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The Past and Future of Hawker Centres

  Published: 26 July 2019
  Theme: Planning

We explore how hawker centres parallel Singapore’s urban development, and look ahead to how hawkers will navigate the next chapter of their history.

East Coast Lagoon Food Village
The outdoor crowd at East Coast Lagoon Food Village (Image: National Environment Agency)

Hawker food is an important part of Singapore culture. But its ubiquity in our daily lives often leads us to take it for granted. The National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Perception Survey of Hawker Centre Patrons 2018 (PSHCP 2018) found that hawker centres were respondents’ top choice for eating out and the amenity with the second-highest number of votes (after public transport), when asked which three amenities in their neighbourhood were most important to them.

Beyond its utility, hawker food is also a symbol of our heritage and identity. Singapore recently nominated “Hawker Culture in Singapore” to the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As we herald Hawker Culture as central to our Singapore’s history and identity, it is fitting to reflect on its past and future: How did hawking come about? And looking ahead, where is it headed?

Professor Lily Kong, President and Lee Kong Chian Chair Professor of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University, believes that “Hawker Culture reflects and parallels Singapore’s journey and its urban development”, adding that “it’s intimately tied to the way the city has developed and how our lives and urban lifestyle have evolved over time”.

This article first looks back in history, outlining how hawkers moved from pushcarts to planned centres, and tying its evolution closely to Singapore’s urban development. Next, we anticipate what tomorrow’s strategies and trends – from the Draft Master Plan, to e-payments and food deliveries – hold for the future of hawking.

Pushcarts, Food Centres and National Icons

Hawker food first arrived in the nineteenth century with the influx of immigrants to the Malayan Peninsula. These immigrants found work in ports, plantations and mines. Cheap and convenient meals were in great demand by manual labourers. This need was met by itinerant hawkers, who served up a variety of dishes.

After World War II, three-quarters of the population were crammed into the city centre. Street hawkers congregated in hotspots, with the ensuing crowds blocking out entire streets to traffic. Unsanitary food preparation and improper waste disposal led to public health concerns, as hawkers were linked with cholera and typhoid outbreaks1. This was compounded by itineracy, making hawkers vectors for the spread of disease2.

But the problem was also an opportunity. In 1965, the newly independent government embarked on a plan to redevelop the city centre, which was then filled with slums, into a business district. To do this, it first needed to create new homes outside the city centre and relocate the population living in the city there. When the Housing and Development Board (HDB) started building public housing in the 1970s, urban planners sited centralised hawker centres in housing estates3. Registration for hawkers was introduced around the same time, transplanting once-itinerant hawkers into state-built hawker centres. This was the birth of hawker centres as we know it today. Hawkers were thus relocated along with most of the resident population into new housing estates outside the city centre.

Bedok Food Centre
The entrance of Bedok Food Centre (Image: National Environment Agency)

Over time, hawker centres evolved beyond food centres to become a symbol of heritage and culture. A notable example is Newton Food Centre, built in 1971. The architecture and landscape at the food centre recreated the atmosphere of the plantations that once dominated the area. Another notable example is Bedok Food Centre, which is located in an area that used to be a Malay kampung. The design concept was based on a Malay theme, including the entrance roof inspired by the Minangkabau style of architecture, as well as lush tropical vegetation to evoke the feeling of a kampung.

Planning and Hawking

Urban planning has and will continue to shape how and when people interact with spaces, including hawker centres. As we look ahead, is there further potential to reimagine the role of hawker centres in our fast-changing urban environment? In Singapore’s early independence, rational planning transplanted itinerant hawkers to sites close to residential and commercial developments to meet the demand for food.

Today, hawker centres are perceived as inclusive and unifying spaces – in the PSHCP 2018, 9 in 10 respondents agreed that hawker centres promote interactions among people from all walks of life, and are good places to mix with friends, family and neighbours. Harnessing this potential, hawker centres co-located with social amenities are now being reimagined as community hubs that bring people together. One notable example is Kampung Admiralty, which integrates housing for the elderly with a wide range of social, healthcare, communal, commercial, and retail facilities, including a 900-seat hawker centre.

Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre
Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre (Image: MyNiceHome, HDB)

The Central Business District often sees low human traffic on weekends, which has prompted many hawkers located within the area to close their stalls then. This stands in contrast to the long queues during weekday lunchtimes, where hawkers have to work even faster to meet the demand. The Draft Master Plan 2019 intends to encourage the development of more homes within the city centre, which might alter demand patterns for nearby food and hawker centres. There is also a continued push to develop regional hubs to locate more jobs closer to homes, which might bring larger office lunch crowds to hawker centres in the vicinity.

Future of Hawking: Cashless and on Wheels

Tekka Market
A hawker stall at Tekka Market on Serangoon Road (Image: Shankar S., CC BY 2.0)

Being a hawker has always been difficult, and challenges to their livelihood – including rising manpower and costs of ingredients – continue to mount. How prepared are our hawkers for the changes on the horizon? We explore two trends in this section: electronic payments and food delivery.

Electronic payments (e-payments)

Central to Singapore’s aspirations toward a Smart Nation is e-payments. Food courts have been quick to implement contactless and mobile payment options, giving consumers (especially tourists and working professionals) greater convenience, and increasing productivity for stall owners. Such productivity enhancements are particularly salient to hawkers, who operate on a very lean manpower model.

But some hawkers are apprehensive, citing reasons ranging from inertia to high upfront costs. “Most elderly hawkers still can't adapt to such changes, but a lot of them are also starting to learn more about social media marketing and e-payments. Younger generation hawkers have no problem with all that”, said Melvin Chew, a second-generation hawker who runs Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck & Kway Chap at Chinatown Complex Food Centre.

Such concerns are inherent to the trade – specialisation and scale enables hawkers to start and own a business with relatively modest capital. Hawkers are thus cautious of heavy investments that curtail their flexible, lean business model. Yet it is precisely these structural aspects of hawking that make this field ripe for innovation4, provided hawkers are convinced of the benefits.

Hawkers are more likely to offer e-payments if it becomes the preferred payment mode for more customers. In September 2018, Enterprise Singapore, together with NEA, HDB and JTC appointed NETS as the master acquirer5 to on-board small food establishments to a unified e-payment initiative. To date, 23 providers including DBS PayLah!, GrabPay, EZ-Link, NETS FlashPay, Visa and Mastercard, have been unified under a single point-of-sales terminal and a single SGQR label. Over 500 food stalls are now enabled for e-payment in 22 coffee shops and 10 hawker centres nationwide, and more stalls are being added. The unified e-payment solution makes it more convenient for customers and might prove to be the nudge required for widespread adoption.

Food Delivery Apps

Food delivery has been around for a long time (think pizza), but hawker food has always taken one of two forms: ‘eat here’ or ‘take out’. Now, a third option has emerged – ‘order in’ – where one can order a ‘take-out’ remotely, and have it delivered to your doorstep. This has the potential to increase the productivity of hawkers by integrating order and payment, and batching preparation of similar orders.

But hawkers are also aware of the potential downside. “Food delivery apps help us generate more sales, but there are many things that can go wrong, like sending the wrong item, late delivery and more”, Chew explained.

History tells us a story of the adaptability and resilience of Hawker Culture, evolving to thrive as relocation and regulation took away the itinerancy that once defined it. To attract younger customers, Chew said he has updated his recipes and presentation of dishes. For example, replacing the usual hard-boiled braised egg with an ajitsuke tamago, and serving in bento boxes, which help with takeaway orders.

Today’s new generation of ‘hawkerpreneurs’ are writing their own new chapter of Singapore’s hawking history as they navigate the changing tides of tomorrow’s economy. How Hawker Culture adapts will continue to be closely interwoven with the development of Singapore’s city, culture and people.

By Andrew Tam

References

  1. Ghani, Azhar. 2011. A Recipe for Success: How Singapore Hawker Centres Came to Be. Institute of Policy Studies Update. National University of Singapore.
  2. Tarulevicz, Nicole. 2015. I had on time to pick out the worms: Food adulteration in Singapore, 1900-1973. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 16(3), 1-24.
  3. Lai, Ah Eng. 2010. The Kopitiam in Singapore: An Evolving Story about Migration and Cultural Diversity. Asia Research Institute Paper Series, no. 132 (January).
  4. Tarulevicz, Nicole. 2018. Hawkerpreneurs: Hawkers, Entrepreneurship, and Reinventing Street Food in Singapore. Revista de Administração de Empresas, Vol. 58 No. 3.
  5. NETS acts as the main touch point to handle payment transactions, facilitates settlement of accounts for participating merchants, and handles after-sale support and training for merchants.
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