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May 17, 2013 09:15 AM

Singapore - Hawker food heritage on the wane

Interesting article on BBC about Singapore's "endangered" hawker food scene:

A very common refrain among Singaporeans is that "this stall's food doesn't taste as good as before" - as cooking skills honed through the years by the "old masters" generally do *not* get passed down to the younger generation, as many Singaporeans do not see selling street food as a viable career option.

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    1. re: Steve

      My take? Singapore hawker food has been on the wane *ever since* the early 1980s, when the government moved all the hawkers from the streets into the so-called food centres. At the time, some itinerant hawkers continue to peddle their wares illegally - preferring the freedom of moving around different neighbourhoods where they have their regular clientele, playing hide-and-seek with the cops. But the number of old hawkers who hung up their woks, pots and pans were too numerous to count. Within a decade, much of Singapore's hawker heritage was wiped off.

      What we have today - the so-called "Hawker Masters" scattered here and there across the island were mere stragglers, left over from a more vibrant, richer era of street food hawking.

      *No* food blogger or food writer in Singapore who hasn't lived through at least the 70s era deserve to comment on what I'd term *real* Singapore hawker food - a time when charcoal braziers hold sway, pork lard were dispensed freely, and hawkers refined their trade through decades of back-breaking work. Most younger food bloggers in Singapore today are more interested in pointing their DSLRs at the food anyway.

      To get a taste of *real* hawker food - the type we used to have in Singapore - ignore the Singapore Tourism Board advertisements. Instead, go to Penang, Malaysia, up north.

      1. re: klyeoh

        Thanks so much for the reply. So Penang maintains (at least for now) quite a bit of the 'good old days?'

        And is it still possible, despite the massive dropoff, to experience some of that in Singapore, with effort and tenacity? Or is it gone with the wind?

        1. re: Steve

          You can, but they are generally scattered all over the island - for example, fried carrot cake at Tanglin Halt, Hainanese curry chicken rice at Maxwell Rd food centre, Lor Mee at Amoy Street food centre, chwee kueh and also pig's organ soup at Tiong Bahru food centre, Katong Laksa at Roxy Square - you'll need to zig-zag all over the city to pick out one "dominant" well-established stall in each food centre, unlike in Penang's Kimberley Street or MacAlister Road, or Ipoh's Kong Heng and Thean Chun coffeeshops where 4-5 famous stalls congregate and you really can't go wrong ordering from all of them.

          1. re: klyeoh

            It's true that Ipoh is doing far better at the moment than Singapore, but we must also remember that Malaysia (especially the non-central cities such as Ipoh) is about a generation behind Singapore in terms of relative affluence, etc.

            I'm not sure our discussion will be the same in 15-20 years when the children of Ipoh's successful hawkers have completed their educations, and the hawkers themselves are thinking of calling it a day. I am already noticing a slight decline in Ipoh standards in recent years, albeit it is still light years ahead of Singapore.

        2. re: klyeoh

          I wonder if all countries street foods go the same way. Think of Fish & Chips in the UK or Burgers in the US. Once ubiquitous and good, then packaged and mass market and poor, then revived and take up-market to regain their former glories albeit at a price. I suspect Sing is in the second phase - look forward to the third.

          1. re: PhilD

            British food, esp the trad ones are on the up & up, PhilD. And the newer incarnations are invariably much better than the ones we'd remember from our childhood or teen years. There's never been a better time to dine out in London as *now*!

            1. re: klyeoh

              I think that's what I said - Britain is in the third phase, they have been revived but have headed up-market.

            2. re: PhilD

              I am not convinced that burgers have anything to do with street food nor that your burger 'arc' is correct. Former glory? Burgers have long been the staple of diners and other cheap places with bathrooms, where quality was never a factor. Purely well-done and greasy.

              Has street food elsewhere gone upscale? Pockets, perhaps, but still plenty of cheap street food with inexpensive ingredients anywhere that has the tradition, so I'm not sure that applies.

