Next Gen Hawkers

Singapore’s beloved hawker food is a big part of its global reputation. Photo: Mark Teo

By Michele Koh Morollo

To many Singaporeans, the hawker centre is as much a national icon as the Merlion or the Vanda Miss Joachim orchid. Hawker centres are typically open-air complexes with a dozen or more food stalls selling tasty, quickly prepared and affordable local dishes. Often located near public housing estates and major bus interchanges or train stations, most have stalls selling a variety of Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Thai and even Western dishes. Every Singaporean has a favourite stall, and some will travel halfway across the island just to satisfy their hawker food cravings.

Before the 1960s, hawkers cooked and sold their food on the streets much like they still do in cities like Yangon or Phnom Penh.

This resulted in less than sanitary conditions that led to the outbreak of food poisoning epidemics. The Singapore government realised that to maintain a good standard of health and hygiene, these vendors would need a cleaner, more organised place to hawk their fare.

Getting Off the Streets

The first Singapore hawker centre — Yung Sheng Food Centre at Jurong was built in 1971 as part of a government programme to resettle street food vendors into better-managed, more sanitary facilities. The Yung Seng Food Centre model was a success because it led to major improvements in food preparation standards and saw a steady stream of regular diners showing up at a single venue. Many more such facilities were built over the next two decades. In 1986 the last street food vendor was successfully resettled into a hawker centre.

By the mid-’80s there were close to 140 hawker centres scattered throughout the island. Some of these have since closed and there are now a total of about 15,000 stalls in the 107 hawker centres managed by the National Environnmental Agency (NEA) of Singapore. Prominent hawker centres include Maxwell Food Centre in Shenton Way, Newton Food Centre and Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Serangoon Gardens.

While hawkers are certainly a part of Singapore’s cultural identity, the hawker trade can seem like risky business for the younger generation who may not know where operating a stall will take their ambitions.

 Singapore Soul

Doctor Leslie Tay, food blogger and author of Singapore hawker food guide Only The Best published in 2012, loves hawker food, which he describes as “food made with passion by specialists”. According to Tay,

hawker food is artisanal because “the hawker has spent his life trying to perfect this one dish for as long as 50 years”.

Adds Tay, “Our hawker food is neither elegant nor classy, but it embodies the essence of being Singaporean. Ask any Singaporean what he or she misses most about home and invariably the answer would be laksa, prata, chicken rice or char kway teow.”

But Tay is concerned that as Singapore progresses as a society, the younger generation will not be inspired to continue in the trade of their parents. “Most hawkers lack formal education and so they ended up selling simple street food. They’ve worked hard so that their children can have a good education and become doctors and engineers,” he says. While there may be many hawker parents who might not encourage their children to follow in their footsteps, the Singapore government and society has been looking at ways to make “hawking” more attractive to the younger generation.

Tay believes that one solution could be to increase the price of hawker food. “Singapore needs to be willing to pay more for its hawker food to address this issue. Selling a plate of chicken rice for S$2.50 is not an ideal way to make a good living. If we want to see our hawker fare being preserved, we need to rethink how much we are willing to pay, so that running a hawker stall will be more attractive to the younger, more educated generation.” However, he cautions, “this has to be done in a way that will not impact the segment of society that depend on cheap hawker food to survive. So the younger hawkers really need to differentiate themselves in terms of quality and service.”

When people are willing to pay more, then running a hawker stall becomes more lucrative and the children of Singapore’s famous hawker stalls might be more inclined to take the time to learn and perfect the recipes of their forefathers.

Cantonese roasts perfected to an art, that endear locals to hawker food. Photo: Mark Teo

Thankfully things are slowly taking shape on this front, as certain hawkers have broken out of the old cycle by using higher quality ingredients to justify increasing the prices of their dishes. One such “hawker-preneur” is second-generation owner and university graduate Yeo Hart Pong of Song Fa Bak Kut Teh, who has modified his father’s 44-year-old Teochew-style bak kut teh recipe to appeal to a new generation. He’s also revamped the Song Fa shops in New Bridge Road and Changi with a cool retro interior so they are more attractive to youngsters. Yeo adapted his father’s recipe with leaner pork to suit the tastes of more health conscious, younger diners. “All my friends are investment bankers,” says Yeo, “but with the economic crisis, I think I’m doing better than they are,” he says.

