Memos from Asia

Hawker Culture: Finding the Singaporean Spirit

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Raffles Quay, Lau Pa Sat Festive Market, Singapore

Singapore society is a scarcity in this world. Its shores have welcomed migrants from all over Asia for decades. As a new nation, they built a unique multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious society which thrives and lives in harmony today. Together they have created a community which respects and celebrates each of its citizen’s cultural background. In true Singaporean fashion, there was no better way to do that than through food.

Emerging from Asia’s street food culture, hawkers showcases the beauty of Singapore as a multicultural island-city. Hawker culture describes the tradition of different communities coming together as a nation to enjoy a variety of diverse dishes. The food is prepared by local ‘hawkers’, who reflect this multicultural composition of Singapore. Involving mainly Chinese, Malay, and Indian dishes, hawker culture is an integral part of the Singaporean way of life. Therefore, in order to experience the spirit of Singaporean culture, there is only one place to go and that’s the local hawker centre.

Singapore’s hawker culture can be traced back to the 1800s. The streets would be lined with food stalls and up until the 1970s, these street stalls could be found in Singapore’s most crowded and popular areas such as Orchard Rd and Chinatown. Nowadays the hawkers look slightly different to these makeshift street vendors. Rather today, hawker centres serve as ‘community dining rooms’ where you can share the experience of dining with people of diverse backgrounds under one roof. It’s also a great place for a quick and cheap meal.

Hawker centres must undoubtedly have one of the most diverse and inclusive menus in the world. They boast numerous food and drink stalls that serve family recipes passed down over generations. There are, however, some iconic dishes which you cannot miss trying when visiting a hawker. Singaporean laksa (a spicy coconut noodle soup), satay (seasoned meat skewered and grilled), roti prata, chicken rice, nasi lemak, char kway teow (stir-fry flat-rice noodle), chai tow kway (also known as fried carrot cake), and my personal favorite chili crab. Of course, there are many more dishes you must try but this list is a good place to start.

The atmosphere inside the hawker centre is fantastic and quintessentially Singaporean. The lively sound of multilingual conversations and the smell of fresh food and spices decorate the hall. Due to the outline of the hawker there is a common dining space where you will often find people, strangers even, eating, talking and laughing together regardless of religious or dietary differences. The beauty of human acceptance and common love is what really enriches the environment of the hawker. When there don’t be afraid to just sit next to someone and start a conversation because that’s what hawker culture is truly about.

In recent years, however, hawkers have become endangered of dying out. As old hawkers begin to retire the new generation are not rushing to follow in their footsteps. The gruelling hours and rising rental prices are only some of the reasons making hawker centres undesirable work environments. Therefore, it is so important to support Singapore’s bid for hawker culture to take a deserved place on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in order to start reshaping the perception for the new generation about being a hawker.

To so many, it has become a second home. Just like patisseries are for the French and coffee shops are for Americans – hawker centres are for Singaporeans. The family culture combined with the community culture is truly at the heart of Singapore and it is beautiful to witness. So as you visit it will become clear, for the young or old, hawker culture has shaped this little nation’s heart.

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