Why Gen-Y shun hawker centres

By Jovita Ang - Wednesday, Jan 08, 2014

The reasons are contradictory and varied yet not quite so. “I feel really uncomfortable and uneasy when I’m at a hawker centre” but, she loves a good plate of Hokkien Mee. Another expressed that the smell gets onto him the entire day, but he adores his hawker food. Then, another said that he feels hawker fare tends to be better than those in café and restaurants.


So, why aren’t these Generation Ys seen in hawker centres?


A proud hawker owners’ achievement of an A-grade cleanliness rating by NEA (National Environment Agency) government doesn’t seem to be attractive enough to lure a younger generation. Could it be that their standards of hygiene are far superior than NEA’s (the government agency that overlooks hawker centre operations).


I recently had a very good chat with a few of my Gen-Y peers and friends about their absence from hawker centres. I was looking at this phenomena that is very much an indirect stab to the continuity of our food culture. There were mentions about the insane humidity, that hot, uncomfortable and muggy atmosphere which makes it far from pleasurable. This problem, I conclude, could one day be solved by the mighty powers of God (climate changes which can one day cool SE Asia) and the stunning abilities of forward thinking architects.


A press release from last year by the Ministry of the Environment and Water stated that the new generation of hawker centres will make use of natural ventilation and befitting building designs that will improve dining comfort. Green features like solar panels and roof gardens will also be implemented in some. Perhaps divine powers heard their cries and gifted them a change.
Makansutra Gluttons Bay (fiile photo: Makansutra)

These new additions in a hawker centre could very well pave the way to a more welcoming hawker experience for many youths. But the verdict is still on hold, till they see and touch the new- improved hawker centres. Ultimately, comfort and hygiene comes first- one reason why Gen Y-ers prefer nicer, air conditioned food courts.


“Foodcourts attracts me as their hygiene standards are much higher, with cleaner tables and seats and lesser occurrence of wet dirty floors,” said J. Woon, a local polytechnic student.


“Though the food offered is the same, the level of comfort just makes it more appealing,” said 23-year-old Goh Chong Kiat.


Perhaps to hawkers, hygiene is merely what meets the eye – clean utensils and counter tops. Yet for youths, hygiene is more than that. It is about how food is handled, what the chef wears, and how utensils are placed. Putting on a clean apron, self-respecting uniforms, hand gloves, head gears and good food handling practices would be more conducive for them, who are brought up with shiny spoons in their mouth. We were born post-independence, off-springs of a more genial and affluent generation. Gone were the days where people had to live in attap houses, rear chickens in their own backyards and walk around in soiled muddy fields. We grew up in a society where hawker centre is seen as somewhat the lowest standard of dining experience. Dirty and unrefined, “it’s best not to head there”, many among us feel. Tapao back is the best we can do. Some parents have a disdain towards the hawker environment, and unconsciously passed it down to their kids with all good intents, developing in them “little Emperor” dining habits. Thus, it is not surprising to hear that some have never been to a street food centre when they were young, for the various reasons such as, “My parents mostly did Western takeaways,” and “My mum is extremely particular about hygiene.”


The fact remains that my pals love our local comfort fare. I am too a Gen-Y, born and bred in the same culture many of my friends were exposed to. While hygiene is a concern for me when dining, the exciting and harmonious blend of flavours in our Singapore dishes constantly lures me back. With an excellent chilli crab before me, everything else doesn’t seem to matter.


I also learnt from friends that a trip down to a hawker centre is not always driven by a craving for local flavours or about hygiene. On days when they are tight-strapped for cash, hawker centre food seems the most appealing.


“I can get a very good and filling meal for only $4, and that’s with a drink. Café prices are sky-high, I can’t afford it all the time,” said 18-year-old Clara Xu.


We don’t see many Gen-Y hanging out at hawker centres, they are seen more often snuggled up in the cosy corner of a café. We want clean, and we want comfort. While hawker centres are not our most ideal, it is pretty good if you know where to locate those comfier centres. No need for big fluffy cushions in indie-vibes chambers, but something clean, dry, airy and well maintained food centre.


If you’re looking at atmosphere, I know for a fact that East Coast Lagoon Food Village hits the mark (on good days). It is a seaside hawker centre, located just a small distance away from East Coast’s cable ski park. Breeze is good, and food is even better- just get a cleaner spot near the waters. Head down to Serangoon Hawker Centre at night, and you’re in for a delightful meal under the moonlight in a beautiful courtyard style sitting. For those who appreciate the more authentic true open air street food dining, a trip to Makansutra Glutton’s Bay won’t disappoint. The concept is simple, multi-textured seatings, great local chow and balmy breeze under the moonlight. You enjoy your meal, complete with the majestic night view of Marina Bay.
East Coast Lagoon Food Village (file photo: Makansutra)

Street food centres are where real people and real food resides. Laugh, scream, be all crazy and receive no judgement. Some of us are cursed with symptoms of material affluence, victims of what’s cool, or what’s “superior”. So which would be cooler, knowing about an excellent egg benedict, and an excellent nasi lemak? This false sense of superiority unconsciously makes us cultural androids. Perhaps, when we dive into a dish with the ability to unravel its soul, then eating (be it at hawker centres or restaurants) will never be about the physicality. It will be about appreciation of one of the best joys of being alive – the ability to eat meaningfully and well.