Love of food is critical to the success of any operation. Tom Loo owns Tom Citizoom, a little stall selling mee pok tar in Lengkok Bahru. The 27-year old engineering student decided to  pursue a career as a hawker simply because he loves the dish he makes. Tay, who is well acquainted with Loo says, “he is so passionate about it, that very love might be just what is needed to preserve our mee pok culture for another generation.”

Tay says it is promising to see a handful of young, up-and-coming hawkers who are innovative, energetic and creative about what they do. “It is always interesting when bankers turned hawkers like Tina Tan from Hock Lam Street Beef Kway Teow at China Street, or Ho Kuen Loon from Funan Weng Ipoh Hor Fun, take a family recipe and give them a twist to keep up with trends.”

Luckily for Singaporeans, there are many like Tay who continue to work for the preservation and promotion of the hawker centre. Other food writers like Aun Koh and Su-Lyn Tan of the Chubby Hubby food blog have made it a personal quest to document top hawker food recipes and stories.

Die hard street foodie and entrepreneur K F Seetoh,  believes that a growing global obsession with street food is helping to keep Singapore hawker culture alive. “Now that street food culture is becoming such a Singaporean icon, the government is looking at ways of preserving it,” he says.

In 2012, year Singapore’s National Environment Agency announced the construction of 10 new hawker centres with 600 stalls and abolished minimum rental fees to help keep prices of hawker food affordable. There has even been talk about possibly launching schools to teach potential hawker stall operators how to cook traditional hawker dishes.

Showcasing Talent

Seetoh, who has globetrotted and enlisted the help of international chefs like Anthony Bourdain to save the street food culture, has hit upon a good way to champion the cause. From May 31 to June 9 this year, Seetoh, who is the CEO of media company Makansutra, will be organising a World Street Food Congress in Singapore to celebrate street food culture around the world and feature the talents of Singapore’s hawkers.

“Singapore food is an attitude that has evolved over decades and even centuries…we have inherited tens of thousands of years of culinary history,” says Seetoh who believes that Singapore’s hawker traditions are definitely worth defending.

In December 2011, the government appointed a 19-member hawker centre public consultation panel to come up with ideas on how to improve hawker centres in the future. The panel’s chairperson, Elim Chew, has observed that over the last couple of years, there has been a growing interest in the hawker business among the younger generation.

Franchising is another business model that seems to be taking off in this area, and Chew sites the famous Ya Kun Kaya Toast coffee shop, which now has more than 30 outlets in Singapore and abroad, as one example of a humble operation that has managed to succeed economically and on a global scale.

“There have been 700 or more new food start ups each year. I have also received and seen many new proposals for food businesses. In the pipeline are plans to start business centres to help the younger generation of hawkers with business support and training,” says Chew.

Kampung Spirit

In the next five years, the NEA plans to open 10 new hawker centres and upgrade the older ones with greener designs for better ventilation. The panel has proposed that some of the new hawker centres should be managed by social enterprises so individuals from the less privileged or marginalised sections of the community can be employed as part of the business model. While the government is supporting hawker culture by building new facilities, the panel, which receives constant input from the public, is leading initiatives like Kampung at Simpang — a 32-stall hawker centre-cum-retail and arts and crafts space at Bedok Market Place that aims to bring back the old world kampung (village) spirit of cooperation and community.

“Kampung at Simpang, which opened in February this year is the first private initiative social enterprise hawker center. It strives to bring back not only the food but also the community spirit Singapore enjoyed in its early years. It’s a place where neighbours and even visitors are able to sit together to eat and bond. Keeping our heritage alive is not just about preserving the structure and recipes of hawker centres, it’s also about rekindling a spirit of community,” says Chew.

Project Dignity Kitchen

In Singapore’s rapidly progressing economy, the disabled and elderly face a greater challenge when it comes to finding work. Project Dignity ( is a school that offers hawker training for disabled, disadvantaged and elderly people. Founded in October 2010, Project Dignity built a school within the premises of Balestier Market Food Court. In this actual functional hawker centre environment, students — who include the unemployed, senior citizens and retirees, ex-prisoner, battered wives and the physically and mentally challenged, can learn how to operate a real food stall. Project Dignity Kitchen runs a six-week education programme, which includes theory, food stall operations, basic food hygiene, food preparation, kitchen safety, cooking and food handling. Once they’ve completed the  course, students are given job placements, which will allow them to use the skills they have learnt to earn an income.

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