EDGE OF THE PLATE
The Hard History of Singapore’s Hawker Centres
Nearly every country has something that it’s universally recognised for: Australia’s Opera House in Sydney; the United States’ Statue of Liberty in New York; the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But Singapore’s celebrated signature is its food. So, it only makes sense that the home to this nation’s classic cuisine – the hawker centre – is also its most treasured national icon.
Diamonds in the rough
Noisy, bustling and unadorned, the hawker centre is a culinary heaven, and still the cornerstone of Singapore’s modern food culture. Walking around a hawker centre is a sensory adventure; a full-body workout sweetened by culinary eye candy, the likes of which you won’t see anywhere else in the world.
The din of happy eaters combines with the clanging of hot woks, the chopping of razor-sharp cleavers and the sizzle of food cooking all around you. This dizzying kaleidoscope of smoke, smells and sounds mixes with the tension in your gut over what to order and the humid wash of sweat on your neck and back.
Today there are more than a hundred hawker centres on this island, each with its own identity, look and feel but all offering one-stop eating opportunities for everyone. They’re an anchor for local communities and culture; a principal gathering place for family and friends.
But it wasn’t always that way. From the early 1800s, itinerant cooks roamed the island, clanging bells or smacking wooden blocks with sticks to announce their arrival. They trawled the streets and lanes with pots and woks strapped to bicycles and pushcarts, or balanced on shoulder-poles. They crowded the curbs with makeshift eateries. Scattered all over the island for 12 to 15 hours a day, exposed to the elements, they fed the largely migrant and rapidly growing population.
While this was the norm in a bustling port city that had grown from a fishing village, it became problematic as the country developed apace without providing infrastructure to supporting its massive itinerant food industry. With fresh water in short supply, rudimentary sanitation and no trash removal in abominably overcrowded areas such as Chinatown, waste piled high along curbs and swales. And with every rainfall the waterways were flooded with rotting food, trash, bugs and rats.
None of this sat well with the colonial leadership, which in 1950 proclaimed the island’s hawkers a “disorderly sprawl… in defiance of all order and reason”. A Hawker Inquiry Commission was set up that same year, but little changed in the ensuing couple of decades.
When Singapore gained its independence, the new government also took on the unresolved hawker dilemma. In 1968, a massive licensing and registration effort was implemented to document each hawker and move them from the crowded streets to back