Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hawker food no longer has 'soul'

[An old forum letter from July. I can appreciate the sentiment, but no real solutions offered. ]

Jul 20, 2014

I support Penang's plan to ban foreigners from being hired as cooks at hawker stalls, to protect its food heritage ("Penang may ban foreign cooks at hawker stalls"; last Sunday).

In Singapore, too many types of traditional fare are disappearing. Our food is also being "bastardised", from roti prata to Teochew fishball noodles.

Traditional ingredients are shunned, and faster cooking methods are being used.

Indeed, one need look no farther than our foodcourts to see that our food no longer has "soul".

This sad state of affairs is not due solely to the presence of foreign cooks on the hawker scene. Other factors include the lack of pride in maintaining standards and the lack of Singaporeans willing to become hawkers.

If we do not intervene to turn back the tide, our taste buds will suffer.

Barring hawker stallholders from subletting their stalls will not slow down the dilution of our food culture. A stallholder can easily employ cheap foreign labour to helm the stall while he takes a back seat.

In order to maintain the standard of our hawker food, which has fed and made generations of Singaporeans happy, the Government should follow Penang in not allowing foreign cooks to helm hawker stalls.

If the Government deems this ban too drastic to be applied islandwide, it should at least apply this rule to new hawker centres.

To sweeten the deal, rentals in new hawker centres should be kept affordable, to minimise increases in food prices.

Let's work together to preserve our food heritage for future generations to savour!

Colin Loh

"Let's work together"? Really? How do you propose to "Work Together"? 

You wanna be a hawker

Yes, you are right. There is a lack of Singaporeans who are willing to be hawkers. 

Are you willing? Any of your siblings want to be a hawker? How about your children if you have any or when you have children? Would you encourage them to take up hawkering?

From this blog piece:

Hawkers. Be your own BOSS! Must be capable of cooking EXCELLENT food at affordable prices. Willing to work up to 18 hours a day. Minimal rest days (maybe twice a month). No promotion prospects. No career advancement. (But hey, you're already your own boss!) No CPF! (You can decide how much to put in yourself!) Successful candidates should have:
  • Good memory for faces and orders
  • Able to do simple math on the fly (make change without calculator). 
  • Diverse language skills (Mandarin/Malay and English at least, dialects an advantage).  
  • Logistics and management skills an asset - no training provided except on-the-job learning by trial and error. 
  • HR experience also an asset. The successful hawker may have to hire stall assistants, deal with MOM if they are foreign workers. Deal with CPF and IRAS regarding their wages. Prepare and manage their work schedules.
Challenging work environment (likely no air con, slaving over a hot stove, risk of rat and other pest infestation if stall not properly maintained and clean - ENV officers will be checking on your stall's cleanliness;  possible unreasonable customers with "special" requests (e.g. Mee Siam mai hum), possible disputes/disagreements with neighbouring hawkers, town councils, MPs, new media.)
So you think low rent is the solution?

So did this guy in his forum letter.

And my response:
Yes. Rent is one aspect of costs. But thinking that controlling rent will reduce costs is simplistic at best and assumes hawkers are idiots.
Look at any rent-controlled hawker stalls where the hawkers either bought their stall about 25 years ago (and so pay no rent, and so have sole control over their rent costs) or are "legacy" hawkers who were given 30-year rent-controlled leases that are a fraction of the open market value of their stalls.
Yes, their prices ARE lower.
But what are their operating hours? Because their rent is low, they only need to cover their variable costs. After they have earned enough, they close for the day and take it easy. Do I blame them? Of course not! Hawkering is a tiring and trying job, and most of them have been at it for years. They deserve to take it easy in their silver years.
To quote H. L. Mencken: "For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong."

The corollary to that quote is: For every complex problem there are at least 3 billion idiots who 

a) think they understand the complexity of the problem;
b) think they have the clear, simple, and obvious answer; and
c) think everyone else is obtuse for not seeing the obvious solution they are proposing.

How to check if you are one of the 3 billion idiots: Ask 5 of your friends how to solve the problem. If even one of them has the same solution as you, you are an idiot. (If all 5 of them have the same answer, you are DEFINITELY an idiot.)

Let's say you are not an idiot. Say the solution really is to have more Singaporeans take up hawkering. What's stopping them?

What's a hawker? Someone who cooks great food and charges affordable prices. Correct?

If he cooks great food and charges high prices, he would be a chef no? If he can't cook great food, he is just a dilettante, right?

So, the question is, why won't Singaporeans cook great food for very little money? In a non-air-conditioned environment (to save on costs)?

Is the answer obvious now?

I am sure there will still be Singaporeans who want to be hawkers. Just not enough to sustain the "hawker" culture or ecology of the 70s and 80s... or even the 90s. 

You want soul food? Food with soul? And you are looking to hawkers to make it for you?

There will be two trajectories for hawkers. 

New Hawkers from Philippines and China will be selling what they know how to cook. You're already seeing them. There are Filipino hawker stalls selling Filipino cuisine, and PRC stalls and restaurants selling regional specialties. They will sell to their community, and they will keep the prices low because that is what their countrymen can afford with their lower wages. 

You can try to expand your gastronomic horizons and try these new offerings.

Local "hawkers" will be upgrading themselves. They want to be chefs, be respected, have decent reasonable working hours, while making enough money to give their families a reasonable standard of living. You could enjoy these good ole "soul" food, if you can find these new "hawker-chefs", and you were willing to pay the "reasonable prices" they will be asking.

The other way to enjoy good soul food - learn to cook it yourself.

Many of the "soul" food were family recipes, which were eventually shared with the public at family run restaurants and foodstalls. 

Time for the trend to reverse itself.


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