From Street Eats to Quick Treats: The Singapore Hawker Revisited

By Alfonse Chiu

For his third instalment on sensing the city, Alfonse Chiu delves into the gustatory, masticating through a topic both beaten to death, and at the same time, laminated to our (gut) culturethe Singaporean Hawker. From biology to sociology, to industry and (inevitably) public policy, Alfonse serves up an odyssey and ode to an ever-changed national symbol.
P(un)s. Too much bake off again.

Lau Pa Sat. Image courtesy of the author.

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There is something deeply primal about the way that we relate to matters of food, and of taste, that the other senses just cannot match; though we rationalise and debate about music, about architecture, about dance, we cannot do the same—not exactly anyway—for what we eat. Just in this corner of the world, we’ve had outrages near the fever pitch of moral panic with crispy rendang, the recent airline nasi lemak, and right here in Singapore in particular, over putu piring being featured on internet cable instead of other more ubiquitous hawker food. It is an undeniable fact of reality—as far as it pertains to living things on Earth—that food is central to existing, and therefore it only follows that food is more often than not, the central focus of society. While innovations in methods of agricultural production and animal husbandry allowed for civilisations to flourish and evolve, consumption also occurs as a collective ritual that strengthens a community—the etymological roots of which could either mean to use up entirely—cum sumere in Latin, or to complete—cum summa; both of which carry a certain ceremonial quality.

Why do we have such an irrationally close relationship to what we put in our mouths? The sociologist Pasi Falk makes an interesting proposition: Noting that an infant’s initial perception of difference—between a foreign object and the self—is first experienced through the mouth at the mother’s breast, far before visual acuities are developed, Falk proposes that the mouth acts as both the model for all senses to follow, and as the entry point controlling and demarcating the assimilation of alien matter into the body, prompted by a culturally coded palate.

While the act of tasting and consuming could broadly be thought of as a private act, with most instances undertaken unspectacularly and inconspicuously by an individual guided by some general social principles, it is indubitable that the realm of food can also be construed as a public space. Open to contestations, dissipations, and alterations, and prone to attracting various forms of frustrations and altercations as communities sought to carve out what belongs to them, culturally and genealogically, the notion of food and consumption go far beyond the physical objects of what we eat to encompass the complexities of how and where we eat. As Bourdieu has written at length, given that eating is an act which necessitates constant repetition for biological survival in an often social setting, it constitutes a critical element of the various routinised practices which entrenches habitus—a set of ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that shapes the social behaviours of an individual in a larger society, and which more often than not, informs identities and perceptions of difference.

The admission that there is much more to chew on about how food functions as culture is not a recent phenomenon; coined in the early 20th century, the term ‘foodway’—defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the eating habits and culinary practices of a people, region, or historical period”—both represent a more holistic and contextually grounded lens through which food can be studied, as well as provide a sense of movement and directionality in the way that food functions in the society. The discursive dimensions and symbolic functions of food in the creation of distinct community identities are further explored by anthropologist Michael Dietler, who posits that food could be considered an “embodied material culture”: a distinct type of material culture made explicitly for immediate destruction through human consumption, and is transformed in meaning by it.

If we are to go further than the abstraction of ascribed social meanings though, the primary way that food shapes society and culture is resolutely biological. Observing the relationship between urban development and food, the architect and writer Carolyn Steel discerns that there is no resource as vital to the urban condition as food—“[n]o city was ever built without first considering where its food was to come from.” In the pre-industrial era, “the sights and smells of food were inescapable” in the city because the city itself is constrained by the amount of food it needs and can produce; it is only with the advent of railways and industrialisation in the 19th century that cities could finally be emancipated from their geographical conditions and capacity to sustain themselves. Rapid improvements in transportation technology from the early 20th century onwards meant that foodstuff, prone to rotting and damage on long travels, could reach distance never thought possible before; creating an abundance of food not just by volume, but also in variety, at whichever place that could afford it.

As access to food no longer remains the limiting factor, cities evolve and transform—the process of which fundamentally changes the way people procure and consume food, and its socio-cultural meanings too. Spaces are created where food and food cultures could amalgamate and hybridise into unique urban gastronomic ecosystems, of which the very streets of the city often become an arena for competing ideals of pragmatic concerns and cultural identities rooted in culinary traditions. Defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as “ready-to-eat foods and beverages prepared and/or sold by vendors or hawkers especially in the streets and other similar places,” street food, which has existed since antiquity, is an indispensable component of not just the urban foodway—which “represent[s] a significant part of urban food consumption for millions of low-and-middle-income consumers, in urban areas on a daily basis” in a dynamic system of supply and demand of quick, cheap, and easy-to-eat food—but also forms the bulwark for the authentic gastronomic identity of the urban space, with all its implied polyphony, against the encroachment of, commonly state-led, gentrification and ethno-nationalist culinary essentialism.

In Singapore, street food is a natural consequence of mass migration. Keenly influenced by the large influx of Chinese labourers, predominantly single males, in the Straits Settlements of Singapore and the Malay states throughout the nineteenth century, street food catered to the new migrant workers for whom, constrained by either the lack or the overcrowding of domestic spaces and facilities, eating out was a much more feasible option than cooking at home. Some hawkers would prepare their wares and carry them on baskets suspended from poles draped across their shoulders, and either walk the city streets to search for customers or congregate at corners and intersections; other hawkers would have mobile carts that they push from place to place, sometimes even clustering in streets, to improvise stalls like the shophouses behind them.

