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Succession and Standards Worry Singapore Hawkers

  • Reuters

People eat at Lau Pa Sat food center in Singapore, July 29, 2016.

People eat at Lau Pa Sat food center in Singapore, July 29, 2016.

Singapore's beloved hawker industry faces an uncertain future with a wave of chef retirements imminent, raising questions about who will cook the city state's signature street-food delights.

There are over 100 hawker centers and 6,000 stalls in Singapore, run mainly by aging chefs, with people from all sections of society attracted to the tasty multi-ethnic meals that cost as little as S$2.80 ($2).

But the tough working conditions in the small, basic kitchens and low profits have led many new chefs to look to larger, modern restaurants for bigger revenues.

Some experienced hawker sellers in Singapore believe the younger generation don't have what it takes to succeed in the trade.

Alex See, 66

See runs a Fried Hokkien Mee (fried noodles) stall in East Coast with his 33-year-old daughter.

Hawker Alex See, 66, and his daughter Penny See, 33, cooking at their Geylang Lorong 29 Fried Hokkien Mee stall at East Coast Road in Singapore, Aug. 10, 2016.

Hawker Alex See, 66, and his daughter Penny See, 33, cooking at their Geylang Lorong 29 Fried Hokkien Mee stall at East Coast Road in Singapore, Aug. 10, 2016.

"Young people come and go, they are not serious about learning," he told Reuters.

"When I was helping my father at the age of 16, I asked him so many questions everyday to learn so that I can one day beat him at it. I do not think I have beaten my old man yet, it's a tie."

Sumosundram Moghan, 50

Moghan makes Roti Prata, a fried pancake, at his stall but his staff, despite extensive training, still struggle to replicate his standards.

Sumosundram Moghan, 50, makes Roti Prata at his stall in Singapore, Aug. 9, 2016.

Sumosundram Moghan, 50, makes Roti Prata at his stall in Singapore, Aug. 9, 2016.

"The boss must do it - everyone can make the same dough but the way I flip my prata gives it the crispy standard," he said.

"My assistant has been learning for eight years, but still not doing the way I want it."

Lim Swee Heng, 56

Hawker Lim Swee Heng has spent many years trying to perfect his spicy laksa noodle soup at his East Coast stall, Roxy Laksa.

Hawker Lim Swee Heng prepares a bowl of laksa noodles, at Roxy Laksa stall, at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village in Singapore, Aug. 8, 2016.

Hawker Lim Swee Heng prepares a bowl of laksa noodles, at Roxy Laksa stall, at the East Coast Lagoon Food Village in Singapore, Aug. 8, 2016.

"It takes years to get the right balance to the broth, to make it thick just add coconut, to make it watery just add water, but to go in-between, to get that right balance - that's the hard work of my dish."

Wee Phong Sai, 66

Wee has been making handmade fishball noodle soup for almost 40 years at Ghim Moh food market but has no obvious successor to take over.

Hawker Wee Phong Sai, 66, cooks fishball noodles at his Thye Hong Handmade Fishball Noodle stall at Ghim Moh food center in Singapore, May 21, 2016.

Hawker Wee Phong Sai, 66, cooks fishball noodles at his Thye Hong Handmade Fishball Noodle stall at Ghim Moh food center in Singapore, May 21, 2016.

"To retire? These are two words that I will not utter," he said.

Last month, two Singapore hawkers became the first street food sellers in the world to be awarded a prestigious Michelin star. For one, success will not mean increased prices.

Chan Hong Meng, 51

Chan was awarded a Michelin star for his soya sauce chicken at Chinatown food center stall.

Hawker Chan Hong Meng, who won a Michelin star, sells soya sauce chicken at his Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle stall at Chinatown food center in Singapore July 22, 2016.

Hawker Chan Hong Meng, who won a Michelin star, sells soya sauce chicken at his Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle stall at Chinatown food center in Singapore July 22, 2016.

"The Michelin star came to me as a surprise, I never expected that hawker food will win such an award," he said. "But with the Michelin star comes added responsibility, to maintain the standard of the dish and to keep the star...but I will not raise prices, at the end, its the customer that matters."

Some young hawkers are emerging, though. Keen to keep family traditions alive.

Stan Lim, 43

Lim runs Balestier Road Hoover Rojak. Rojak is a traditional Malay mixed fruit and vegetable salad.

Lim gave up a sales job to take over the stall from his father and does his best to repeat the methods learned.

Hawker Stan Lim, 43, prepares his ingredients at Michelin Bib-Gourmand-awarded Balestier Road Hoover Rojak, at Whampoa Food Center in Singapore, Aug. 12, 2016.

Hawker Stan Lim, 43, prepares his ingredients at Michelin Bib-Gourmand-awarded Balestier Road Hoover Rojak, at Whampoa Food Center in Singapore, Aug. 12, 2016.

"Many of hawkers here at this food center... told me to find something better outside and not be a hawker because its very hard work, long hours and very little rest," he told Reuters.

"But I took over my father three years ago because he was getting old. I do everything exactly he does, including how I arrange my utensils."

A combination photo shows various popular street foods under $6 from various hawker food stalls and eateries in Singapore, taken between July 28-31, 2016.

A combination photo shows various popular street foods under $6 from various hawker food stalls and eateries in Singapore, taken between July 28-31, 2016.

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