For decades, friendly uncles selling ice-cream in their unique carts have been a common sight along Orchard Road. But this familiar sight may no longer be in existence in the near future.
This is because after the current owners’ hang up their license, other individuals can’t take up their license as they hold one that is personal to the holder and non-transferable, said the Singapore Food Agency (SFA).
Although the ice-cream uncles wish to not see their trade die, these individuals won’t be able to do much about it as they cannot transfer their licence to family members or friends who might be interested to take over.
71-year-old Chieng Puay Chui, fondly known as Uncle Chieng to his customers, may be one of the affected ones, along with six others who have been making a living by selling ice-cream along the stretch of the famous shopping street.
Mr Chieng has been an ice-cream street hawker since 1965, and about three decades ago, he moved to Orchard Road outside the old Tangs building to sell this cold treats to his customers. He later moved to his current spot in front of Ngee Ann City, 26 years ago.
“It’ll be a pity if there are no more ice-cream uncles, especially because this is Singapore’s traditional ice-cream. I don’t know if anything will be done to make sure Orchard Road will still have ice-cream uncles in the future,” said Mr Chieng to CNA in Mandarin.
In 2016, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said in a written reply to a parliamentary question that street hawkers were given a one-time license in 1994 to control their numbers, and “no more licences were issued after that”.
He explained, “The intention was to phase out these street hawkers through natural attrition and allow such trades to move into proper premises.”
However, Mr Madagos added that the street hawking scheme was temporarily reopened in the early 2000s to provide assistance to those who are needy and not fortunate enough to secure employment.
The ice-cream street hawkers on Orchard Road are given the permission to sell ice-cream and canned beverages in public areas in Singapore as they hold an islandwide license. Mr Chieng described that newer street hawkers are not granted this chance as they hold a licence that only allows them to sell within the town council they live in.
This explains why there are only a small number of ice-cream street hawkers on Orchard Road.
SFA noted that there are roughly about 200 street hawkers who have opted to sell ice-cream.
However, CNA reported that SFA did not comment further on questions raised about the number of street hawker applications to sell ice-cream on Orchard Road it has received, how many were accepted and if it has plans to make sure ice-cream street hawkers will continue to operate in the area.
The trade will slowly disappear
Although Mr Chieng feels it’s a pity to see this trade die off, others are not feeling extremely sad about it.
Tan Ah Hock, who has been selling ice-cream since 1967, expressed that, “I’m quite tired, but I still have to continue to work even if I’m tired.” He added that 75% of his customers are tourists and he wish to retire in two to three years.
Mr Tan also noted that he is not extremely gutted that the trade is dying out. “I’m not very sad. It is what it is,” said the 75-year-old to CNA.
He also remembered that there were more than 30 ice-cream hawkers along Orchard Road about 20 years ago. The majority of them used to flock where Ion Orchard is now located.
Another ice-cream seller Chan Yong Leng feels that this trade will disappear in a few years. Mr Chan, who started this business along Orchard Road in 2000s, said that “technology is taking over and there are nice ice-cream shops in the air-conditioned malls too”.
“There were so many stalls back then and the competition was very strong. Now there are seven, and that’s enough for the whole road,” he mentioned in a CNA article.
The 74-year-old also said that all the seven ice-cream sellers know each other, and they have their own selected place to set their stall. “We won’t go to someone else’s spot to sell ice-cream. In the past, people would fight over that,” the senior citizen noted. He also revealed that he will sell ice-cream in Orchard Road as long as his health allows him to do so.
If that’s not all, most tourists and locals also expressed to CNA that they will miss the ice-cream street hawkers once they are gone for good.
A tourist from the Philippines highlighted that the ice-cream street hawkers “give character” to Orchard Road. “I didn’t know that there are so few let here. It’s like Singapore’s special product, so it’s quite sad,” he noted.
As for Singaporeans, watching these ice-cream street hawkers were part of their childhood. Lucas Lin, remembers buying this sweet and cold treat in his HDB estate and Orchard Road.
Emphasising that the ice-cream street hawkers are an important part of Singapore’s hawker culture, he opined that, “Once they are gone, it will really be a pity. I think we will lose an important part of our traditional heritage. It’s just like seeing hawker centres replaced by food courts.”
He added, “I’m not saying that someone must definitely take over the ice-cream uncles, but if we can still retain this tradition, that would be good. It’s unique to Singapore, just like our hawkers.”