Singapore is home to Michelin-starred restaurants and some of the world’s best bars, but it’s the humble hawker centres and stands that give the city’s food scene its unique character. Singapore’s hawker culture dates back to the 1800s, when early migrants sold quick, affordable meals on the streets, in town squares and parks. At the end of 2020, Singapore hawker culture was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The recognition from UNESCO is a meaningful one for hawkers, particularly those belonging to the next generation charged with carrying this tradition forward. Many of these younger hawkers are taking over businesses that have been handed down for generations. There are next-gen hawkers that have been sent to universities abroad to become bankers, lawyers, engineers, and more who are leaving their fields to run hawker stalls (starting their own or inheriting stalls from their families) because of their passion for hawker culinary culture.
The acknowledgement of the contribution of hawker centres to Singapore’s cultural heritage and the push for the next generation to take over hawker stalls run by aging hawkers is all part of ongoing efforts to preserve hawker culture in Singapore so that it may be enjoyed by locals and tourists for generations to come.
Claire Huang, a 33-year-old next generation hawker, runs Carrot Cubes, a hawker stall selling a Singaporean staple: fried carrot cake. In Singapore, carrot cake isn’t a dessert topped with cream cheese icing, but rather a savory rice flour cake that’s cut into cubes and stir-fried with ingredients like garlic, eggs and preserved radish. Huang has been in the industry for about three years, and got into the business through her dad, who is a carrot cake supplier.
“I am proud that Singapore has won the UNESCO recognition as Intangible Heritage Culture of Humanity,” Huang said. “It made me feel like we won an Oscar! I would like to take this chance to thank all the hawkers, especially the first generation, as this recognition would not have come without their sweat, toil and dedication to their profession.”
Regarding her hopes for the future of hawker culture in Singapore, Huang said, “It is not an easy trade for young aspiring hawkers as it requires them to work long hours in a hot and cramped stall. However, the Singapore government has sought, through traineeship programs and monetary subsidies, to lower the barriers of entry. I strongly believe that we will find our ways to rejuvenate and sustain the hawker trade and safeguard our hawker culture and this is certainly a step in that direction.”
Deanna Chew, another young and up-and-coming hawker, started her hawker stall, Deanna’s Kitchen, with her husband in 2017 to share their food with the public. Halal Chinese Prawn Mee (a noodle dish) is one of their most popular dishes. Getting into the hawker business, Chew noted, was a “big leap” for her and her husband as they were both bankers at the time and had no prior experience in the food industry.
“[We] think it’s awesome that Singapore managed to get the [UNESCO nomination] as hawker centers are an important and essential component of Singapore’s culture and diversity and have seen generations of hawkers doing their utmost to feed the nation,” Chew said. “I hope that this culture will persist even in future generations. It is not an easy job to be hawkers, but it is certainly rewarding when you see people enjoying your food. If I can, I would want to pass my hawker business to my son to continue the business and I hope more young people will take up the challenge.”