Will it be harder to find good hawker food in Singapore in the future?

Three hawkers share their thoughts with contributing editor Aloysius Low about hawker culture in Singapore.

Hup Kee Malaysian Fishball Noodles
(Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)
Hup Kee Malaysian Fishball Noodles (Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)

I have a controversial take: Good hawker food is slowly getting harder to come by in Singapore. It used to be that I could find a wide variety of delicious foods in my neighborhood, including carrot cake.

But one renovation and blinged-up kopitiam after, and the older hawkers who have been there for decades have given up their stalls. That includes my aforementioned carrot cake, replaced by a generic franchised stall (which I won't name) that you can find almost anywhere in Singapore.

It's a shame, because I will never be able to eat their delicious cooking ever again, which led me to wonder: What happens when we start losing our food culture, to be replaced by generic unappetising food prepared by workers who seem to just want to be done with their shifts?

Now, I don't think it's on the workers, after all, one has to earn a salary to survive in Singapore.

But this is what happens when it's easier to just go with the lowest effort to churn out food.

I've personally seen a big name franchise open to big fanfare, then quietly exit when they barely have any business due to how bad the quality of their cooking is.

(Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)
(Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)

Meanwhile, the older hawkers who were there before continue to survive, still getting long queues despite slight price increases. And even then, they have their own problems, from high rents to labour issues, and injuries.

To find out if there are any solutions, I spoke to three hawkers who shared their stories with me, including what really got them into the business, and the advice they have for continuing our food culture.

Jean from Ah Hua Teowchew Fishball Noodles (Photo: Ah Hua Teowchew Fishball Noodles)
Jean from Ah Hua Teowchew Fishball Noodles (Photo: Ah Hua Teowchew Fishball Noodles)

A second-generation hawker, Jean Lim started helping out by taking orders and interacting with customers at her family's shop at Pandan Gardens to get a feel of the business, before stepping into the kitchen two years later in 2019.

Her dad has been in the business for years, and was previously running a factory and had five noodle stalls.

However, this led to the quality of the food declining. Lim, who loves her father's cooking, especially his sambal chilli, visited the stalls anonymously and was left terribly unimpressed.

"I went to eat personally when the auntie doesn't know who I am, I took one mouthful and I left it all there. It was even worse than instant noodles," said Lim.

"And then out of the blue, my father told me that they would sell Tom Yum noodles when his menu doesn't have Tom Yum."

Lim added that from that experience, she would rather just have one good stall to maintain quality, instead of having more and having standards dropped.

(Photo: Ah Hua Teochew Fishball Noodles)
(Photo: Ah Hua Teochew Fishball Noodles)

"For myself, I think we are more into quality than other things, whatever we serve out, it has to be to our standards. If the noodles are overcooked, we will just reject it and throw it away," said Lim.

Like many hawkers, long hours are something Lim has to deal with. She's already at the store at 5am, where they also sell economic noodles.

The fishball noodle stall opens at 8am, before closing at 3.30pm. Then they take a break for two hours, before they start making pork lard, the fishball, chill, and other ingredients.

"People think we earn a lot, and want to enter the business and make lots of money. But actually, we don't earn a lot. We have to pay our workers, rent, electric bills, expenses, deliveries, and goods every month. We don't actually earn a lot," she said.

Jean also added that it's a passion thing for her now, and that the appreciation of a customer is what motivates her, especially when she puts up content about her experiences as a hawker on Instagram.

She also loves it when customers share with her feedback about her cooking.

"Another thing they secretly tell me is that my cooking is better than my father's," she said.

Mdm Hoon Poh Hwa of Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake.
(Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)
Mdm Hoon Poh Hwa of Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake. (Photo: Aloysius Low/Yahoo News Singapore)

A second-generation hawker, Hoon Poh Hwa makes one of the less common hawker dishes in Singapore, oyster cakes, at popular tourist spot Maxwell Food Centre.

These deep fried delicacies are batter filled with oyster, minced pork, prawns and coriander, with peanuts on top of the batter and make for really tasty snacks.

Hoon took over from her mother, and has been making the snack for more than 30 years now. It remains to be seen if her child has plans to take over from her, though she mentioned that he "was interested".

"I never asked him, but he said 'oh maybe when I get older, then I might come back and do, he told me that. He's quite interested, because after you work outside, you work for people, there's a salary only," she said.

"But when you have your own business, your own business is different. You do your own business, you take long hours, you earn more, you see. If you want to work hard, you earn more."

However, Hoon admits that it can be tough for the younger generation to pick up the trade.

She shared how one of the other stall owners at the food centre who made cheap $2 soup noodles had to go for an operation because of the long hours spent standing up. While she was recovering, her daughter came to help her.

"Her mother said, 'ok, you can help me now, you know how to take over, I don't want to work already, I retire', but her daughter said aiyoh, don't want la, you make me come so early in the morning just to do this type of work, no way man,' she said like that," recounted Hoon.

