How Singapore’s famed food hawker culture is faring in the pandemic

  • Singapore has become famous for its hawker food centers, where flavorful local dishes are served in a no-frills manner.
  • But now, social distancing measures limiting the number of diners who can eat in have brought added challenges to a vulnerable industry where the average age of an operator is 60.
  • Young Singaporeans have turned to social media to bring their neighborhood hawker stalls to dining tables across the country.
  • Unknowingly, this effort might also have sparked something else: a massive citizen effort to document, catalog, support, and consume hawker cuisine.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The island of Singapore is dotted with open-air spaces where hawkers serve flavorful local dishes in a no-frills manner. These hawker centers, as they’re called, have become a strong cultural emblem in Singapore, and several hawker stalls have earned Michelin stars.

Newton Hawker Center was featured in a much-talked-about dinner scene in Crazy Rich Asians, catapulting local hawker fare to Hollywood fame. Singapore submitted a bid for hawker culture to be recognized on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list this year; the nomination will be discussed by the Committee in December.

Yet on the ground, the reality is a bit less bright for hawker culture. Even before the pandemic, hawkers were facing trouble appealing to younger consumers who want to eat more international, hybrid, or gourmet food at air-conditioned restaurants. Now, social distancing measures limiting the number of diners who can eat in have brought added challenges to a vulnerable industry where the average age of an operator is 60.

Melvin Chew, 42, a second-generation hawker.

John Heng

Social media is helping keep the hawker scene alive throughout the pandemic

With more people staying home, young Singaporeans have turned to social media and online platforms to bring their neighborhood hawker stalls to dining tables across the country.

Melvin Chew, 42, is a second-generation hawker who runs Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap Stall at Chinatown Food Complex with his mother, Lim Bee Hong. When the government announced circuit breaker measures limiting in-person dining on April 3, Chew took to Facebook that night to establish the group Hawkers United

Chew told Business Insider his vision was to create “a platform where hawkers can announce to the consumers that they are still operating, what type of delivery they have.”

“[The] objective is to help hawkers to survive. Consumers can find food and drivers can earn some income,” he added.

A full 70,000 members joined the group in the first 24 hours. The group currently has 274,400 members with active postings every day and is moderated by a group of seven volunteers. Each post contains photos of the food along with prices, the location of the stall, ordering instructions, payment and delivery options.

Scrolling the feed, which feels like a virtual hawker centre with islandwide offerings, one can find all sorts of local delicacies: Roe crab bee hoon from Toa Payoh starting at 20 Singapore dollars (US $14.72), Mian Jian Kueh (a type of Singaporean pancake) from Bendemeer Market for 1 Singapore dollar (0.74 cents), Hokkien Prawn Mee from Beach Rd for 3 Singapore dollars (US $2.21), Fuzhou oyster cakes from Maxwell Food Centre for 13 Singapore dollars (US $9.57).

Singapore food hawker stall coronavirus

CATHERINE LAI / Contributor / Getty Images

One of the volunteer administrators for the Facebook group is Jill Sara, 43. Sara shared with Business Insider that “the general consensus is if you post on Hawkers United you will see a spike in sales” but admitted it continues to be “very tough” for elderly hawkers to use the Facebook group.

“Sometimes they don’t even have a touchscreen phone so they’re not on Facebook, they don’t have a social media account, so it’s hard. We encourage members to help post on behalf of the hawkers,” Sara said.

Younger consumers have since stepped up to promote their neighborhood hawker stalls online by creating postings for them.

A Facebook user by the name of Yvonne Chen posted about a “granny” stall owner selling dim sum at Kwek Seng Huat Eating House who “is very elderly and even shaking when she’s standing up but is still opening her stall everyday and trying to get on with life amidst the virus.”

“Due to Circuit Breaker, she hasnt [sic] been able to sell much of her food items and business has been very poor. PLEASE HELP IF POSSIBLE,” Chen wrote.

The post was then reposted multiple times in the Hawkers United group, garnering hundreds of comments and shares. Singaporeans flocked to the store. They shared photos of the food they bought and encouraged others to help her out. “She’ll usually be sitting by her stall on her own till 5 to 6 p.m. with most of her kuehs unsold,” a user pointed out. 

The collective effort worked out: “Granny” was sold out every day that week by noon. Members repeatedly bumped up the thread so it wouldn’t be forgotten. One user made an online listing for her stall. Others offered to help buy food from the stall and deliver it to customers personally.

A videographer in the group went down to the stall to get to know the elderly food seller’s reality better. The video he made reveals that “granny” is in her 70s and rides her bicycle at 6 a.m. to work at her stall. Before the postings, she says in the video, she would have a lot of leftovers and would end up giving them away.

An extra tough reality for older hawkers

The hawkers who are hardest hit are those who are often old and disconnected. Traditionally most hawkers would conduct their businesses in-person and accept cash only. While larger and younger food businesses pivoted to the web through islandwide delivery platforms, online ordering, and payment through digital banking apps, many hawkers were left out of this sudden digital revolution. It is these hawkers that these young citizens are eager to promote and support. 

The story of Hawker United members uniting around “granny” is not isolated; the Facebook group has come to rely on younger heartlanders who know their neighborhood stalls well, and who promote the hawkers they love.

While members comment on food taste and quality, a large proportion of group conversations center around something else: compassion. Members remind each other to buy from older hawkers and not just the popular stalls, especially during troubled times like the pandemic. 

So far, it seems like the band of Singaporeans at Hawkers United are putting their money where their mouth is. 

A Hawker United post by a younger member listed an elderly couple who sells soybean milk and tau huey (soybean pudding) at Kovan Market; it translated to purchases and rave reviews for the couple, who don’t use social media themselves and would have not been able to do such outreach.

Another Hawker United user, Evon Chi, told Business Insider he is friends with an older food seller. He posted a Google form to streamline online orders and organize delivery for the elderly man’s famous Fried Carrot Fingers to various neighborhoods. All his delivery slots were snapped up in two days.

In another post, a member relayed the story of an elderly couple selling western food in Hougang. The couple told her that business had been very poor; in the comments that very same day, users shared photos of long queues at the couple’s storefront.

Chew, the hawker who started the group, told Business Insider, “That is why we keep encouraging tech savvy younger generations to help all these elderly to engage in social media.”

Unknowingly, this younger generation that Chew refers to might have also sparked something else: a massive citizen effort to document, catalog, support, and consume hawker cuisine. Hawkers United, with its large member base of 275, 900 in a nation of 5.85 million, has one in 21 Singapore residents as a part of the group. The online community has become a repository for hawker culture, a growing, searchable, grassroots index where one can discover hawker stalls around the neighborhood or even find new dishes to try.

Users have also found community in each other, bantering and cheering each other’s businesses on. In a time of social distancing, the virtual hawker center seems like a way to satiate the taste buds and bring out the best in us.

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