Food lovers have come to the rescue of Singapore’s pandemic-hit hawkers, but is it enough to save them?
Tables covered in plastic sheeting, red and white tape cordoning off areas, stall fronts neatly shuttered—some temporary, some for good. Singapore’s once-bustling hawker centers have seen better days.
Gone are the snaking queues of diners waiting patiently for their fix of Michelin-starred soya sauce chicken. Missing are the office workers carefully tucking into bowls of spicy laksa. Absent are the groups of elderly who would regularly commune over a cup of kopi (local coffee) and roti prata (flaky South Indian flatbread cooked on a griddle). All that’s left are the hawkers standing idly by, waiting for regulars to drop in or for the odd online delivery order to ping through.
The hawker center is a staple of everyday life in Singapore. There are over 100 of them scattered across the city-state. While these no-frills, open-air food courts are humble in appearance and offerings—bowls of minced meat noodles go for as little as $2, while 50 cents will get you a generous slice of crispy peanut pancake—its value is immeasurable. Feeding everyone from billionaire tycoons to starving students, the freshly-prepared meals are so good they’ve earned loyal customers that span decades. In short, hawkers are an integral part of Singapore’s culture. Even seasoned world travelers have not been immune to its charms. The late Anthony Bourdain was once quoted as saying, “[hawker food] is the number one reason to come to Singapore.”
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So integral is it to Singapore’s landscape that in December 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, an award that focuses on the knowledge, practices, and intangible contribution to a country’s culture. Ironically, ongoing pandemic measures may cause a portion of hawker talent to be lost forever, especially those that rely heavily on dine-in orders and the elderly stalwarts who are without a digital and online delivery presence. To save Singapore’s hawkers, a group of self-proclaimed foodies is turning toward social media and technology.
How the Pandemic Is Impacting Singapore’s Hawkers
“Hawkers in Singapore are in a fragile state. They survive by selling food in a developed nation with developing nation prices,” explains K.F. Seetoh, founder and chief executive of the food guide, Makansutra. “$3.70 [still] gets you a complete and comforting heritage meal with drinks, even today.”
The widely regarded godfather of Singapore’s hawker culture took to his Facebook page in May 2021, when dining restrictions were reintroduced for a month, imploring Singaporeans to support hawkers that remain offline due to either cost or a lack of digital-savvy. To support the city’s local hawkers, Seetoh began video walkabouts that highlight the plight of lesser-known hawkers who—despite the lack of business—were showing every day to await customers, despite takings being as little as 20 percent of what they were pre-COVID.
While restrictions have since eased to allow for two diners per table in June and subsequently were enforced again in mid-July for a month, business remains slow. “The noise has generated a movement,” shared Seetoh, who has been involved in government-level discussions on how hawkers can digitalize and boost business sustainability. “A lot are doing their bid, from buying physically to bulk buys for the family. Even the authorities are taking note and paying attention to the matter.”
While there’s no magic bullet solution, Seetoh believes hawkers should be “ring-fenced by the government and given special treatment so they can continue to offer these traditional dishes at these affordable prices. Seetoh also believes Singapore’s hawkers should be given a special online, not-for-profit platform to help with delivery demands.
Mapping the City’s Local Hawkers
Until a sustainable solution is found, many Singaporeans are finding their own way of supporting local hawkers. For Thiru—an active Redditor who goes by the username u/waffleboy92—the thought of losing decades of hawker heritage prompted him to create a Google Maps titled Help Our Hawkers! The one-click, sharable, and crowd-sourced map allows users to view over 360 hawkers’ precise location, their background story, and food type. The map has been viewed over 100,000 times in less than a month.
“Hawker fare is what I grew up with and survived on. Personally, hawker food is one aspect that’s an iconic part of Singapore’s culture and heritage, and it represents love and sacrifice,” muses Thiru. “Hawkers have fed us at insanely cheap prices (compared to most other developed countries) for decades, toiling away since the early morning to prepare the meals. We live off of their hard work. To me, it represents culture and sustenance.” Thiru hopes that his map will eventually serve as an archive of Singapore’s hawker history at a glance.