(Photo: Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake)
(Photo: Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake)

Hoon usually has to wake up at 6am to prepare the ingredients, and only closes in the evening, though there are times when she can close early at 7pm if business is good. Otherwise, she will finish around 8pm or later.

For Hoon, she can keep the prices low for her snacks at just $2.50, because her rental is low as she gets a government subsidy due to taking over her mother's stall.

Other hawkers at the Food Centre have to instead tender for a stall, with rents as high as $6,000 a month. Then, there's also table and plates cleaning, which hawkers have to also pay for and can add on to their costs.

"If you don't work long hours ah, you can't pay your rent, then you don't' make as much and don't take much home," she said.

For those who are looking to get into the hawker trade though, Hoon hopes that the government will step in to manage rentals, which will help younger generations pick up the trade.

But she feels that most Singaporean children have too good of a life to want to pick up such tough work.

"They have to learn the skill lah, must have good skill and willing to learn; those not interested but are doing it because they think they can make good money, don't think of that," she said.

"You must have the heart, to really like cooking and serving people, and hope that people eat my food, they are happy and they come and tell me the food is good."

(Photo: Li Ruifang/545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles)
(Photo: Li Ruifang/545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles)

Third-generation hawker Li Ruifang has been in the business for over a decade now, taking over her parents' business. Li runs her prawn noodle stall at Tekka Food Centre, located near Little India.

Hers is not the only stall under the 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodle banner, as her aunts run another at Whampoa Food Centre.

For Li, who has been helping out at her dad's stall when was younger, being a hawker is something that's somewhat in her blood.

Plus, she also loves cooking and serving customers, and the bond between her and customers is something that motivates her. In fact, some of her customers recognise her from when she was very young.

"I have customers who come every day, and I realise most of my customers are older generations because they love the traditional taste, but my husband actually asked me if I had considered what happens when these people pass on and how I would attract the younger generation?" she mused.

But she told him that she will continue doing what she is doing now, and hopefully attract the younger crowd to appreciate her food as well.

For Li, a mother of two, her working hours are long, almost 12 hours every day.

She wakes up at 2am, gets to the stall at 2.45am, prepping until 7am when she opens for orders. She closes at 1.30pm, and cleans up the stall and finishes by 3pm.

And sometimes she stays up to cook dinner for her girls, though if she's really tired she will ask her husband to get food for them. She turns in at 8pm each day, before repeating the cycle.

"I find that it's very obvious that those labour-intensive hawker food are slowly dying off. because youngsters don't want to do it. I don't know if it will offend anyone by saying this, but most of the youngsters are selling western food because it's easier and they can sell it at a higher price"Li Ruifang, third-generation hawker

"There's not enough young people doing it, because being a hawker is a really tough job. You have to wake up early, and you can't hire foreigners. You can only hire Singaporeans and PR. The pay is not enough for most Singaporeans, and it's hot, humid, and smelly, and they rather work at a cafe or restaurant," she said.

(Photo: 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles)
(Photo: 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles)

Additionally, injuries can be an issue for most hawkers. They perform a lot of repetitive motions, and over time, these can build up to something really bad.

"So for example, char kway teow is a dying hawker trade, because you have to stand in front of the wok and then you have to fry plate by plate. I heard a lot of hawkers get wrist injuries," said Li.

Li shared that one of the hawkers she knew who has been cooking hokkien mee for 11 or 12 years, suffered a nerve injury and his hand suddenly lost control and spilled his coffee while he was on the plane.

"He thought he couldn't do it anymore, but luckily he went to see TCM and got better."

Another thing that Li noticed was that in new hawker centres or kopitiams, a lot of the stalls open later around 10 or 11am, and those who go there too early don't really have much to choose from.

It's only in older kopitiams and hawker centres that the older hawkers would open earlier, but as these hawkers retire, the food culture of getting an early breakfast at a hawker centre may be lost, she said.

The newer hawker centres and kopitiams also lack the freshness and uniqueness of the older hawker centers, she added. These hawker centers are filled up with franchises, which makes it feel too generic.

Take for example, she said, one location that recently opened in Fernvale.

"I went there, I looked at the stores. They got the ban mian, they got the chicken rice, all the franchises, but they don't have the uniqueness, and I'm like oh, I've eaten all these before, so the food variety is very boring to me," she said.

"To me, I go there, I see it's like a food park, there's no feeling of freshness."

One thing that Li hopes to see more is having schools send students to hawker centres to appreciate traditional foods. These students don't get to eat hawker food when they are schooling in the morning, and by the time they finish classes, most of the hawkers would have closed, Li said.

"If we want the younger generation to appreciate this kind of traditional food, the school must step in, maybe they can get them to visit. Here in Little India, I've seen primary school, secondary school kids visiting and trying out our food, like our noodles," said Li.

"We need more of this, more of these projects to promote our local foods. I'm sure many of them have never really eaten them, only when their schools bring them here, they get a chance."

Aloysius Low is an ex-CNET editor with more than 15 years of experience. He's really into cats and is currently reviewing products at canbuyornot.com

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