trade

Hawker Stories

When you ask a child, or any adult for that matter, what their dream job is, chances are you’re going to get answers like “doctor”, “judge”, or even “policeman”. Few will have the word “hawker” come across their mind, and perhaps from a practical standpoint, rightfully so. 

After all, being a hawker isn’t easy. It entails long working hours in a hot kitchen, and no guaranteed salary. Down with a bad cough and unable to work? There goes the earnings for the day. 

This got me thinking — what is it that motivates hawkers today to not only choose this difficult profession, but also to get up and get to work everyday? 

In search of answers, I took off on a food-trail-cum-interview, where I dug deep into the lives of 3 very different hawkers. Ranging in age (30s to 60s) and experiences, and each had their own story to tell, yet when it came to their motivations, their answers were strikingly similar. 

Here’s a peek into what keeps your favourite hawkers in the gruelling trade:

I choose to be a Hawker for… Filial Piety

You may have heard of Sean Kee Duck Rice. A household name in its own right, this famous duck rice has been feeding hungry stomachs since 1979. I can’t even wrap my head around the number of plates they must have served from then till now. 

Sean Kee is a family business, run by 3 brothers: Albert, Lawrence and Ron. (And to those of you familiar with our recipe videos, they also happen to be Jon’s uncles. See the resemblance?)

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Albert’s the youngest of the three brothers, and he committed full-time to the stall once he completed his polytechnic education. His decision to take on the business was more of an act of filial piety rather than passion — with business booming, it was difficult for him to see his aging parents run the stall by themselves. He knew that unless he took over, they would just keep going despite concerns for their health. 

Passing on the business to the family also gave Albert’s parents the peace of mind that there would be no drastic changes made, especially to the recipe. Albert ensures us that the duck rice we eat at the stall today tastes the same as the original. In fact, they’ve been using the same master braise for the past 44 years! Now, that’s pretty impressive. 

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Filial piety and inheriting the family business seems to be a common trope for our older hawkers. Uncle Sng, a fried-carrot-cake-master of 40 years (read more about Uncle Sng here) also started helping with his Dad’s roadside carrot cake stall since his primary school days. Eventually, he took over with his wife because he wanted his Dad to rest. 

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I choose to be a hawker for… my customers

When I asked Albert what the good parts of being a hawker were, he laughed and said, “don’t know leh”.

“No way!” I exclaimed, but just before I started to probe further, his phone rang, interrupting our interview. When he sat back down five minutes later, I didn’t even need to ask my question anymore. I had a strong hunch that I already got my answer. 

Albert’s a pretty stoic guy, so I was surprised when I actually saw him crack a smile, to who I assumed was his friend on the phone. “Yeah, we’re still open. What time [are] you coming? 3pm ah?” It was then when I realised that it was actually a customer on the other end. I wasn’t meaning to eavesdrop, but I was pretty sure I heard some friendly banter exchanged too. 

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So when Albert sat back down 5 minutes later, I had to ask about the call. “Your customers have your phone number?” He mentions it was an initiative implemented during COVID-19, where customers would call in and check if there were seats available for dine-in, or if they were open for the day. But it’s been a while since the safe-distancing measures have ceased. 

“Many of these people that call, these are my long-time customers. So I know them as more than customer[s], they’re more like friends. So I don’t mind giving them my number, pick[ing] up my phone to tell them, yes, still open, still selling. Easier for them… Can chat a bit also.” 

Randell, from Roast Paradise shares similar sentiments. “It’s passion that first got me into hawkering, but what continues to keep me here is the customers,” he said. 

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I choose to be a Hawker to… bring people together

As a result of its long history, Sean Kee also has a loyal fanbase. Albert recalls customers that have been coming in ever since his Dad first ran the stall. On Sundays, parents would bring their children, and now grandchildren to eat together. Albert says the best part of hawkering is getting to age with his customers, and seeing how his duck rice can bring generations of families together. 

Seeing customers age together with him was also something that fascinated Uncle Sng. “I once had a customer that told me he remembered eating my Dad’s carrot cake at his roadside stall 70 years ago.” 

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He laughed, “So my stall is so old [till the point that] I don’t really know when it started. But it’s amazing to me that people still remember the food they had such a long time ago, and travel all the way here to eat it again.” 

Some of his customers stay as far away as Bukit Panjang, but are willing to make the trip all the way down to Redhill just for his carrot cake. 

Singaporean Hawkers

Despite being so different, all 3 hawkers share similar stories on what drives them to get up everyday — and that’s people. Whether for their own families or for customers, these hawkers remind us that hawker culture is about yummy food — but also is full of heart. 

It got me thinking: Hawkering is a tough job, and still many of our hawkers keep at it. What can we do to encourage and appreciate them as people too? 

Sean Kee Duck Rice 

Address: 659-661 Lor 35 Geylang, Singapore 389589

Opening Hours: 11:30am – 4:00pm

Contact: 96906606 

Delicious Fried Carrot Cake 

Address: 85 Redhill Ln, #01-33, Singapore 150085

Opening Hours: 10:00am – 3:00pm

Contact: 93880098

Roast Paradise

Address: 51 Old Airport Rd, #01-121, Singapore 390051

Opening Hours: 10:30am – 6:30pm

Contact: 97867396

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