Hawker Culture in Singapore
Where do you go for cheap, good food? For Singaporeans, there’s only one place that comes to mind: Hawker Centres. They are congregations of stalls selling all kinds of local delights and its culture so unique that it received international recognition on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Yet, our hawker landscape is changing. And will continue changing as older generations of hawkers retire with no one to pass the business to and younger hawkers hailing from overseas take over. What then, is going to happen to our local cuisine? Will the food we grew up loving still taste the same 10 years from now?
In search of answers, we approached different hawkers ranging from young to old. Read on for their stories, and what drives them to cook every day.
Sharing joy through food they grew up eating
Uncle and Auntie Sng — their Black and White fried carrot cakes have a 70-year-old tradition
If there’s anyone to talk about how authentic a dish tastes, there’s perhaps no one more qualified than Uncle Sng. With over 40 years of experience under his belt, Uncle Sng has been a hawker before hawker centres were even a thing. Back then, his Pa would sell carrot cake from a portable roadside stall, pushing along a tricycle complete with a wok and compartments for raw ingredients. Though he was just a boy then, Uncle Sng would assist whenever he could. In the mornings, he helped make and steam the carrot cake before rushing off to school. Once lessons ended, he dumped his bag back home before going down to help his Pa again — this time, frantically scurrying, serving fresh-out-of-the-wok carrot cake to their customers.
His stall, Delicious Fried Carrot Cake, moved into Redhill Food Centre some 30 years ago, where it continues to operate today. What kept Uncle Sng going all this time was the joy of sharing what he grew up eating with others. That’s why he tries to replicate his Pa’s recipe as closely as he can.
The cutest carrot cake master recounting memories of his Pa’s roadside stall
Cooking as a means of sharing joy is a common theme highlighted by all the hawkers we interviewed, which made us realise again how food brings people together. How people enjoy conversations over a meal, compliments on their food — these are all things that keep our hawkers going. The same goes for Remus, a young hawker at Fukudon, who ventured into the trade after seeing others enjoy his cooking.
Remus ventured into Fukudon in 2020, amidst a time of uncertainty
Remus worked in a restaurant but he spent most of his time in the kitchen and seldom interacted with the people he cooked for. So, his highlight became cooking the staff meal. The hearty reactions of his colleagues (salivating with lots of “wah, nice sia”) meant so much to him that he began trying to innovate despite the kitchen’s limited ingredients. “With good food in your tummy, you’ll be able to work happily.” Remus smiled, and said this was when he realised his calling — he wanted to make yummy food accessible to as many people as possible. And when the opportunity arose for him to open his own stall, he jumped on it and has never looked back.
Japanese dons may not scream “local” to most people but to 28-year-old Remus, every bite is nostalgic. His secondary school go-to during recess was the Japanese food stall, where he would order a rice bowl and just pile on a ton of mayo before digging in. Shiok. And who knew? Fast forward 10 years from then, Fukudon’s menu is largely inspired by what he had as a student.
Fukudon’s signatures, inspired by Remus’ recess meals: Shoyu Glazed Salmon Don, Chicken Oyakodon, Sukiyaki Glazed Beef Short Plate Don
Tough job that few would want to take up
Being a hawker for the past 50 years, Uncle Sng lived through a history textbook’s worth of changes. Through this time, he watched many of his hawker-neighbours close their shutters, and the injection of new cuisines followed after. That was when he started fearing the loss of Singapore’s local delights.
He knows that such changes are inevitable, but he still grieves. “Nowadays food [doesn’t] taste […] authentic already, it’s different from what I ate last time in the Kampong,” his sadness was palpable across the quiet hawker centre, “But what to do — I can’t expect them to cook something that they have never tasted before.”
Yet Uncle Sng doesn’t plan on passing down the trade. His son doesn’t have any intentions of taking over (at least, for now), and he says that’s okay. The hawker trade is a tough one — long working hours, cooking under the sweltering heat of a cramped kitchen, all with no guarantee to cover costs. He would rather his children lead a more comfortable life and pursue what they’re interested in. Even if that means that his carrot cake will eventually disappear.
Watch us recreate Uncle Sng’s carrot cake and let him try it!
Remus also agrees that not everyone has what it takes to be a hawker. When he first started Fukudon, he worked 6 days a week, 14 hours a day with only 5 hours of sleep to give his business a head start. “Not many young people would want to work such a job, unless you are really, very passionate,” Remus sighed and paused, but quickly perked up and continued, “But you won’t know you want to be a hawker until you try — 3 months, 6 months, a year into the job. So, if you have some interest, just go for it.”
Remus doesn’t think hawker culture is dying out, instead sees it taking a new direction in selling a wider variety of cuisine, including the ever-popular Mala Xiang Guo. And he readily accepts the change. After all, the taste of home is what we grow up eating — whether that is food from the Japanese stall in a school canteen, or carrot cake by the roadside.
Future of Hawker Culture
Remus and Uncle Sng are right — hawker culture is no longer what it was before.
When street vendors were moved into hawker centres in the 80s, it became a place for different cultures to congregate. Hawkers would sell food from their home countries, and customers were free to help themselves to a meal that crossed borders — it was common to see Hokkien Mee, South Indian Biryani, Indonesian Lontong Sayur Lodeh all on the same table. And these very dishes became our local delicacies, the food that represented our Singaporean heritage.
That’s what makes hawker centres unique — it’s not just where we go for good, cheap food. It’s a place reflective of Singapore’s melting pot of cultures.
As hawker centres expand their repertoires to include food of more cuisines, we’re not sure what the future holds. Perhaps the definition of “local” or “authentic” food would change in the years to come. But Uncle Sng’s and Remus’ stories remind us of how hawker culture is more than food — it’s heart, tradition and a poignant reflection of Singapore’s melting pot of cultures. We can’t say it’ll stay the same forever, but we sure can cherish this culture and get to know the stories before it’s too late.
More of what you might like:
- More on Uncle Sng! Hawker Life in Singapore playlist
- Gyudon (Japanese Beef Bowl)
- Appreciating Mummies: The Amazing Mum Behind “Mum Daughter Kitchen” in Chinatown Complex
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