One Minute History: Singapore’s Hawker Culture

Singapore is famous for many things — a garden city, the best airport in the world, and our multi-racial society. But nothing comes close to Singapore’s unofficial title as a food paradise. From the rich and spicy laksa to the late-night roti prata, the one thing that this sunny island does not lack is good food. On 16 December 2020, Hawker Culture in Singapore was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Rejoice!

Source: sghawkerculture

Hawker centres are the epitome of a melting pot of culture and food. Forget fusion restaurants, hawker centres are where you can find Michelin-starred soy sauce chicken rice just a stone throw away from freshly steamed xiao long bao and a beer bar offering local and international craft beers. Bustling with life, office workers hurrying to grab breakfast can be seen contrasted against elderly uncles chatting with friends over a cup of kopi. Hawker culture is unique, vibrant, and an integral part of the Singaporean way of life. It’s easy to see, we ❤️ our hawker culture.

Source: National Archives of Singapore

Hawker culture started in the 1800s—after Sir Stamford Raffles turned Singapore into a thriving port city—with street hawkers, often migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and other lands. For them, street hawking was an easy way to earn a living as it required little capital. The streets of Singapore were flooded with aromas and flavours, with push-carts serving up comfort food from the hawkers’ hometowns adapted with a Singaporean twist. Chinese hawkers served hot meals and soy milk to go, beside Malay hawkers who sold satay over a charcoal flame. It is said that there were even hawkers walking their cows or goats on the street, ready to “dispense” fresh milk whenever a customer demanded!

Up till the 1960s, the street hawker scene in Singapore could be described as bustling with activity. More and more hawkers flooded the streets, especially after the second world war, when the unemployed turned to hawking. This, however, posed a huge problem to food safety and hygiene. Many of the hawkers lacked access to water, making it difficult to keep utensils clean. Serving food along the streets also made it easy for contamination by rats and flies, risking an outbreak of cholera.

Balloting of market stalls at the old Kallang Airport estate, 1963

Source: National Archives of Singapore

This pushed the government to set up hawker centres, an organised space to house all the street hawkers, with access to proper amenities. Licenses were given to street hawkers and in 1974, the Hawker’s Department Special Squad was set up, employing Public Health Inspectors to keep illegal hawkers off the streets. From 1974 to 1979, 54 hawker centres were built, including the well-known Chomp Chomp Food Centre, Old Airport Road Food Centre and People’s Park Food Centre. Newton Food Centre, which you’ve probably seen in the movie Crazy Rich Asians, was built in 1971 with the idea of having “hawker stalls in a garden setting”.

“Hawker centres represent the culinary soul of Singapore, where everyone regardless of race and social background gathers for their daily meals. I grew up having meals at hawker centres and hope that my daughter gets to enjoy the same culinary experience as I do.” - Hugo Bart, a frequent patron at hawker centres

Newton Food Centre featured in Crazy Rich Asians

Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Singapore’s hawker culture has come a long way — from being seen as a public nuisance by the government in the 60s to an icon representative of multi-cultural Singapore. Modern hawker centres not only offer the Singaporean classics, but also international cuisines ranging from Korean, Japanese to even Western. 

With that, we believe that Singapore’s hawker culture will only develop to be more inclusive and well-known around the world!

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#SupportLocal at Culturally’s popiah wrapping workshop with Kway Guan Huat, a decades-old popiah skin-maker and hawker! Learn about the art of popiah skin-making in a hands-on experience and have fun whilst learning about other cultures.

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