Hawker stalls islandwide to get Unesco intangible cultural heritage label

SINGAPORE – About 6,000 hawkers in more than 110 hawker centres across Singapore will, in the coming weeks, receive a label indicating their new Unesco intangible cultural heritage status.

It will be a show of appreciation for, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it, “nourishing a nation’s stomach and spirits”.

They will be able to stick the label on their stall fronts as Singapore’s hawker culture was officially added to the Unesco intangible cultural heritage list on Wednesday (Dec 16).

The cultural milestone for Singapore – hawker culture being its first inscription on the list – is expected to increase the visibility of the country’s food culture on the world map.

Hawkers expressed their hope that it will translate into concrete results, attracting tourists after the pandemic and more young people into the trade.

Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, together with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, kicked off the decal-giving campaign on Thursday afternoon at Ghim Moh food centre.

Ms Fu, whose ministry oversees the hawker centres, said the Unesco recognition gives Singapore, “a very young country… something to anchor our national identity with”.

“(Hawker centres) didn’t close throughout the pandemic and provided very essential food, nourishment and also a bit of a social anchoring for Singaporeans,” she said.

“It’s one common culture… whether you are a CEO of a company or you are just another ordinary Singaporean… I think this inscription is a call for all Singaporeans to step forward, to help us promote, sustain this culture.

“They can do so by recommending good food to one another (and) to their friends abroad. They can also help us keep the place clean after they have used the place because we do want this place to be one we are proud of.”

Mr Tong, who delivered short remarks in a pre-recorded video to the international community on Wednesday night after Singapore achieved the recognition, also said the inscription has relevance to both hawkers and other Singaporeans.

“Hawker culture is so much more than just about the food. It tells us a bit about the history, the heritage of the food and where it comes from. It’s also a gathering point for people from all walks of life,” he said.

“I think that is something we should cherish. It’s a very beautiful symbol of what we are as a country.”

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Madam Muthuletchmi, who has sold South Indian food as a hawker for 27 years, said the Unesco recognition made her feel seen. She said the daily transactions at her store can be quite impersonal and can make her feel taken for granted.

Over the years, she has made changes to her traditional South Indian fare, for example adding cheese to her thosai. She said change is only natural, as the trade evolves with the entry of more young people.

Her son will succeed her in the business, and the Unesco win puts him in a better position.

“I get tired or worn out because it’s very hard, very hot, and when you are young you have more energy,” she said. “I wanted to give (it) up, then my son stepped in. He said ‘Don’t worry, I can do it’, and now he is doing better than me.”

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong and Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu kicked off the decal-giving campaign at Ghim Moh food centre. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Ms Amber Pong, 30, chose to enter the business, as she finds it satisfying. She sells cakes at Ghim Moh food centre and said she chose to open a hawker stall rather than a bakery or cafe because she enjoys meeting people of all ages and ethnicities.

“Why did I want to be a hawker? I grew up visiting hawker centres at least three times a week and felt very comfortable. Having my stall in a hawker centre makes it very accessible for all kinds of people to buy my cakes,” she said.

Before becoming a hawker, she was a marketing executive. She went to Australia to work as a pastry chef in Melbourne for a year to gain experience before opening her own hawker stall in January this year.

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Fishball noodle hawker Tom Loo is less impressed by the Unesco recognition. He was unaware of it and said hawkers are more preoccupied daily with paying the rent and taxes.

He said the best way to keep hawkers in business is to make sure costs remain low, as even a small increase can hurt them, especially when these cannot be passed on to consumers.

“We have to keep the price just right. If costs increase, people will have to pay more,” he said.

Singaporean food critic K.F. Seetoh pointed out that other stakeholders will now have to actively leverage the Unesco recognition to make it count for the hawkers. He said those involved will have to look at new possibilities in trade, tourism, education, as well as a hawkers’ museum and food festival that both Singaporeans and visitors can connect with.

He said: “When the airport doors reopen, the world will come hungry, and with a vengeance… It’s no longer just about what and where to eat but also what are the stories and opportunities behind this makan culture.”

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