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A Nation’s Dining Room Transcript

Chris  A few weeks ago I rode across the country for a $5 plate of rice.

That might sound insane to someone unfamiliar with Singapore, but the trip took less than an hour by train. Plus, it’s practically a national pastime to travel far and wide to a public food centre, or hawker, that serves the best roti prata, chicken rice, or fish ball soup with noodles.

Hawker centres are chaotic, noisy, visually stimulating open-air food courts. Customers and stall owners shout orders in different languages and everyone struggles to be heard over the cacophony of clanging dishes, squeaky fans, dinging bells, and squawking birds.

Each stall is unique, with owners specialising in only a handful of dishes, often family recipes passed down through the generations. The stalls are tiny workplaces, with two and sometimes three people squeezed into a few square feet of windowless space. They twirl around each other in an elegant dance: taking orders, making change, tossing ingredients into a wok, and serving freshly-cooked meals in a matter of minutes.

The owner works before your eyes, labouring in the heat to get the flavour just right, with the sole aim of satisfying you and the dozen people queuing behind you – day in and day out.

On this particular day, Raudhah, an NUS student, invited me to one of her favorites: the Bedok Food Centre. Although she doesn’t live nearby, she told me she’s a regular, and the place is so familiar it feels like home.

I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore and you’re listening to Home on the Dot.

This podcast explores the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.

So much of everyday life occurs out in public at these food courts that at times they feel like the nation’s dining room. In this episode, Raudhah explores what the hawker centre means to Singapore and Singaporeans, and how that is changing.

Stay tuned….

 

Raudhah It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m off to visit my grandparents. I look forward to seeing them every few weeks. But before we get there, we need to eat lunch. Luckily, they live near one of my family’s favorite food spots: the Bedok Food Centre.  

As I approach, the hawker beams at me. I’m a familiar face, and he already knows my order.

This hawker centre isn’t near where I live. It’s always bustling, noisy, crowded, and sometimes downright uncomfortable for someone who prefers the solitude of her room. Yet, it feels like home to me.

There is something about the familiarity of the flavours and the faces that draws me back and gives me comfort.

Singapore is famous for its diversity of food and people. Hawker centres serve this diversity on a plate. During my short visit to Bedok Food Centre, I had a cup of sugarcane juice from a Chinese stall; a plate of Nasi Goreng Pattaya from an Indian stall, and a few pieces of “pisang goreng” (or fried banana) from a Malay stall.  With each stall selling different ethnic cuisine and occupying an equal amount of space, it seems to represent not only the diversity of races in Singapore but also the harmony of these races living together.

Geographer David Morley once wrote that “ a sense of national belonging is often inscribed in the taken-for-granted practices of everyday life”. This kind of national belonging contrasts the more serious symbols and monuments of the nation like war memorials, national anthems, and flags. For young people like me,  everyday activities like riding the MRT and eating at hawker centres are just as important in connecting me to the nation.

Singaporeans living overseas often yearn for their hawker favorites. The government acknowledges this. Every year it reaches out to some of the thousands of Singaporeans living overseas through Singapore Day.

Here’s Minister Teo Chee Hean talking about the importance of Singapore Day overseas and celebrating the Singaporean identity in 2017 from a Youtube video.

 

Minister Teo Chee Hean So we have Singaporeans all over the world, and we get them together, so that we can celebrate all that’s Singaporean.

 

Raudhah This celebration held in foreign cities like New York, London, and Beijing, features Singaporean celebrities as well as comfort food found in hawker centres. In fact, the government flies in some of the country’s most-celebrated hawkers to feed the crowds.

 

Singaporean #1 I think it’s uhh interacting with other Singaporeans and obviously trying out the food that we missed.

 

In recent years, the hawker trade has been seen as heritage worth preserving. In fact, several TV programmes, with titles like Buzzing Hawkers, are shedding light on the life of hawkers and documenting their passion.  

However, as incomes and education levels continue to rise in Singapore, the hawker trade is under threat of extinction. By all accounts, it’s a tough job. Who wants to wake at 4 every morning and spend the day standing over an open flame in a cramped space, especially when you could work in an air-conditioned office?

