Protecting Singapore’s hawker culture

07 November 2018 | General News
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Hawker centres and hawker food have come under the spotlight in the recent months, as Singapore works towards a bid to add the hawker culture to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (Photo: Singapore Tourism Board)

Conveniently located, affordable and almost ubiquitous in the Singapore landscape, hawker centres are one of the most recognisable pillars of Singapore’s food culture. These innocuous food hubs have come under the spotlight recently, with the announcement at this year’s National Day Rally of the bid to list Singapore’s hawker culture under the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This list comprises intangible heritage elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this effort hopes to “safeguard and promote this unique culture for future generations”, as well as “let the rest of the world know about our local food and multicultural heritage”.

“Intangible heritage refers to concepts like values and knowledge and how they are passed down from one generation to another,” explained NUS Malay Studies Senior Lecturer Dr Suriani Suratman, a social anthropologist and member of the recently established 14-member committee who will provide their expertise and recommendations on the nomination documents for submission to UNESCO.

To Dr Suriani, the Singapore hawker culture is a service that fits into society; that of affordable, convenient home-cooked food needed in the busyness of the Singapore lifestyle. The strength of this culture is illustrated by its adaptation and evolution over the years, from its beginnings as mobile food carts to its latest iteration as physical hawker centres, she added. “Calling it culture means it can adapt. If it cannot adapt, it would have died out a long time ago, even with the physical hawker centres. Yet, it has survived over time,” she said. 

NUS Sociology Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, whose research interests include national identity, described hawker centres as a microcosm of Singapore’s rich heritage and cultural diversity. “They reflect our collective identity as Singaporeans and enable us to represent Singapore to the world as a vibrant city with a unique character combining the best of West and East,” he explained.

Assoc Prof Tan said getting onto the UNESCO list will put Singapore on the cultural map of the world. “Apart from making our hawker centres and food a ‘must see and experience’ cultural phenomenon for people across the globe, it’d render hawker culture a source of national pride; motivate our hawker-entrepreneurs to be even more creative in living up to and even surpassing what makes it a recognised UNESCO world heritage addition; and attract new entrants to a respected profession that caters to locals and the rest of the world,” he elaborated.

If Singapore succeeds in its bid, the hawker culture will join the likes of some 399 elements from 112 countries including Northern Croatia’s gingerbread craft, the French gastronomic meal, the Turkish coffee culture, and South Korea’s kimchi-making tradition.

Apart from making our hawker centres and food a ‘must see and experience’ cultural phenomenon for people across the globe, succeeding in the UNESCO bid will render hawker culture a source of national pride; motivate our hawker-entrepreneurs to be even more creative in living up to and even surpassing what makes it a recognised UNESCO world heritage addition; and attract new entrants to a respected profession that caters to locals and the rest of the world.

“We often see people of different backgrounds and walks of life gather together at hawker centres for tasty and affordable food. With the local and ethnic foods, this inclusive space is essential to Singapore's food culture,” shared NUS Sociology alumna Ms Joanne Heng, who operates a prawn noodle stall in Ghim Moh.  

Ms Heng, who has been in the hawker trade for over a year, hopes the UNESCO bid will attract more young people to the trade. “The efforts that the hawkers put into creating this intangible heritage of Singapore would be recognised. At the same time, there will be more discussion about the hawker trade, which would hopefully shed some light on the challenges and difficulties that pervade the trade,” she said.

These challenges and difficulties are some areas Dr Suriani hopes will be addressed with the attention on the UNESCO bid. “If the community wants the culture to continue, the next step is to think about how to ensure the trade is viable. If we want hawker culture, we must have hawkers and to have hawkers you must provide them with the amenities and the resources to continue to make a decent living,” she said. Part of the UNESCO documentation that is currently being considered would thus include relooking at policies and regulations that can help to ensure the longevity of the culture, she added.

The Singapore hawker culture even has far-reaching impact overseas, said members of the NUS Food and Travel Club, an independent student-led food content portal. Many of the group’s members are currently on an overseas exchange and have heard much praise for the culture. “It wasn't apparent to us how distinct and special hawker centres were, particularly so in the eyes of a foreigner. This was until we came to the US where there is absolutely nothing like the hawker culture we have in Singapore. It made us realise how much we’ve taken it for granted and how food courts can never be a replacement or substitute for hawker centres,” they shared.

Citing how renowned chef Mr Anthony Bourdain wanted to open a Bourdain market in New York City modelled after Singapore hawker centres, the group added, “If anything, having Singapore's hawker culture successfully listed by UNESCO would help in achieving its due recognition, paving the way for more to contribute to preserving this important culture.”

To keep members of the public updated, the National Heritage Board (NHB), who is leading the bid, has set up a website with relevant information that also allows people to pledge their support. NHB has also started a travelling exhibition called “Our SG Hawker Culture” together with the National Environment Agency and Federation of Merchants’ Associations, which will begin on 7 November at Tiong Bahru Market and travel to multiple other locations including Bukit Batok Library, Tampines Hub and the National Museum of Singapore.