I read with interest the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee Report (see link below). To begin, it’s about the government run hawker centres, not all about local heritage food culture which is bigger than this conversation. It is basically looking at the viability and continuity of under 7000 public hawker centre stalls.
Firstly, they did determine what hawker centres (HCs) means to the nation and her people over the decades- which is about the relationship people here have with hawker food and centres- like affordability and basic comfort and cleanliness. It is after all, an institution that had fed this nation for decades. And, also, what do we want to pass down to the next generation without losing sight of this ball and its organic winning ways.
I look into deeper details and the pros, cons and SWOTS (strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats) of each of the 11 points the committee recommended.
Pt 1: Develop Training Opportunities and Pathways for Hawkers
Good idea. But it felt shy of making a splash here. Why be shy of making this a full fledge course, instead of just some see-how-try-try effort. The industry is big and the people’s pride for it is bigger. The biggest food companies here, all delve in street food (Kopitam, Breadtalk, Sin Hua Dee etc...). Go all the way, I say, because it is worth doing so. China, Japan and Thailand has many courses in that space. Ms Fuschia Dunlop form London, studied Szechuan cuisine in China in Chinese, and now is the biggest international ambassador of their food. Rick Bayless is the biggest celebrity Mexican food ambassador, and he is American. We should be the first to do so with street food, as we are the best in this field, especially with that Hawker Centres did to our food heritage. We should not see this exercise as just one that seeks to fill up more stalls in hawker centres...although it is one of NEA’s purviews. I understand the ITE is looking to do more in this training space, I ask, if their students are regularly sent to hawkers for attachments and internship so they can learn and improve, or are they just heading to restaurants and hotels for air conditioned gigs.
Pt 2: Incubator and Hawker Mentorship
The Hawker Training Master Pilot Scheme was introduced a few years ago, and we monitored the “grads”. It seems all but left the industry. You don’t need a year (as suggested) to see if things work out. New stalls open and close within three month or so, if they are not hitting the mark. Incubator stalls cannot have “basic” equipments for a try-try trial. Different food require very different kitchens, ask any street food kitchen designer and builders like Ah Siow and Anthony of Arena Construction. Fei Siong is doing a good job but there’re mandate is to fill stall tenants in their own run HCs and ideally, better if you use their central kitchen sauces and central kitchen ingredients. Be real, they know of multi-million dollar (or at least a few hundred grand) deals for hawker recipes, so older hawkers won’t really mentor newbies and encourage competition, unless there is a clear business model with them where they get at least 2 out of the 3 win-win-win situations. Just because there is a need to seek continuity, it won’t mean hawkers are obliged with “reservist” duties to perform and share the family heirloom recipes. That said, hawker recipes can be tweaked and improved if a proper team is formed to tackle and analyse this situation.
Pt 3: One Stop Information centre, physically…
OR you can also do an online FAQ frequently updated and have talks on such matters on a regular basis
Pt 4: Raising Profile of Hawkers
It is already done extensively online...check Facebook, Instagram, twitter etc… It should not just be about raising their profiles (I mean, who would you choose, and who will KPKB when they are not chosen.) It should be about storytelling, how our food came about, the faces, places and tastes that birthed this great hawker food heritage. Like, do you know the love story behind how the Yam Ring basket came about, and that creator, in his 80s, is still alive and very much in love with his wife. Raising hawkers profiles...yes, by all means, there already is a Singapore Food Festival in its 23th year, NEA should work closely with organiser Singapore Tourism Board to raise the noise about it. The effort to promote it must be mercurial, not just methodical.
Pt 5: Productivity
Concerns about central dishwashing, manpower woes (which is here to stay for the unforeseeable future) plus sharing of crockery and utensils...It’s a good idea and much like food court style operations. The issue is you will need a lot of washing machines and staff to physically return the plates in double quick time, especially, during peak hours. Who wants these menial job, and there is a manpower crunch with the cleaning companies. There will be problems getting hawkers to cooperate, plus trust issues (we know so many cleaning companies have left customers and hawkers high and dry on many occasions). Still, it is a good idea to have central services for such needs. On Automation- people still like and like to preserve the artisanal culture of HCs, they like the engagement and familiarity of faces and people (that’s why there’s this culture of bonding revealed in the research). If they want automation, they will hit the food delivery apps, which can compete with these automation features at HCs when it becomes impersonal. And they don’t need to spend time travelling, parking and getting back.