In fact, some young people do. The hawker trade isn’t going to die out just yet.

Meet Joey, a third year Global Studies major who sees the value of the hawker trade. We chatted over a cup of iced Milo after school. He told me how he got interested in the food business.

 

Joey I always grew up cooking at home with my mother. That was a way for me to escape doing my studies.  I figured out that if I didn’t help my mum, it would give her the space to nag at me and ask me about my work. If I chose to help her with cooking, she stopped asking me once I started helping, so I helped her a lot in the kitchen, yeah hahaha. And that got me interested in cooking. And I realised that people in my family started to pass away, and then I started to think to myself what is, my mother would one day pass away as well so I said “what are the memories that I would cherish most with her after she passes away?”. I would say it’s the memories we spend cooking together. I mean, there were some times where, I mean, she would cook in a certain way that I didn’t like or I would do things she didn’t like and we would get into arguments about food but at the end of the day, that was where I feel our bonds really developed, in the kitchen.

 

Raudhah His passion for cooking motivated him to work in a professional kitchen which sells Peranakan cuisine. However, he was drawn into the hawker trade by his friends, who run a stall at Maxwell Food Centre located in downtown Singapore.

 

Joey The primary reason why I stayed was because I wanted to challenge this, you know, bias that I think society has on hawkers, the idea of hawkers. Yes, it’s true that it’s grimy and hot and stuff, you know, that only people with low social economic class will be participating in this. To me, I thought it was very strange because I know that, after being there for three months, I know some people who make a lot of money, more than people who work white collar jobs. So that to me got me thinking about, you know, what some people say in society or what the adults say at that time may not always or may not necessarily be true. That’s why I chose to pursue this kind of line of work, at least for now.  I think this is the beautiful part of working as a hawker, you get to meet and know your customers. And then from there you adapt or, you know, just see their feedback.

 

Raudhah I asked Joey about how hawker centres are different from restaurants.

 

Joey I feel like the camaraderie is much stronger maybe in a hawker centre because, you know, it’s a small space. Like can you imagine working in Maxwell. There was one point where there were four people inside, me and three others- my two friends and another aunty in that small space. We can barely move. It’s that time where it’s hot, it’s grimy, everyone just grinding in that tiny space trying to make our customers happy. I would say, you know, these are the main differences.

Restaurants have their signature dishes and all. Hawker centres, they specialise on the level of the dish. To me, the hawker centre is beautiful because to me, it’s just an aggregation or a what do you call it, you just gather all the experts or specialists in certain dishes in one small area and the kind of variety that is available to them at this place, I think it’s beautiful and is quite unique to us.

 

Raudhah Joey explained to me that the hawker tradition is also not fading away as we would think. In fact, he explained that there could be a new phenomenon shaping the hawker trade instead.

 

Joey I wouldn’t say that the hawker tradition is something that can easily disappear. Of course, there’s this problem or there’s this worry that old hawkers are not being replaced at a sustainable rate. But at the same time, I think there are people like myself, there’s a whole new wave of hawkerpreneurs. The newspaper likes to highlight these people.  Instead of saying- Yes, it’s true that old hawkers will be disappearing, like how old nurses will disappear, or old anything will disappear. There will be a new wave of hawkers, and like hawkerpreneurs if you want to call them that way, who will see the opportunity, who cannot afford expensive rent or the kind of service that restaurants need to cater. And they might have a brilliant idea and this is also a low capital investment.

 

Raudhah Young people like Joey are turning to the hawker trade, because it provides the opportunity to pursue their passion for cooking without the huge capital needed for a restaurant. The same physical limitations that make the hawker stall a cramped space to work also make it affordable. Because of their youth, many observers refer to such young hawkerpreneurs as hipster hawkers. In some cases, entire hawker centres have developed to highlight the experimental cuisines in a trendy environment. Timbre+ is one such example. It is a food centre which melds local, fusion, and international cuisines. It is a stunning sight: shipping containers covered in graffiti, stacked erratically. In place of traditional food stalls are food trucks parked inside the centre itself.

