by Lynne Chia (Feeding City Team Alumni)
On November 17, 2020, Singaporeans celebrated the news that local hawker food culture was one step closer to being inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.i This year, however, has not been easy for this treasured facet of Singaporean society. Hawker food refers to cheap and delicious local foods sold at open-air centres across Singapore.
It has a rich history that spans across a century of complex developments between a country and its people. Singapore’s status as a port-city in the twentieth century brought about an influx of immigration mainly from China (southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong), India (Tamil Nadu) and the Malay Archipelago, to work and live in the ports, mines, plantations and emergent villages and towns.ii
Quick and affordable meal options became a necessity for the average immigrant worker. This gave rise to street hawkers who took up food trades to earn a livelihood. They set up makeshift stalls along roads and places around the growing urban areas of Singapore. Over time, this hawker food culture developed a unique identity of its own; informed by a multi-cultural palette of flavours and heritage, and became tied intrinsically to the lives of ordinary Singaporeans till this day.
The unprecedented consequences of COVID-19 have left a significant mark on hawker culture in Singapore. Over the past decade, hawkers have been struggling with rising prices of fresh produce and stall rental costs. The outbreak of COVID-19 has only served to place more intense pressure on the Singaporean hawker trade. The introduction of the government-coined “circuit-breaker” measures on 7th April 2020 was Singapore’s cordon sanitaire implemented due to the burgeoning COVID-19 cases from clusters at foreign worker dormitories.
With these measures in place, hawker centres, traditionally the centre of community life for many, became off-limits except for takeaways and deliveries. The familiar lunch-time office crowds and late-night supper groups were reduced to a trickle in most places, as residents were strongly urged to stay home–barring exercise and shopping for essential items.
(A typical lunchtime crowd at the popular Maxwell Hawker Food Centre in Singapore, before COVID-19. Picture by The Straits Times.)
(A completely empty Maxwell Food Centre at peak lunch hour, pictured on 13th April, shortly after the commencement of the circuit breaker which banned dine-ins. The few seated individuals are stall owners, not patrons. Picture courtesy of Lynne’s father, Allan.)
(A sign plastered to a table at the Redhill Hawker Food Centre. Picture by: Daniel Lee)
Subsequently, many businesses reported severe drops in stall revenue, with some earning only a third of what they used to make a day. Even with government subsidies put in place, such as stall rental waivers awarded to around 14,000 hawker stalls for the months of April-July, high running costs of cleaning, utilities and food ingredients weighed heavily on hawkers’ minds.iii
This period has also seen an increase in excess food wastage, with many hawkers being unable to sell what they have prepared and cooked for the day, and by sanitation laws, are required to dispose of their unsold food. In an interview with the Today Newspaper, Mr Lee Kim Saik, 58, owner of Hong Wan Food Stall that sells rice with dishes at the Hong Lim Food Centre, shared the costs that go into running a hawker business. Apart from stall rental fees, which is estimated to be about S$1,200 (CAD$1164) a month, Mr Lee pays another S$1,300 (CAD$1260) on gas, utilities and miscellaneous fees.iv
On top of the current strain that COVID-19 has placed on the hawker food ecosystem, maintaining food security and regulating the affordability of food imports continuously pose a great challenge to Singapore. According to Lionel Chee, Singapore’s Ambassador to the World Food Travel Association, the price of ingredients available to hawkers has risen by as much as 20 to 30 percent since 2008.v A small bag of red onions that used to cost 3.80 Singapore dollars (CAD$3.69) now costs between 6 Singapore dollars and 7 Singapore dollars (CAD$5.82 – CAD$6.79), caused in part by India’s ban on red onion exports, while a tray of 30 AA grade eggs has gone from 5 Singapore dollars (CAD$4.85) to as much as 10 Singapore dollars (CAD$9.71). vi
Rising food costs in the midst of the pandemic, have made disruptions to Singapore’s food supply even more complicated, since restrictive measures have affected the labour needed for agricultural processes, shipping and packaging, which disrupts the supply chain.vii Despite active government intervention to alleviate these problems, such concerns directly impact the longevity of hawker businesses in Singapore and for hawkers such as Mr Lee Kim Saik, the prospects for the unforeseeable future appear bleak.