              1. re: Steve

       why do so many trendy restaurants try to recreate the classic burger? The holy grail is to recreate the perfectly greasy burger with the perfect dressings to get that old fashioned feel. Out with the wagyu and exotic cheese, back to basics.

                Yes there is till street food, but as Klyeoh points out its declining in Singapore as the next generation head into lucatrative city careers. It's going to happen in Thailand and Vietnam with the modernising of education over the last ten to twenty years and the boost to the economies. Next will be Myanmar and Cambodia which ar both seeing inward investment.

                And once these new middle classes establish they will hanker back to foods of their youth and restaurants will respond with authentic street food (although they probably go through the foriegn food phase first - think the poppularity of European restaurants in Delhi, Singapore, Beijing et etc amongst the middle classes).

                Pass that spare Momofuku pork slider please.......

                1. re: PhilD

                  The burger was never street food in the first place, whether you find it updated in some restaurants or not. You implied an arc about street food and burgers and tried to fit that into your theory about street food all over the world. Meanwhile, burgers are everywhere at all price points, and pricey 'chopped steak' sandwiches in expensive steakhouses were on the menu sine the 1960s.

                  BTW, almost all upscale restaurants are trendy, or haven't you noticed? Unless you can still find fish wrapped in a potato crust at Daniel.....

                  Also, I am not sure that the idea of a complete demographic transition which you envision for Vietnam or Thailand will look the same as Singapore. That's not the case in South Korea.

                  Even in China, there's still a big difference between visiting Bejing and Lanzhou.

                  1. re: Steve

                    Steve - when is food street food really street food? Is it really a literal description, does it need to be eaten on the street, does it need to be cooked on the street, or is it a dysphemism for cheap fast food that can be consumed on the run.

                    I tend to use the term broadly, literal street food cultures only really exist if you have the climate for it. But lots of places have "street food". A chippy in England that asks "open or wrapped" - do we discount this because its not cooked on the street, yet is often eaten on the way home from the pub? Is a Cornish pasty street food, despite it being prepared in a fixed kitchen, and sold in a bakery? Is a meal eaten sitting on a plastic stool on a muddy road in Hanoi, but cooked in a shophouse kitchen in a bricks and mortar building street food?

                    I see burgers in the US to be analogous to street food in other cultures, in Spain it would be the Tapas culture, in Germany the bratwurst, one often eaten standing on a street outside a bar, the other cooked and bought in a shop. Its cheap its fast and its culturally rooted in those countries.

                    As a definition street food is fluid: there are burger vans, pizza stalls in markets, kebab vans, grilled cheese sandwich stands, taco carts, hawker centres, dai pai dongs. What makes it street food? Is it because its historically sold on the street, or because its now sold on the street?

                    So that's why I came to my conclusion - street food is a fluid concept. My point is about traditional culturally rooted foods, in a way the food of the streets (slightly different demographic emphasis than street food) are fading away as generations shift. But then get rediscovered as those generations who moved on hanker for their past.

                    And my demographic conclusion, well it may happen it may not, the Asian Tiger boom was derailed in the dotcom bust with KL stagnating, so lots of economies can change. Of course Lanzhou is behind Beijing, but China's macro economic policy of moving investment from the East to the West (Chongqing and Chengdu) will change things rapidly in these towns - and the street food in Chengdu is already being sanitised in centres "tourist villages". Lanzhou recently announced a US$160 billion infrastructure investment project so things will change.

                    And no I don't agree all upscale restaurants are trendy. Many are staunchly traditional, at least many of the ones I have been to are.

                    You also seem to miss my burger point, its not that they are in better restaurants, its that he better restaurants are now trying to get back to the "greasy" street food burgers rather than fine dining wagyu and foie gras burgers. Burgers had gone upmarket - were clean and refined - and were chaffy. Now to be cheffy a burger needs to be dirty, messy and sloppy..

                    1. re: PhilD

                      I have never heard of any place that has a private bathroom described as 'street food.'

