Nov 15, 2015
The odds are stacked against hawkers - the hours are long, prices of ingredients are high and the public won't pay more
Did you notice how blue the sky was last week when the haze disappeared?
The air seemed fresher, and even the birds sounded chirpier.
It is true - you don't appreciate the little pleasures of life until they are taken away from you.
Then you miss them like the earth and begin to understand what they mean.
What else do we take for granted that might disappear one day?
Here is one that tops my list - good old hawker food as we know it.
If present trends continue, they will disappear in 10 to 15 years.
That is char kway teow, laksa, carrot cake, mee goreng, popiah, Indian rojak and many others.
It is not just the dishes themselves you will miss, but being able to tuck into them at almost all hours of the day and at down-to-earth prices.
This delicious combination of lip-smacking goodness, availability and affordability is the result of a unique set of circumstances never to be repeated.
An earlier generation of Singaporeans, unable to make a living otherwise, mastered the art of cooking street food at low prices.
When they were moved from the streets into government-built hawker centres in the 1960s and 70s, it coincided with a public housing boom which shifted almost an entire population to within walking distance of the nearest char kway teow stall.
It was the perfect recipe for success, and helped make hawker food the uniquely Singaporean experience that has become a part of our lives.
The next time you are at a hawker centre, slurping your favourite kambing soup, take a moment to savour how all the different ingredients came together to make it happen.
The Government built the infrastructure, but the idea grew from people making a living out of necessity and excelling at it, to satisfy the multiracial appetite of a growing Singapore.
A hawker centre experience isn't perfect - often hot and stuffy, uncleared dishes everywhere, and not all the food is worth the visit.
But for what you pay and with the variety available, it is hard to beat.
Now, it is in danger of disappearing like fresh air during the dry season.
With hawkers, though, the loss will be a permanent one unless drastic action is taken.
Singapore's rapid progress and transformation have produced a new generation with many other career choices who will not do the back-breaking work for the sort of wages their forefathers sweated for.
Who will take over and continue to fry Hokkien mee like his life depended on it?
I put this question to Mr Douglas Ng as I dug into his mee pok at his stall called Fishball Story at Golden Mile Food Centre.
At 24, he represents a new generation of hawkers who have new ideas about how to make this old profession work.
But they are up against frightening odds.
Everything is stacked against them, he says. The hours are long (he wakes up at 4am to prepare the food), prices of food ingredients have gone up, hawker assistants are almost impossible to find and are expensive to hire, and the public refuse to pay more, so accustomed are they to low prices.
When Mr Ng raised his price from $3 to $3.50, business dropped by 40 per cent.
It has slowly recovered as Fishball Story became more widely known, partly a result of his social media skills (check it out on Facebook) and the freshness of his homemade fishballs.
So, what made him work at a hawker centre rather than in an air-conditioned office?
He grew up loving the fishballs his grandmother made, and his father used to take the family out to hunt for the best hawker food.
These early experiences made a deep impression on him.
He says he wants to do something to keep the tradition alive, and he gets a big kick when customers tell him how good his dishes are.
You need passion to be doing this because the economics is all wrong.
[Yes it is. But in the past the economics was right. So, do we hope to have enough people with passion, or do we fix the economics of the hawker culture? Right. Passion it is.]
Monthly takings: $12,000
Cost of ingredients (fish, rice, vegetables, etc): $6,000
That leaves $3,000 for his monthly income, assuming he does everything himself. If he hires an assistant, he is left with around $1,500 - half of what a taxi driver might make.
This is what he says: "That's it, for all the work - morning market run, preparations, cooking, serving, washing, all in a hot environment, 12-hour days - my stall closes every other Saturday, so that is only two rest days a month. And when costs go up seasonally, bad fish haul, vegetable prices up due to bad weather... the price of hawker food is the only one expected to stay constant. People will complain if it goes up 50 cents."
Mr Ng told me that since he started, he has not paid himself more than $1,000 a month.
No business operating with these numbers can hope to survive for long in Singapore.
The reason large numbers of the older generation of hawkers are able to carry on is that they enjoy heavily subsidised rentals from the Government, and so can charge $3, even $2.50, for a bowl of noodles.
But they are getting on, and many will retire soon.
[And many are semi-retired. They work half a day, earn enough to cover rent, ingredients and earn a little pocket money, and then they close shop for the day. A Hokkien mee stall at a nearby hawker centre used to open every day, up to 10 pm or later. Over the years, it has been closing earlier and earlier. Rare days-off became more frequent, and now it is regular weekly day off on Monday. Now they don't bother to operate beyond lunch time. Why work so hard? The children are grown, graduated and married, and the hawker doesn't need so much money. So take it easy.]
Very few of their children are likely to want to take over, which leaves people like Mr Ng and my fish soup friend, but they will need more than passion to pay those market rentals.
Should the Government do more to support and save this dying business?
Can they be offered subsidised rentals, or grants, in the same way other start-ups and SMEs are helped?
If these independent operators cannot make a go of it, hawker food might still survive, but it will be dominated by food businesses dishing out mass-produced mee pok in air-conditioned foodcourts.
Even with financial assistance, people like Mr Ng have to find new ways of working the business that are more in sync with the times, with new ideas that appeal to their generation.
I do not know what a hawker centre might look like in 20 years, or who will be the people running it.
I do know that the answer lies with younger people doing different things as they try to reinvent the business.
Hopefully, a few will find the right business model and pave the way for others.
But they need help now.
