Saturday, November 21, 2015

Hocking our Future (Or the Future of Hawkers in Singapore)

[Nothing will rouse the average Singaporean more than a threat to his beloved Hawker Culture. Except maybe the death of a founding father.]

Society should progress, but things like hawker centres should be retained


APRIL 9, 2015

I refer to the letter “Build modern cafeterias, not hawker centres, in Singapore” (April 8). There have been hawker centres in Singapore, offering a wide variety of local food, since we were young. They are part of our multiracial culture.

We have also seen a rise in the number of modern cafeterias in housing estates and shopping centres, offering an air-conditioned environment for customers’ comfort. However, these outlets do not offer the variety of meal choices that hawker centres do.

The writer states that a hard-working labour force in a vibrant metropolitan society deserves decent meals in air-conditioned, brightly lit and clean surroundings. I feel our food courts fit the description.

Many people in Singapore still prefer to sweat it out while enjoying a meal. Furthermore, some senior citizens and low-income families who eat out occasionally may not be receptive to modern, air-conditioned cafeterias.

Hawker centres such as Old Airport Road Food Centre and Chomp Chomp Food Centre have a desirable, non-air-conditioned dining environment. Such hawker centres offer good ventilation and great food at relatively cheap prices.

Many of these are located in older housing estates with competition from modern cafeterias and restaurants. At times, dining in these hawker centres can be nostalgic, and fond memories make our dining experience sweeter.

Besides that sense of gratitude, hawker centres offer a topic of discussion and an introduction to our nation’s history when we take our foreign friends to dine with us.

Society, as a whole, should progress. There are, however, things and habits that ought to be retained, just as there are those who are happy to live in public flats, even with the surge in modern condominiums around us.

As the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

[Summary: "Eh, hawker centre good lah!"]

Hawker centres help moderate food prices


APRIL 11, 2015

The letter “Build modern cafeterias, not hawker centres, in Singapore” (Apirl 8) has attracted many comments online on the need to preserve and build more hawker centres to cater for people from different walks of life.

The view expressed in “Society should progress, but things like hawker centres should be retained” (April 9) is similar to those comments.

The operating cost of air-conditioned places would lead to higher food prices, and there are already complaints about increasing prices in food courts and hawker centres. Without hawker centres, less privileged families would be unable to bear the cost.

However, besides cost, many people like to patronise hawker centres, instead of food courts, for the authenticity of the food.

Due to constraints, food court chefs are not allowed to cook using great heat and big fire, two paramount factors in preparing certain authentic food, at times.

It would also be misconceived to think hawker centre food is unhygienic.

There have been restaurants, including those in hotels, that have been made to close temporarily due to food poisoning and other hygiene issues, but have we heard of hawker centres being closed because they are unhygienic?

[Yes. Indian rojak case in 2009. 154 people had food poisoning. Two died. If we can't even remember the recent past (6 years ago), what hope for History?]

Supply must meet demand for prices to moderate, and the new hawker centres to be built are part of those efforts.

Singapore has rich cultural diversity and food. If we want our nice food to attract tourists and foodies, then we must look into ways to maintain the authenticity of famous Singaporean food.

Efforts have been made to restore authenticity through the many organised cooking lessons and competitions, including at community centres.

Tourists and Singaporeans should have ample choices — hawker centres, food courts or high-end restaurants — for Singapore to be a foodie centre and not only a utopia, in time to come.

[I just included this letter for the fact that he seemed to have forgotten recent events. Oh, 2009 not recent? Sorry.]

Cheap hawker food comes at a social cost


APRIL 13, 2015

While it is understandable that many Singaporeans treasure the rich heritage of our hawker centres, many may not have noticed that hawker centres are an anachronism for a high-income country like Singapore. Most high-income countries have street hawkers at some point of their history but abundant cheap, cooked food is becoming a relic. Hong Kong, a city very similar to Singapore, does not have many street hawkers or hawker centres left. Most have moved up the value chain to mid-priced cafes.

Hawker centres require a large number of auxiliary workers such as stall helpers, cleaners and dishwashers. In order to keep costs down, the wages of these auxiliary workers will have to be kept low.

The reason hawker centres are able to survive in Singapore, but not in most high-income countries, is that there is still an abundant supply of low-wage workers in Singapore, either from the low-skilled elderly workers or foreign workers. I believe it is this, rather than the cheap rental charged by the government, that is sustaining our hawker centre culture. Therefore, the consequence of continuing to support the hawker centre culture may be the need to continue to depress the wage of local low-skilled workers or import more foreign workers. Singaporeans will need to be aware and weigh the social costs of continuing to have abundant cheap cooked food.