While Joey chose a traditional hawker center, other young people pursued their passion in newer places like Timbre Plus. This hints at a complicated interaction between young and old hawkers, and new and old hawker centres. Associate Professor Pow is with the Department of Geography at NUS. He explains that Joey is just one kind of young hipster hawker changing Singapore’s food landscape.

 

Professor Pow I think we need to again make some distinction. So we could be talking about a regular hawker centre, right, and then there are certain stalls which are taken over by young entrepreneur hawkers. You know, you’re talking about the insertion of these kinds of hipster hawkers into a regular or even old hawker centres. And then there are also brand new hawker centres that are built, that has been classified at least by the Straits Times or new media as hipster hawker centres right, like the one that you mentioned the Fareground in Pasir Ris for example. It’s different because for the first one where you are talking about hipster hawkers entering into old, well established hawker centres. They might infusing new kinds of cuisine or even giving these hawker centres a new lease of life. So if you’re talking about from the consumers’ point of view, that’s good right because it adds diversity, adds variety. But there is also a worry that some of these young, sometimes mid-career entrepreneur hawkers might actually drive up the rental, because they are usually prepared to pay a little bit more.

 

Raudhah Sean and Jia Xin, two of Joey’s friends, work at Timbre plus, where they have transformed local classics into something completely new. Their laksa is no longer a bowl of noodles in spicy coconut broth, like you find at a traditional food centre like Maxwell, where Joey works. Instead, it is a cube of layered ingredients that could fit in the palm of your hand.

 

Sean Hi my name is Sean.

Raudhah Hi Sean.

Sean Currently owner of Deli & Daint as well as Food Anatomy. I handle kitchen operations and our main core business would be either salad or food cubes that we design local delights into cake-size cube shapes and it’s served hot.

Jia Xin I am Jia Xin. Same as Sean, we both operate Deli & Daint and Food Anatomy together. So for the food cubes that we’re doing it’s more of the line of design, so it’s created in a way that they have different colours, different aspects of the original dish in the cube itself.

Raudhah You both had experience working in Maxwell Food Centre right? How would you compare it to working here in Timbre+?

Jia Xin Maxwell is a very tough place to be in. Because of the environment. Long hours. Very, very hot. Not only hot but humid even under the shades. We had very long hours when we first started as well. At first, we didn’t have any help and it was just the two of us, doing 7 day shifts all the way from 7am to 10pm, everyday without fail. That’s when after that, Joey came in to help us.

 

Raudhah According to Sean and Jia Xin, the customer base is also quite different in Timbre+ compared to Maxwell Food Centre. Customers are willing to spend more at Timbre+ since the place consists mostly of unique startups like Food Anatomy.

 

Raudhah Do you prefer to work in Maxwell or to work here?

Sean Well, of course here hahaha. If you say potential in business, Maxwell reaches the maximum. For this place, there is still room to grow.

Jia Xin I think room to grow not only in terms of business sales but as a team. The space is also much bigger here so there’s a lot of things we can try, research and develop. So we can also build like small family over here with the staff. At Maxwell it was just a small little stall, like we can only squeeze in two to three people at any one time, so that’s the max we can do.

Raudhah Are you all the only young hawkers in Maxwell?

Sean Last time, ah.

Jia Xin Used to be.The trend is that youngsters are starting to do it, like starting a business in hawker centres as well.

Raudhah How about here?

Sean  Here, they’re all youngsters hahaha. For Jia Xin, she started at the age of 21.

Raudhah How old are you now?

Jia Xin 27 this year. So for 6 years. So last time is considered youngest.

Raudhah Why do you think more youngsters are taking it up now?

Sean I think more of the media right now, like “Foodstruck”, all this kind of advertisements that make youngsters want to be an owner or chef. Because on the surface, like on TV and media all these, it looks glamorous. You get to be a business owner or hawker. You get to break the trend. It’s no longer an aunty or uncle kind of job.

Joey I think also the entrance of the Michelin guide into Singapore which kinds of pushes people to want to strive for these things as well, because now there is an accolade that might even come to hawker centres, proven by how there are two hawkers with Michelin stars. Well, people who start off with a limited budget but still want to pursue this dreams will probably start from the hawker centre because it’s quite hard to just jump into owning a restaurant right away.