(Social distancing measures cordoning off seating areas in a heartland hawker centre. Picture by: Lynne)
The role of hawker centres are an integral component of the Singaporean foodscape, facilitating social exchanges and community-bonding for Singaporeans. However, what lies ahead for the future of hawker food culture? Currently, hawker centres managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) feature a new seating arrangement, with seats and tables marked out for dining groups of different sizes, as Singapore entered Phase 2 of its reopening after the COVID-19 “circuit breaker” in late-June. viii
Under the new measures implemented by the government, social gatherings both indoors and outdoors are limited to no more than five people at any time. People are also expected to keep face-coverings on at all times, while seated at hawker centres, until the moment they begin their meal.ix This is often monitored by NEA enforcement officers, who will first give warnings and subsequently issue fines if faced with non-compliance.
(A screenshot of various tweets by Singaporeans about hawker centres affected by COVID-19 measures.)
The experience of dining at a hawker centre, has dramatically transformed. On various social media platforms, throughout the “circuit breaker” period, Singaporean users have expressed disappointment at the inability to—not just eat hawker food—but to be able to physically have meals, and conversations with friends and family at hawker centres (Figure 4.) One Twitter user even stated “I miss going to kopitiam (hawker food shop)… I think if I use coffee shop/cafe, the vibe is not the same as kopitiam. [L]ocal coffee shops have their own unique vibe that I missed so much.”x
This sentiment echoes across the board, with many wondering if COVID-19 will permanently change the way hawker food culture exists in Singapore.
Benner, Tom. “Coronavirus Eats into Singapore’s Already Struggling Hawker Trade.” Al Jazeera, May 5, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/coronavirus-eats-singapores-struggling-hawker-trade-200504090429208.html.
Jiminchun. Twitter Post. June 1, 2020, 8.57am. Accessed from: https://twitter.com/jiminchum/status/1267259053106839553
Loke, Lena, and Nabilah Awang. “’We’d Try to Endure’: Hawkers See Businesses Plunge By Up To 50% Due to Covid-19 Oubreak.” Today. February 22, 2020. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/wed-try-endure-hawkers-see-business-plunge-50-due-covid-19-outbreak.
Singapore Consumer Price Index 2019. Department of Statistics Singapore. (2019). https://www.singstat.gov.sg/-/media/files/news/cpimar2019.pdf.
Tan, Audrey. “Safeguarding Singapore’s Food Security at the National and Household Levels during Coronavirus Pandemic,” The Straits Times, April 8, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/safeguarding-food-security-at-the-national-and-households-levels.
Tan, Cheryl. “Additional Two Months of Rental Waivers for Stallholders at NEA-Managed Hawker Centres.” The Straits Times, May 30, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/additional-two-months-of-rental-waivers-for-stallholders-at-nea-managed-hawker-centres.
Tan, Sue-Ann. “Seating Arrangements at Hawker Centres to Change to Align with Phase 2 Dine-in Measures.” The Straits Times, June 16, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/seating-arrangements-at-hawker-centres-to-change-to-align-with-phase-2-dine-in.
Turnbull, C. M. A History of Modern Singapore 1819-2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2020).
Yong, Clement. “Global panel recommends Singapore’s hawker culture be added to Unesco list.” The Straits Times (Singapore), November 17, 2020. Accessed November 17, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/global-panel-recommends-singapores-hawker-culture-to-be-added-to-unesco-list?utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=STFB&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR108FURxJQr4JIbZn0hfGpCSmsEmUqA9VvOV4k-dSRXNGBi9ufb68h50DA#Echobox=1605580867