By Kenneth Lim
01 Apr 2016
SINGAPORE: After three months of frying kway teow at the new Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, hawker Tan Key Hua decided to buy another stove. However, it is not just because he is selling twice as many plates as before.
"I can cook on one and use the other to teach others my recipes and methods,” Mr Tan said in Mandarin. “I'm already about 66. I hope some young people can get to know me and my business. My stall is named Father and Son because I want to impart my craft and my food to the next generation."
[Good idea. Too bad no one's taking you up on it. Even the official hawker master training programme is only half filled. And this was in 2014. It is probably dead or nearly dead by now.]
But Mr Tan said he is not likely to hang up his wok anytime soon. He and other hawkers at Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre are finding it easier to do business with the flexibility given to them to run their operations.
NTUC Foodfare, which runs Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, said it is able to attract experienced hands like Mr Tan because of the way it chooses its stall operators.
"When we deviate the tender criteria from solely focusing on rental to looking at also concepts, variety and food taste, we actually help to attract a group of ex-hawkers who actually left the trade because of escalating overheads,” said Mr Sam Lee, head of NTUC Foodfare Co-operative's Hawker Centre Unit.
"After all it's bidding, you bid it at your own comfort zone,” added another hawker, Mr Benjamin Aw. “So if your comfort zone is much more, you go ahead, but (if) after your calculations you think you can't make it, you just bid at a lower price.”
TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE: PARTNERSHIPS ENCOURAGED
To help hawkers manage better, Mr Lee said Foodfare also allows them to form partnerships, to cover both day and night operations and share operating costs.
"Usually when hawkers operate their stalls, they rely on themselves and family members to assist,” Mr Lee said.
"In cases whereby they need to operate for longer hours, to cater for the day or night crowd, extending their operating hours will also help them increase their income. But they face the challenge in getting good help because they can't do it all on their own. Foodfare, by allowing this flexibility to the hawkers, gives them another option when they face this dilemma," he added.
Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre was thrust into the spotlight last year when hawker Douglas Ng posted an open letter on Facebook. Mr Ng, who currently runs his fishball noodle stall at the National University of Singapore's University Town, said the minimum price set for every stall could be why some were not confident of bidding for a stall at the hawker centre.
Then-Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan responded to Mr Ng, outlining the ways authorities have reduced rental costs for hawkers. He also encouraged Mr Ng, as well as potential hawkers, to do their calculations carefully and not submit high bids for a stall there.
Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre is one of the first of 20 new hawker centres to be built over the next few years. The aim is to supply more than 800 food stalls, which authorities said will help keep food prices affordable, and further moderate rental costs.
The 24-hour hawker centre within Ci Yuan Community Club is also run by a social enterprise, a subsidiary of Fei Siong Group. To retain and attract more hawkers, the centre offers a three-year entrepreneurship programme to help new hawkers learn the ropes.
The problem is the endurance of our Hawker Culture - how to make sure that our hawker culture will last a long time.
The only solution that we can think of is... lower rent.
And with lower rent (or rather not solely focusing on rent) in Bt Panjang hawker centre, the centre has been able to ensure that Singapore's Hawker Culture will last a long time because they have attracted.... ex-hawkers.
Hello? Is that right?
I am glad that ex-hawkers who had hung up their wok and ladle when the going got too tough, have been enticed back to Bt Panjang because of the more flexible tender criteria (where rent is not the most important thing). And for ex-hawkers who want to continue to ply their trade, and for people who have a chance to taste their fare, it is all good. I am glad.
But seriously, this is not going to make our hawker culture last longer. What happens when these old hawkers die off?
Oh wait, there is talk about passing on their skills to the next generation. Like Mr Tan of "Father and Son" fried kway teow stall.
Except... there is no mention of his son. No picture. No interview with the next generation. Guess what? I don't think there is anyone learning to take over the stall.
So this is all... okay not all wayang. At least some ex-hawkers can come back and ply their trade and people can still enjoy their good food.
On the part of NTUC Foodfare, they can meet the immediate KPIs and pretend that they have help solved the problem.
They have done no such thing.
Hawkers are a dying breed, and our hawker culture is fading fast unless there is fresh blood willing to make hawkering their life. And few would want to. It's like asking who would like to send their 4 year old son to the Shaolin Temple to learn kungfu.
Singaporeans have better options.