Here is another worry... from Britain:
Britons Perturbed by a Troubling Shortage of Curry Chefs
The first generation of curry chefs who opened restaurants in the 1960s were mostly from East Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh, and are now retiring, but they cannot find cooks to replace them, Mr. Khan said. Younger, better-educated and more assimilated British Asians are reluctant to take on the family business because of the grueling hours and low pay.
And maybe in the future, if we want authentic Hainanese Chicken Rice, we need to go to Shanghai:
How a Singaporean started a chicken rice war in Shanghai
BY ALYWIN CHEW -
SHANGHAI — While celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is milking his hawker centre concept featuring Singapore street food, among others, in New York City for all it’s worth, restaurateurs in China’s most populous and cosmopolitan city have been battling to meet demand for one of Singapore’s ubiquitous delicacies: Hainanese chicken rice.
Stalls have been popping up across the city and the locals have no qualms joining long queues for a taste of the dish. And it’s all thanks to a Singaporean named Xander Ang, widely regarded as the first person to introduce the concept of a stand-alone, independent chicken rice shop to Shanghai.
“I don’t know what I’ve done. A war is about to start,” sighed the 32-year-old chef.
Amusingly, some of these businesses have even adopted the names of some of Singapore’s most revered hawker legends. Sure, many Asian restaurants in Shanghai have been selling Hainanese chicken rice as part of their menus for many years, but Ang, who opened Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice in Shanghai’s Jingan district with a few family members and Chinese investors last January, struck gold.
Just to clarify, Ang’s Five Star establishment has nothing to do with Singapore’s famous chicken rice restaurant at East Coast.
“I didn’t want to call it Five Star,” claimed Ang, citing the need for integrity when doing business. “But my Chinese partners didn’t (seem to mind) having the same name as another brand in Singapore.”
(It should be noted that the “copycat mentality” is so notorious in China that even its President Xi Jinping has, in recent times, advocated the importance of originality and innovation.)
Still, it didn’t stop at least two other eateries in Shanghai from sporting the exact same red interiors and black-and-gold signboard as Five Star.
“I’ve created a disaster. Now the Chinese think that specialised chicken rice shops must come with red interiors and a signboard just like the one at my first outlet. It’s like they think everything must be the same as Five Star,” he said.
One of these shops is Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, located along Guangdong Road, which opened in July. No, it is also not affiliated to the famous stall of the same name at Maxwell Food Centre in Singapore. Rather, it is run by a 24-year-old local named Cheng Long Yuan, who previously worked at Five Star.
Why name his shop as such? “You know, because there’s a Tian Tian in Singapore, just like Five Star,” quipped Cheng.
Cheng said that while Shanghainese people have always liked eating poached chickens (or wen chang chicken), their poultry comes with a deep yellow skin and is distinctively tougher than the Singapore version. He also has plans to expand in the near future, seeing how business has been rather brisk. With poultry and labour being relatively cheap in China, the profit margins can get pretty high, pretty fast.
But for Ang, money isn’t everything. He left the business in the middle of this year after clashing with his Chinese partners over creative direction and brand management.
“I didn’t agree to open a second branch and that’s why relationships splintered. They wanted to franchise it fast but I wanted it to mature. I believe if you build the brand slowly before expanding, people will respect you and patronise no matter where you go next time,” he said. “They didn’t want that. They wanted the Chinese style — super fast expansion, grab the money and go.”
But Ang has re-entered the dining fray, with another chicken rice establishment which he claims is “uncopiable”: Mr Ang’s Chicken Rice. (Its Chinese name is Hong Xing, named after the gang in a blockbuster Hong Kong movie — Young And Dangerous.)
Located in a food mall in Pudong, the business has a simple shop front that is anchored by an open-concept kitchen. Besides chicken rice, the shop also serves familiar Singapore favourites such as laksa, teh tarik and kaya toast. But Ang is not looking to build an empire, nor does he see chicken rice as a ticket to quick fame and riches — although he conceded he might open another one or two more outlets in Shanghai.
“I’ve figured this out after 10 years in the business: All you need is to be passionate about the food,” he said. “This business is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to enjoy yourself and not think about the profits too much. The money will naturally come.”
Ang is not the only Singaporean in Shanghai offering a truly authentic plate of chicken rice. Sergeant Hainanese Chicken Rice, which operates under the Singapore-owned Food Republic banner, actually made its debut in Shanghai in 2013. In September, Ang’s friend Sammy Teo, who was also formerly from Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre (SHATEC), opened Bugis Chicken Rice at Zhenning Road.
If there is one thing that sets these Singaporeans apart from their Chinese competitors, it is their ability to deliver consistency. At Sergeant Chicken Rice, there are Singaporeans on the ground to ensure quality.
“The great taste is a result of our collective effort and teamwork. We have hired and trained Singaporean chefs to be based in Shanghai over the long term — maintaining our high standards in food quality and safety,” said a Food Republic spokesperson, who added that the brand will be opening more outlets in the near future.
Over at Ang’s outlet, the flavours presented were utterly spot-on, probably because Ang personally pulled the teh tarik, buttered the kaya toasts, chopped the chickens and mixed the chilli. It would be safe to assume that Singaporeans in Shanghai looking for a hearty comforting meal can always trust a fellow Singaporean to get the flavours right.
“The local cooks here cannot grasp the concept of our type of chicken rice. Most of them have never tasted it before. They always get the chilli sauce wrong,” said Ang.
“This is the food that we Singaporeans grow up with. You just don’t forget the taste.”