Using Instagram to Celebrate the Stories of Hawkers
Taking a different approach, the sisters behind the popular Instagram account @wheretodapao, combined a visually engaging aesthetic with crowd-sourced posts to get people canvassing support for the city’s elderly hawkers. The combination worked, generating over 37.4K followers to date, numerous submissions, tie-ups with corporate brands, and live meal buys. By focusing on re-telling the stories of neighborhood hawkers in a style reminiscent of the popular book and Instagram account, @humansofny, their page has evolved into an unofficial repository of Singapore’s hawker history while helping locals decide where to “da pao” (local slang for takeaway).
“We have had multiple stories on how elderly hawkers continue to persevere even with sales declining as much as 80%,” shared co-founder, Jacquelyn Ng. “These hawkers have a strong sense of tradition and simply wish to allow more people to taste foods cooked in more traditional ways (for example, Teochew braised duck). Some hawkers also hang on because of a particular group of people. For instance, a kueh stall owner kept going because there was a 90-year-old woman who would buy traditional kueh from the stall, daily. The hawker says that if she stops, she ‘would be very sad and lost.’ These stories touch us because they depict the heart of the hawkers.”
Saving Singapore’s Ailing Hawker Culture
These narratives, and particularly the nostalgia it triggers, have inspired vlogger Gregory Leow of Greg’s Big Eats to film over 150 videos (and counting) documenting Singapore’s rich hawker heritage. A passion project he’s worked on since 2016, his YouTube channel covers everything from in-depth hawker center guides (if you only have time for one, watch the Chinatown Complex series) to the infamous Hup Kee Fried Oyster Omelette, down to discussing the origins of the messy-but-beloved dish of sup tulang (stewed mutton bones in a spicy red soup).
INSIDER TIPIf you are headed to Singapore, Leow recommends a visit to Claypot & Cooked Food Kitchen for traditional Cantonese cuisine, or Koung’s Wan Tan Mee for the best old-school wanton mee.
Leow’s hawker porn/food history approach is a deliberate one as he wanted to “learn about the craft, learn about hawker food, and in the process, give viewers objective and unbiased reviews.” For Leow, hawker food also functions as a “peek into what Singapore’s yesteryears were like.” While he echoes the need for government support, innovation, and upskilling, he sees present-day issues as a problem that started long before the pandemic.
“[The pandemic] just exacerbated what was already a problem, which is that the hawker population is declining and few people want to be hawkers because of the long hours and lower pay,” explains Leow, pointing to popular street food spots like Johor Bahru, Malaysia, and the city of Hong Kong with its free-market pricing as a possible model to follow. “There’s a limit to the help people can give via social media and the government handouts. If you’re a business, you have to adapt to new conditions and engage in social media and delivery apps if you want to survive. You have to change the food (since hawker food isn’t meant to be eaten takeaway), and you have to invest the time for Facebook and delivery apps and factor in the price change. But on the flip side, it’s hard to ask older hawkers to do that. For older hawkers (or any person), learning a new skill is not so easy. It’s like asking a retired banker or PR person to learn how to be a hawker, there’ll be a steep learning curve, and few can make the switch.”
INSIDER TIPSome other local hawker stalls that Leow recommends include Ghim Moh Chwee Kueh for their chwee kueh (Teochew for steamed “water” cake), Zhong Pin Noodle House for their Sarawak-style laksa and kolo mee, or Hougang 6 Miles Famous Muah Chee for their handmade muah chee (pan-fried rice balls covered in ground peanuts and sugar).
Ultimately, it’s clear permanent changes are needed for Singapore’s hawker culture to survive and thrive. Following the outpouring of support, a new workgroup (the SG Together Alliance for Action – Online Ordering for Hawkers) chaired by Singapore’s Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment and the Ministry of Communications and Information has been put together to offer education and support for hawkers to get onto online delivery platforms and help them supplement and expand their customer base. It’s a step in the right direction and hopefully one that gives a permanent boost to Singapore’s ailing hawker culture.
“If we are not careful and aware, hawker culture may lose its UNESCO status in six years, and we won’t be able to capitalize on this on the world stage,” says Seetoh. “Our hawker food culture is the one true culture we have left. There’s not a language, music, true Singapore festivals, costumes, etc. Without this iconic hawker food culture which is for, of, and by the people, we are just a rich nation of human bricks in the wall.”