The Hurdles of the Hawker Business

Written by Samuel and Jeryl

Economical. Reliable. Accessible. Diverse. Meals. From these few words you could guess they are used to describe hawker centres. These hawkers stand as upholders of our long culinary heritage from a melting hotpot of cultures, as well as preserving our beloved local flavours through the ages. Today, hawkers stand as national icons of what makes Singapore a food paradise. However, even icons will face struggles from time to time…

Golden Shoe Hokkien Mee. Source: on site

Going into the life of a hawker today, one will find the many hidden problems that they face, which go unnoticed by many. An example of a hawker stall today would be Golden Shoe Hokkien Mee, located at Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in the central business district. Golden Shoe Hokkien Mee is run by a young hawker who stepped up to learn how to prepare hokkien mee by his uncle. Years later, his desire to not let the hokkien mee recipe go to waste paid off, as he opened shop in Lau Pa Sat. However, there were some undeniable challenges that he had to face during his journey as a hawker: It was necessary to personally go and choose the best ingredients from suppliers; Preparation of handmade chili paste, pork lard and prawn broth take up an immense amount of time, with the broth taking up 4 hours and 30 minutes to cook; Suppliers sometimes deliver low-quality ingredients which can cause problems. Needless to say, there is the ever-present issue of manpower shortage and rise in prices of ingredients, which once pressured the stall to increase its prices in the past. Thankfully for the owner, his mother has volunteered to help him in running the stall, which lessen the burdens placed upon the young hawker. At present, the hawker stall is favoured by many and continues to be sought after by regulars.

However, the current quality of food is only made possible in this current period. Going way back to the colonial days, there were no such centres. But there were still hawkers. Back then, it was the norm for the customers to be eating by the roadside using dirty utensils. The result is having both vehicular and foot traffic impeded. With these inconveniences caused, the authorities had labelled them as nuisances contributing towards the chaos on the streets. Furthermore, in order to obtain protection, these businesses collectively fund the feared and powerful secret societies for whatever activities these societies wished to conduct. So you could probably guess the amount of help the authorities gave initially for the hawkers. Hint: None. Or more accurately, adding obstacles with a declared “war” against all unlicensed hawkers for its obvious health hazards like contaminated ingredients and water. And to make matters worse, licensing is a really slow process.

Police raid on unlicensed hawkers.

During this ‘war’, the Town Cleansing Department conducted daily raids on these hawkers. This only added to the resentment of the hawkers against such licensing policies. Subsequently, the consequences were bribery of enforcers by hawkers and increased payments to local gangs for protection against the police.

However, when Singapore gained its independence, the government was able to resolve this problem after recognising the legitimacy of the hawker business and aimed to cooperate with hawkers to improve conditions together. Some solutions included education programs, grading systems, new buildings dedicated to hawkers, and stronger enforcement of the rules. This time, it was received with open arms now that the hawkers realise that their concerns were finally brought into the picture.

Currently, though things are not all sunshine and rainbows for these hawkers, I think we can all agree that the present conditions are much heavily favoured over previous ones. So, do remember to treasure these convenient food places while you still can. As you know, hawkers deserve appreciation too.

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