The changing faces of Singapore's hawkers
When he was growing up, Mr Lee Jiaming started his days a bit differently compared with other children in primary school. He would put in a morning’s worth of work, helping to take orders and handling cashier duties at his father’s chicken rice stall.
“I would usually help out before going to school in the afternoon,” he said, adding that he would be back at the stall after school to help clean and wipe down utensils and cutlery.
At 27, he is already a seasoned hawker – he joined the family-owned Seng Heng Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, a mainstay at Bukit Timah Market and Food Centre, after he completed his national service in 2016.
“I was 21 at that time. I studied up till ITE Nitec and decided to stop studying and help out in the business,” he said.
Mr Jermaine Choo De Wei, head chef at the newly opened Dan Lao at Maxwell Food Centre, which sells scrambled-egg rice bowls, is also no stranger to the food and beverage industry, having helped his parents during his primary school days at French restaurant Vis-a-vis, which closed in 2012.
His cooking adventure began then – at age 11, he was helping to put out cold sides at the restaurant.
“I’ve been in the F&B industry my entire life – it’s all I know,” said the 23-year-old.
In a trade where the median age of practitioners is 60, the two Singaporeans’ youthfulness stands out.
But they are not alone. Efforts aimed at injecting fresh blood into the trade over the past five years – starting from before Singapore’s hawker culture was added to the Unesco Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2020 – have brought in 64 new hawkers, whose median age is 35.
They come from two main programmes. One is the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) Incubation Stall Programme (ISP), begun in 2018, where newcomers run their businesses at pre-fitted stalls with reduced stall rental for 15 months.
In 2020, NEA also launched the Hawkers Development Programme (HDP) to equip aspiring hawkers with the skills to run their own businesses. It provides classroom training, apprenticeships with veterans and mentorship support.
Some new, younger hawkers have taken a practical approach when it comes to tackling the perennial issues of long hours and manpower shortages in the industry.
Mr Leong Gwo Wei, 40, owner of Lim Bo Fresh Fruits Rojak at a new hawker centre in One Punggol, which opened in October 2022, has implemented shorter operating hours at his stall – from 12pm to 6pm – to ensure that working hours are attractive to staff.
He has also hired a 78-year-old man as a shop attendant.
Mr Leong, who entered the trade two years ago, said: “We don’t really get inquiries from people below 40 and among those, some would not even turn up for their scheduled interviews.”
He is glad to have taken on his helper, describing him as the most reliable worker he has had.
Another pet peeve among those in the trade – a difficult working environment – may also be addressed as new and better-designed hawker centres come on board, while existing ones undergo refurbishments to become cleaner and more productive.
For instance, the new One Punggol Hawker Centre has high ceilings to maximise airflow, as well as a conveyor-belt tray-clearing station. This keeps the hawker centre relatively breezy and uncluttered, with no uncleared trays.
At the newly opened Bukit Canberra Hawker Centre, hawkers can tap a mobile app that allows customers to place orders and be alerted when their food is ready, helping to take the headache out of queue management.
Meanwhile, Geylang Serai Market and Cheng San Market and Cooked Food Centre will be the first two existing centres which will be refurbished under the Hawker Centres Transformation Programme from the second quarter of 2024.
The scope of the works will include the reconfiguration of seats to enhance circulation, ventilation enhancements such as new fittings and fans, and changes to existing infrastructure such as toilets for greater ease of cleaning and maintenance, said NEA.
Seng Heng’s Mr Lee and Dan Lao’s Mr Choo said work as a hawker is no walk in the park.
“The hardest part of being a hawker is the amount of sacrifice needed,” Mr Lee said, noting how having to wake up early and ending late at night often means the end of one’s social life.
“You’ll just be too tired at the end of the day,” he added.
For Mr Choo, one of the biggest adjustments he has had to make as a hawker is the much smaller space at his stall in Maxwell Food Centre compared with the commercial kitchen he was used to at Eggslut, his last workplace.
“In Maxwell Food Centre, you have to wash your own dishes,” he added.
“Cooking and prepping are very quick, but washing takes a million years,” he said with a laugh.
Despite the hardship, both men are set to remain hawkers.
Mr Lee is hoping to expand the business of his family’s 42-year-old chicken rice stall some day.
He added that this can happen only when he is confident of the quality and consistency of the food across stalls.
For now, he remains focused on nailing down the basics of the business.
“There’s always room for improvement, even if we are doing the same thing over and over again every day,” he said.
Mr Choo said he is in it for the long haul, and hopes to make his scrambled-egg rice bowl a hawker staple within a decade.
“I want to keep refining my craft here so I can maintain the quality of food I’m serving,” he said.
Still, concerns remain over whether more young people will join the trade. The 64 new hawkers who did so were among more than 540 people who participated in NEA’s programmes or similar programmes led by its operators, according to NEA’s data.
Hawker bosses are also unable to offer the perks associated with working in an office, such as pay increments and opportunities for advancement.
But for Ms Lee Kai Jun, 25, the hawker trade is not without its draws.
The second-generation hawker at her father’s stall, Guo Qin Noodle, in Hougang Avenue 8, recently helped to open another stall, at One Punggol Hawker Centre. With more people helping out, she said she has been able to take more days off.
She added: “Unlike office work, when my work day is over, I don’t have to think about work any more and can simply enjoy my time.”