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Maxwell food centre, near china town from Shutterstock.com

Hawker culture – can eat one or not?

by James Lee

I hope that Singapore’s bid to include hawker culture into the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List fails.

There, I said it.

Before anyone calls me unpatriotic, hear me out. Hawker culture is nothing new or even unique to Singapore. Cities like Penang, Malacca, Taipei also have it. What’s so special about Singapore’s hawker culture? The bid by Singapore is just to lay claim to the title. And the ugly truth of adding this title under our belt is nothing more than to attract tourism dollars.

In fact, ask the man on the street to find out how supportive or interested he is in our bid to include hawker culture into UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage List. While at it, why not ask the hawkers themselves? I suspect there wouldn’t be many supporters. Many of us probably feel and know that Malaysia’s hawker culture is more ‘authentic’.

The hawker culture in Singapore has been given a makeover to be housed in an aircon environment, with robot tray collectors, exploited hawkers, overworked cleaning aunties and uncles. These are run by ‘social enterprises’ who are nothing more than conglomerates out to earn every tourist dollar. Compare that with the true hawkers dishing out wok fried char kway teow out of a push cart on a street. That, to me, is the true hawker culture - cheap, good and authentic.

So what gives? Two reasons.

First, experience. If one wants to truly experience hawker culture, Penang or Malacca is the place to go. Even I would tell you that. Definitely not Singapore, not Newton Circus, not Chomp Chomp. What you get in Singapore is hawker culture plus, where it has been glazed over by expensive and sometimes subpar quality food, in a nice environment. It is good for the western tourist who wants to experience a bit of hawker culture without sweating buckets because ang moh and tropical weather don’t go together. However, experience is what millennials crave for. The more authentic, the better. So, a half-baked hawker culture in a nice ventilated food centre may not cut it for them. If we are targetting the rich tourists, which we definitely are, then it works.

Second, and more importantly is the entire farce surrounding the ‘social enterprises’ who have been called out for exploiting hawkers. Horrors of horrors, who knew modern day slavery still existed? And in a developed country like Singapore? I say, let’s get our house in order before we try to be number 1, shall we?

The UNESCO bid does not help our local hawkers in any way. I can foresee what will happen - We win the bid, tourists come to ‘experience’ hawker culture, ‘social enterprises’ force the hawkers to open longer hours to cater to demand, whilst taxing them in cleaning fees, quality control. At the end of the day, our hawkers suffer. It may sound pessimistic but the negative impacts of tourism are real.

A good example is Ladakh which supposedly ‘benefited’ from the movie ‘3 Idiots’.

What is more worrying about the UNESCO bid is the G’s growth-at-all-costs approach. It is no secret that the G is lusting after the tourism dollar, but without first putting in place all the necessary safeguards and structures in place to protect our elderly (read: pioneer generation) hawkers from being exploited, I’d say that this will backfire spectacularly. It is particularly a slap in the face when on one hand, you call them the pioneer generation (PG) and on the other hand, you allow corporations to exploit them. It is reminiscent of a phrase one of our ministers said.

“The normal perception that all cardboard collectors are people who are unable to take care of themselves financially is not really true. ... Some prefer to earn extra monies, treat it as a form of exercise and activity rather than being cooped up at home.”

So are hawkers doing hawking for the culture, or maybe getting some exercise? What does hawker culture mean to the hawkers? Does it equate to better earnings, better hours for them? Have we asked them if they want to be a part of this UNESCO Cultural Heritage? “eh sai jiak bo?” (translated: can eat one or not?)

I think it is time we take a step back and look at the social aspects of things before we try to embark on acquiring another ‘no. 1 title’ which we don’t really need.