Pt 6: Productive Equipment
...at stall level, like the suggestion of automated noodle making. It’s as if hawkers are now all using hands to make mee kia or beehoon. It’s already overwhelmingly all machine made in class act noodle factories and sent to hawkers in a silently efficient delivery network perfected over the decades. Besides it’ll take up too much breathing space in that tiny hawker stall. Plus the maintenance of such machines are cost hawkers don’t want to manage. I say, provide training facilities for them to better manage their day to day operations, stall layout efficiency, better storage, utility saving methods, cooking methods, misen plaice, lighting and simple machines to help (like small slicing machines, sou vide tool, and blenders) etc, or efficient use of electric stoves for relevant dishes. Too much handling of raw materials, like with a noodle machine, can expose it to more food handling contamination problems and mishaps can happen easily. NEA’s manpower hurdles hampers their ability to efficiently monitor and check. The hawkers in their feedback already said they are not overly comfortable with central kitchen operations as they don’t want to share recipe secrets (a key point to their success). Let them decide for themselves as there already are facilities to assist them. Some are using it, like chili sauces, stocks and pre- cut meats and vegetables.
Pt 7: Encourage regular organised activities in HCs...
We already have aplenty music, art, sports, health events all over the nation. Many head to a hawker centre to eat and go, preferably in clean place with affordable meaningful comfort food, not for other entertainment. And if there are to be performances, ensure the customers or hawkers don’t indirectly foot the bill for it. If they want to organise events, do it for the hawkers, they need to bond, recharge and refresh (they are humans too). Organise relevant talks (not the chenghu type), visits to food and equipment factories (so they know what’s in the industry and can be connected to) plus, teach them to take care of their minds and bodies (standing for 10 hours a day is not good at all) they need to learn the art of Taking 5, or 10 for that matter- to stretch (simple yoga), have a cuppa and catch up on news or a well-deserved siesta. And there should be talks about the social media and how hawkers can leverage on it effectively.
Pt 8: Improved Amenities
...like wifi and child friendliness. Almost everyone that goes there has their own 4g connections. With free wifi, you encourage lingering, and at peak hours, it does not work. People will come just for free wifi and nothing else (observe the airports). They will probably bring their own home food and drinks and play games all day long, much to the frustration of hawkers and customers looking for seats to eat at. Don’t even think about air-conditioning the place. The child friendly idea is a good one...like seats, washing and nappy change facilities.
Pt 9: Food Curation
I have brought this up before and it is a good idea. But will the authorities be keen on range or the highest bid. Naturally some popular heritage food, although well loved, are not eaten regularly...like muah chee, bak chang, or even lo mei. In practical terms, new hawkers will be tempted to sell the most popular items for reality and survival, and these get the highest bids most of the time. We must encourage more Indian, Malay, Nonya and even Eurasian hawkers to come in colour the hawker centres culture and install them based on range, and at a realistically reasonable rent. You need very diligent, well informed and visionary food thinkers in that curation team. Not just those who are keen, but those who know as well.
Pt 10: Tray Return
Another good idea. But it received luke warm results since day one at the revised Zion Rd Hawker centre years ago (where it started and was not well received). The fact that customers see cleaners around is encouragement NOT to return trays automatically. The system at Timbre+ works because you paid a dollar upfront for its use and is getting a refund upon return. Some older folks may not even have that extra dollar or monies to place as deposits for the use of trays. So some expectation management here must be incorporated. Instead, I suggest, encourage people to bring their own tiffins or tingkats or stackable containers plus re-useable utensils. They won’t have to worry if the plates are well cleaned at some dank back end stewarding station. And they take the tingkat home home…it is environmentally conscious too. Encourage companies to make stackable tingkats...like Toyogo or the likes of them. I will put one in my bag or car and promote the use if it exist. It is not about designing better signages for tray return stations (although they are doing a good job) but more about designing mind sets of the future generation…starting today. I also like to hear what the cleaning companies feedback to this committee was, as they were part of the 800 stakeholders they spoke to.
Pt 11: Encourage Kind and Considerate Behaviour
Here’s my suggestion- put up a fun “10 hawker centre rules” that buries the kindness and friendliness in the message with attitude or humour, like “Share a table, make new friends - just in case the food isn’t up to scratch today!” . Bear in mind, it needs to attract the new generation (which may be the un-doers of this cause, if they are not on board. How many kids do you know that DON’T eat at hawker centres. The numbers can be worrying). Also, there’s 15 million visitors to the nation every year, we need them to be our food ambassadors and enjoy this as the best gastronomic souvenir they can take home with.
Also, what about the friendly neighbourhood wet market hawkers, which also comes under NEA’s Hawker purview. Are they slowly being phased out in favour of supermarkets? This is also a big part of our heritage and “brand” as well.
If you ask me truly what is missing from the recommendation…it’s Action and the Will Power to see a real work path to diligent delivery of the recommendations.
Their conclusion…to sustain, improve productivity, enhance HC space vibrancy and promote kindness. It’s the government’s way of saying what we champion at the World Street Food Congress
And btw, shamelessly we plug… the World Street Food Congress 17’ will happen in Manila, Philippines (Mall Of Asia) in June. We discuss way more than these issues and identify growth strategies for the hawker, vendor and the street food industry at large. Hawkers from 12 countries will be there to offer their food and tales. Come be part of it of it’s up your alley. For more www.wsfcongress.com