 

Raudhah For Sean and Jia Xin, hawker centres as a home takes on a whole new meaning. It isn’t just about the food that they cook, but the relationships they form with their team.

I was amazed by the insider perspective Joey, Sean and Jia Xin offered on the hawker scene. The hawker centre was a part of their lives as much as it was a part of mine, yet it holds a very different value in our eyes.

 

Back to my lunch at Bedok Food Centre.

My family and I have bought our food and gathered back at a table near the hawker centre’s atrium. This may be a public place, but it feels like our dining room at home. The main difference is everyone gets to eat what they want. We all have different preferences when it comes to food. At home, my dad loves my mum’s curry, but my brother doesn’t like it. Some days I want Chinese food, while my mum craves Malay food. At the hawker centre, this isn’t a concern. Sometimes, we have to raise our voices to be heard over the ruckus, but that’s fine I guess. Somehow, when we gather at a table and chat over our food, the background noise doesn’t matter anymore. We form our own bubble, while the bustle of the hawker centre blurs around us. This is where we would get together and share stories, just like in our very own dining room.

After having our food, we buy a few cups of sugarcane juice, and a Malay sweet called kuih. It’s for my grandparents, the reason we first visited this food center and keep returning. I remembered a few years ago, they asked us to pick up sugarcane juice and kuih for them. The request surprised us at the time, but they explained that these foods reminded them of their younger days, when such food was a common part of their lives. They just wanted a little taste of nostalgia.

Regardless of whether it’s traditional or hip, the hawker centre remains the heart and soul of our nation. From every perspective, it brings about a sense of warmth that reminds us of home. When transposed into a foreign city, it gives Singaporeans abroad a chance to catch up like old friends. For others with a passion for cooking, it’s where memories of family are rekindled and relationships are forged.  For my grandparents, it offers a taste of the past. And for me, the hawker centre embodies my family’s intimate moments of huddling together around a table, never running out of good food or stories to share.

 

Chris Hawker centres are one of Singapore’s most distinctive features. Visitors and residents alike praise them for their variety, quality, convenience, and affordability. Whether at the scale of the neighborhood or the nation, hawker centres are institutions deeply embedded in the social and built landscape.

They are a place to hang out, to meet friends and family, to grab a quick bite, and to take away a meal for a family of picky eaters. As Raudhah makes clear, they are also a way for stall owners to make a living and for young entrepreneurs to try their hand at running a restaurant.

It should come as no surprise then, that hawker centres have been a popular research topic by students in my class looking for sites associated with home. Some of my favorites have explored how Singaporeans abroad associate hawker centres with the nation as home and how hawker centres are sites of social reproduction for stall owners.

My favorite anecdote came from a third-generation stall owner who told my students about the difficulty her parents faced raising children while running a stall. They had no choice but to use the hawker centre as daycare, which she remembered this way: “I remember sleeping in front of the refrigerator during parts of the day while my mum would tie my sister to the table for her safety”. For this stall owner, now in her 30s, the hawker centre is clearly more than a workplace. It’s a site that stirs childhood memories and reminds her of the sacrifices her family made in pursuit of a better life.

Hawker centres tie together Singapore’s past, present, and future. How they will adjust to the changing times remains unclear, but their centrality to everyday life and a Singaporean sense of home hints that hawker centres will continue to serve as the nation’s dining room for years to come.

This episode of Home on the Dot was written and produced by Raudhah. Our sound engineer was Stanley Chow. Thanks to Joey, Sean and Jia Xin, for sharing their experiences cooking in the trenches and to Professor Pow for his insights on hawker centres. Finally, thanks to Wei Ling, Kai Li, and Fangyi for the paper that inspired the episode.

 

For more information about this episode and the Home on the Dot project, please visit our homepage at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot  or visit our Facebook page which is titled homeonthedot

Finally, we welcome your feedback and suggestions of stories you’d like to hear about home in Singapore.  Thanks for listening.

 

Published in Transcripts S1

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