                      Fast food places have a very different mantra than street food. They are based on serving hundreds of people in a factory-like automated setting the exact same product with zero deviation each time. The customers prize blandness and familiarity. They will even pay more for that than for the Bolivian saltena place down the street or the sandwich shop for banh mi, both of which are cheaper and quicker. This is nothing like the street food scene where a stall or truck that does something special or takes better care will develop a line so that people might have to wait to get better food.

                      Forcing analogies is pointless.

                      And I sure hope that $160 billion pays for some mass transit in Lanzhou.

                      1. re: Steve

                        I thought Hawker Centres had toilets, or at least the ones I have been to in Singapore and Penang. So by that definition they aren't street food. I stand corrected.

                        1. re: PhilD

                          Every hawker stand has a private toilet? Wow, that's impressive. Unless the meaning of private has changed.

                          I get the point that, once you congregate all the hawker stands indoors, it isn't necessarily street food anymore, any more than the food court at a shopping mall is street food. I have no problem with that.

                          Maybe one day all street food all over the world will be indoors, air-conditioned, and served by corporations with waiters and tasting menus. Until then, I am fully ok with the idea of 'street food' being outside in a street or alley with only a few makeshift seats, no private bathrooms.

        3. Well, I had dinner in a mix and match from a number of stalls at Lau Pa Sat just tonight, and if the hawker food culture is "waning", there was no evidence of that being the case... Compared to Hong Kong, where it really has taken a major hit.

          By the way, I realized just tonight that this stuff isn't really that cheap, even though it is served in a down-home setting. But it's delicious all the same.

          9 Replies
          1. re: Uncle Yabai

            i dont think its the availability of street food that is the issue (that is the issue in hong kong), but rather the quality of the street food available in singapore now, which many older people say has declined hugely. its hard for me judge since im not nearly old enough to know and i only started going to singapore starting in 02 when i lived there.

            however, from what i can tell they are right, the older experienced hawkers are retiring and singapore is an affluent country with much much better career choices for younger people. a younger singaporean taking a white collar job would work less, have better hours and make multiples of what you would make as a hawker --> not a recipe for keeping the traditions alive

            the only way you could fix this is if you raised hawker prices so that they could make a better living, but singaporeans complain awfully about pricing (kind of ridiculous bc they are literally complaining about like $3 char kway teow), so i doubt that will work

            1. re: Uncle Yabai

              Also, you would have noticed that there are a lot of "foreign" cuisines represented at Lau Pa Sat - Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean, Filipino, Italian, etc. That, to me, is the strongest indicator of the decline of hawker food culture.

              1. re: Julian Teoh

                I've never regarded Lau Pa Sat as a place for good hawker food anyway. The only thing going for it was that it opens into the wee hours of the morning, allowing party-goers and tourists transiting overnight in Singapore to have a taste of "local flavour".

                1. re: M_Gomez

                  Hi M_Gomez. Totally agreed.

                  There were a couple (as in, literally two) of good vendors there, whom I used to frequent. One of them moved to a place much closer to my work, so I haven't visited Lau Pa Sat for some time now, not counting taking my overseas guests to "satay street".

              2. re: Uncle Yabai

                Quick update: Lau Pa Sat, which closed down on 1 Sep 2013 for a S$4 million renovation and originally slated to re-open on 1 Dec 2013, has run into some major snags. The whole place was still in a mess when I passed by last weekend - cannot confirm re-opening date yet.

                1. re: klyeoh

                  oh really? i wonder what happened

                  1. re: Lau

                    As per Channel News Asia (

                    "Renovations at popular downtown hawker centre Lau Pa Sat have been delayed due to the need for repair works on underground water pipes and drainage systems."

                    1. re: klyeoh

                      I have not stepped into that part of the city for a long time. Lau Pa Sat always seem so "foreign" to me, with a lot of food meant for lunch-time office crowd.

                      1. re: M_Gomez

                        yah i dont think lau pa sat was exactly the greatest hawker center or anything, but it was clearly very well known and in a very central part of the city, so would be weird without it