One may argue that hawker centres are necessary to provide cheap food to the lower-income group. However, we need to distinguish between providing cheap food and cheap cooked food. It is always cheaper and healthier to cook one’s meal. Without hawker centres, the lower-income group could just choose the better option.

[I like that he makes the distinction. But the other thing people are short of in SG is time. So cheap hawker food saves money and save time. And cheap hawker food is only one thing. The other cheap service is domestic help. If these two items were charged at a more reasonable cost, life in SG would be quite impossible for many of us.]

Therefore, while I agree that it is important to preserve our food heritage and its authenticity, it may not necessarily mean that it should be through the hawker centres in their present form.

[Summary: Hawker food are kept low by depressing the wages of hawkers and their staff.]

Hawker centres important for people with fewer means


APRIL 16, 2015

I was disturbed by the letter “Cheap hawker food comes at a social cost” (April 13). Obviously the author must be a person of fair means.

Yes, it is cheaper for most of us to prepare our food at home. But various reasons prevent certain groups of people from doing so.

For example, if both parents in a family are working and are too poor to afford a maid, food at the hawker centre is the only way.

And for those of fewer means who may wish to eat out to celebrate an occasion or have a good time, food at such centres may also be the only place they can afford.

That said, a solution should be found to address the low wages of workers who work at hawker centres. I am sure the Government will be able to address this issue without depriving the less privileged of an affordable dining option.

"Why you say cannot have cheap hawker food? I not rich like you okay? But ok lah, hawkers also need to make a living. I am sure gumment can help them without making me pay more for hawker food. Okay?" 
Four letters. Two waxes nostalgic and lyrical about the Great Singapore Hawker Experience, even to go so far as to state (erroneously) that NO hawker centre has ever been closed for unhygienic practices.

One tries to add a dose of reality by explaining why Hawker Culture will inevitably change, becoming more expensive.

Then a reactionary letter denying reality.

Sad really.

The dose of reality letter though, doesn't really go far enough.

Price is just one thing. Taste is another.

Variety is a third.

Here is a question to ask yourself: What is the quintessential characteristic of hawker food? Is it price, or is it taste? If there is $2 chicken rice, but the portion is smaller than normal, and the taste is passable at best, it is acceptable? What about the best chicken rice, but it goes for $12 a plate?

I suspect that most people will say that hawker food is the unreasonable intersection of GREAT tasting food at ROCK BOTTOM prices.

That unreasonable expectation is... unreasonable. And so hawker food in Singapore will have to change. It is inevitable.

So half a year later this article is published: Is Singapore’s hawker culture faltering?

The article linked above suggests that firstly, there are no clear pathways to hawkering for aspiring hawkers. No one to advise new hawkers how to become a hawker. I would suggest that the number of "aspiring hawkers" can perhaps be counted on one hand. That there is not clear pathway is because it is not clear that many want to go down that path.

Secondly, new hawkers want to do what THEY like to do, rather than adhere to authentic recipes and processes. so fusion fare more than traditional hawker fare. 

Thirdly, there is no systematic way of teaching new hawkers how to manage, operate, upgrade, innovate, and market their services or product. The lack of a hawker academy.

Fourthly, lack of space, in particular, affordable space. There are many reasons for this.

Fifthly, lack of interest from young persons to be hawkers. This is not surprising.

Sixthly, the rise of other "trendy" food attracting young people. (This is a dumb point. If younger people like trendy food rather than hawker food, then why should we care if hawker food die out? It is simply a reflection of market reality.)

Seventhly, old hawkers are not passing on their skills because they don't want their sons and daughters to be hawkers. The younger generation have more opportunities. Why would they want to be hawkers? 

Then the article starts to repeat itself. With the seventh point repeating the fifth point, just from the perspective of the older hawker.

The next point is about the financial aspect of hawkering. Which was covered by the first and third point. And then the lack of structure, coherent policies for hawkers, and even a ministry to be in charge of "hawker culture".

The last part of the article was an incoherent and disorganised rant about the non-viability of the economics of hawkering.

Which is covered in this next link.

Don't let hawker fare disappear

Here's a summary of the problem:
The odds are stacked against hawkers - the hours are long, prices of ingredients are high and the public won't pay more
The last point is telling. 

I asked earlier if price and taste are BOTH essential to the hawker food experience. I suspect that price is critical. And for as long as people are unwilling to pay more for good hawker food, it will die out.

Or at least be transform into something that matches the value people place on it.]

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