Comment: Getting the kids acquainted with S’pore’s hawker culture

Stuffing my face silly at a hawker centre has always been my jam.

There’s just something magical when you are shovelling spades of char kway teow, safe in the knowledge that if the wok hei-infused kway teow in my stomach ever needs company, the nasi lemak and the Indian rojak stalls are just around the corner.

The dripping sweat, the cacophony of woks and spatulas, the affordable prices, the scent that lingers on your t-shirt even after you’ve left, and yes, even the ubiquitous tissue packets used to chope seats during peak hours – I won’t swap any of these things for a meal at some atas restaurant.

Such is a blessing to be Singaporean.

Now, other than being blessed with delicious food that won’t injure my wallet, I’ve also been blessed with two kids, who are admittedly slow to pick up on hawker culture.

Well, I have a part to play in this: They fell sick quite easily when they were younger so my wife and I decided to cook or dabao food, putting on hold their eventual acquaintance with hawker culture.

At 8 and 5 years old now, I think they are ready for a nascent hawker adventure – to conquer all hawker centres in Singapore.

To be Singaporean

What does it mean to be Singaporean? While there may be differing views, hawker food is something that most of us can totally relate to and it binds us together.

Whichever country that tries to claim laksa, chicken rice or satay as its on will hear no end from us – as much as we are big foodies, we are also that serious about food.

The love of food or specifically, the love of Singaporean hawker food, provides my kids a good inroad into this thriving food tribe that doesn’t care your social status, your educational background, your age, your income.

You want that plate of nasi lemak? Queue up and wait like everybody else, no preferential treatment – something that my kids can surely learn.

More than just fast food

Ask any kid what they want to eat and the usual fast food suspects spill out faster than you can say: “Changi Village nasi lemak.”

It’s natural; the call of fried food is hard for any earthly being to resist.

But for every piece of nugget, there’s an equivalent waiting for us at the hawker centre and, dare I say, a whole lot more finger-licking good.

I also understand that the lure of fast food has got to do with more than just food: it’s the ambience and the overall vibe of the place, which admittedly most hawker centres are lacking: you eat and you go, they serve a practical function.

That said, the newer hawker centres are more than just eating.

Take the one at Our Tampines Hub for instance. The hawker centre is surrounded by a hive of activity: kiddy rides (not a fan though) on one side; frequent exhibitions on the other; and sometimes there’s a movie screening or a live band performance now that Covid restrictions are relaxed. Pretty cool if you ask me.

And if the kids don’t fancy the laksas or nasi lemaks, there’s Yishun Park Hawker Centre, where there’s newfangled food run by young hawkers like fusion bowls and prawn paste chicken wings.

Our pride and joy

In 2020, our hawker culture was inscribed as Singapore’s first element on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

It’s really a proud moment for not just the hawkers but all Singaporeans.

As described by UNESCO:

“Hawker culture in Singapore: community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context is present throughout Singapore. Hawkers prepare a variety of food (‘hawker food’) for people who dine and mingle at hawker centres. These centres serve as ‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Such community dining rooms is perfect for the young ones to be exposed to different culture and people and provides a good opportunity for parents to teach and for kids to learn beyond the classrooms.

Supporting the hawkers

It’s been a tough couple of years for our hawkers – having to go digital while dealing with the dining restrictions. Now, they have to deal with more expensive raw ingredients and keeping prices affordable for the masses.

Not an easy balancing act at all.

Besides the Small Business Recovery Grant, the Government has also given 10 months of rental waiver and 6 months of table-cleaning and centralised dish washing services subsidies in total over 2020 and 2021. A one-time cash assistance of $500 under the Market and Hawker Centre Relief Fund (MHCRF) has also been disbursed to stallholders.

Budget 2022 also saw the introduction of Jobs and Business Support Package that offers one-off cash grants will be given to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have been most affected by Covid-19 restrictions over the past year, such as those in F&B, retail, tourism and hospitality sectors. Singapore Food Agency-licensed hawkers are eligible for this.

But are all these enough?

Only strong support from consumers would move the needle.

With the CDC vouchers, you don’t even need to spend a single cent to show immediate support. Although it’s tempting to use CDC vouchers at supermarkets in 2023 and 2024, I will still use the bulk of my vouchers at hawker centres because it’s in my interest to see hawker culture thrive in Singapore.

For it will be a pity for my kids to grow up without experiencing the full Singaporean food experience at hawker centres, where they can celebrate their favourite football team’s victory with supper or console themselves with comfort food when they are heartbroken.

Hawker food being there for them when they are up or down – now, that’s my new jam. So if you would excuse me, I have more than 110 hawker centres to conquer with my kids.

Cover photo credit: NEA Facebook page