Despite the fact that the sensorial qualities of hawkers and hawking—their calls for customers, the smell of their cooking, the taste of their food, etc.—are significant additions to the collective memory of Singapore which have since prompted many nostalgic productions of accounts, memoirs, and cookbooks, the historic reality was that, way before the romanticisation and elevation of hawker food to ‘heritage’ food worthy of nomination—courtesy of the National Heritage Board, for UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage status—street food was, in the eyes of the state, “primarily a public nuisance to be removed from the streets” and that the ideal scenario for the sake of public health would be if “virtually all hawkers were excluded from the streets.” Though the state, through the apparatus of the 1950 Hawker Inquiry Commission, was not entirely unsympathetic to the hawkers’ attempt at eking out a living, and their important social function as the provider of low cost meals to the urban populace, what the hawkers represented—with their small-scale trading and rather intense usage of land in key nodes of the city—was antithetical to the colonial administration’s long-term vision for the development of Singapore. Beyond the purview of public health, hawking further contributed to disorderly streets, traffic and pedestrian blockage, and the retention of low-skilled workers in the low-return hawking sector as opposed to freeing up labor for new industries.

On the side of public policy, the solution to all these seemingly daunting issues was to regulate, and eventually, relocate the hawkers. Purpose-built hawker centres—an irony if any, considering the ambulant, subversive, and most importantly, itinerant nature of hawkers—were instituted, and hawkers displaced from their usual haunts on the streets. The rise of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the sixties further made hawking regulation a priority, as the government raced to make Singapore the cleanest country in Asia—by the seventies, some 18,000 hawkers had been relocated, and the Hawkers Department Special Squad was formed, conducting daily raids on illegal markets and unregistered hawkers. Public eating space was being rapidly reshaped and remade, and while street food culture has been somewhat preserved, it has also been irrevocably altered. The result of this being that Singapore’s public order gets maintained, food safety enhanced, and the masses fed; nowadays, tourists get to eat cheap food in a foreign land without needing travel insurance and bracing for a possible death by dysentery, while the locals, concurrently herded into public housing situated in estates further away from the city centre, get to save time on food preparation at home and work more.

Be that as it may, such regulations are frequently needed and mostly practical, the degree to which the state engages with them also indicates a deep-seated need to control not only physical spaces, but also the body autonomy of the city to a certain extent—the easiest way for which is to impose on the individual bodies of the citizens. Decisions on where to eat, how to eat, and what to eat have been co-opted into acts of civic participation just as how hawker centres, originally the sites of so much contestation, have been co-opted into sanitised national symbols. The preoccupation with manicuring the image and methods of various bodily functions (Think of all the prescriptive signs in public bathrooms, parks, and the ever-famous chewing gum ban.) merges into a vague national anxiety about progress and development, and how Singapore could fit into a neoliberal Western conception of civilisation; disobeying the prescribed orders of social regulation threatens the nation because it then goes against the definite national ideals of success and prosperity, which of course, form the tenets of the Singapore Dream.

Beyond convenience and affordability, beyond control and being controlled, what does the hawker centre mean to the average Singaporean though? A survey conducted in 2018 by the National Environment Agency (NEA), the official body in charge of hawker centre regulations, revealed that while “91% of the respondents agreed that hawker centres promote interactions among people from all walks of life, and are good places to interact with friends, family and neighbours,” the top reasons for visiting are still very much rooted in pragmatism: “(i) good variety of food, (ii) affordable food, and (iii) easy accessibility of hawker centres (near to home or workplace).” The social function of the space comes pre-planned, not organically formed. There, the multiracial composition of the food to be found and bought within them can be cited alongside a quote from former NEA chair Simon Tay, who wrote that hawker centres are where the “rich and poor equally queue up for their favourite dishes” as part of the foreword to academic Lily Kong’s Singapore Hawker Centres: People, Places, Food—a meaningful refrain to the set-up of such spaces as a neutral national space devoid of social tensions that otherwise run high. The myths—an optimist might say ideals—of equality and meritocracy are upheld by the presumed social mixing that occurs, creating a permanent zone of transient classless-ness as citizens, residents, and visitors of all creeds, races, and classes, who bond over the apolitical act of eating together.

Through it all, what then does the hawker centre mean to hawkers themselves? It is imperative to note that, above all else, hawking is a vocation, a trade, and an industry built on the need for survival without needing many prior skills, and thus financial stability, and sustainability in the long run, will always be prerogatives for hawkers. In a 2018 New Naratif podcast, three different generations of hawkers based in Chinatown Complex shared their struggles in keeping afloat and poignant points were raised about how the very conditions of operating as a business providing what is basically a social good of affordable and accessible food to the masses has changed drastically: while older hawkers remained on legacy rent-controlled schemes for their stall rentals, newcomers have to bid competitively for spaces that may not be able earn back what it takes to lease; legacy stalls face troubles with succession as their second generation shunned the thankless and low-profit trade; punishing increments in operational costs from new operators that stack up without equivalent benefit to businesses, etc. Regrettable as it may be, the abstracted socio-cultural responsibilities of a hawker centre will forever be secondary to the economic function it wields as an aggregator of service providers. For all the campaigning and lyrical waxing about how deeply intertwined and inseparable hawker culture is to our social fabric, its slow death is imminent if the context cannot be improved.

If the market does not change, neither will the incidental, intangible elements we are so enthralled by survive. The business of selling affordable food to the general public will never go away, but the forms and spaces within which these happen will evolve and permute, until it does not resemble the original anymore. New trends in food and beverages come and go, flavours change, methods adapt, and in due time, these containers of history will blur into a smudge, and as we taste something on the streets that is distantly familiar but no longer recognisable, we will feel a small, dull ache of loss and lament: the hawker is dead, long live the hawker.

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