Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

A drawing by a student from Riverside Secondary School, depicting the variety of food and common terms heard at hawker centers © Riverside Secondary School, Singaporeb

Community Dining Rooms: Hawker Culture in Singapore

Hawker culture in Singapore comprises hawker centers, hawkers, and hawker food. It is a living heritage shared by those who prepare hawker food and those who dine and mingle over hawker food in “community dining rooms” called hawker centers. It encompasses people from all walks of life, a wide range of affordable multicultural food, and common shared spaces. While similar food practices can be found in neighboring countries and internationally, they each have their respective historical contexts, cultural influences, and sociocultural functions.
Hawker centers in Singapore are naturally ventilated premises that are accessible and integral to the everyday lives of people in Singapore. Hawker stalls, selling food from different cultures, usually line both sides of the center, with an open communal dining space in the middle. At a typical hawker center, one can often experience sights and sounds, such as the sizzling of wok fire and rising steam from boiling pots, as hawkers whip up freshly cooked, made-to-order dishes at their hawker stalls. It is common to hear friendly exchanges between hawkers and patrons in the various languages spoken in Singapore, over a bustling atmosphere as families, colleagues and friends chat and bond over hawker meals.

Hawkers in Singapore

In Singapore, the setting in which hawkers prepare food has changed over the years. The term “hawker” that we use in Singapore today draws reference from the traveling hawkers of early Singapore who plied the streets in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During those times, hawkers transported their goods in varied manners, ranging from baskets attached to poles and carried on shoulders, to more elaborate forms such as tricycles or pushcarts fixed with cooking equipment to be moved around.

During the formative years of Singapore’s independence, hawkers and local communities in Singapore, with the government’s assistance, came together to develop hawker centers, to sustain livelihoods for hawkers and provide affordable food for the population in a hygienic environment. Over the generations, many hawkers work unrelentingly, taking pride in preparing their best versions of signature hawker dishes for people to enjoy. Some hawkers pass down recipes and techniques within families, or to apprentices, who continue to upkeep traditions and hone their culinary practices through generations. Some may further innovate by refining recipes or practices, or even injecting new ideas, to cater to the needs of Singapore’s evolving society.
The hawker community is multicultural and reflects the character of Singapore as an immigrant society comprising Chinese, Malay, Indian, and many other diverse communities. Since the early days, hawkers carved out livelihoods through the sheer spirit of entrepreneurialism, perseverance, and dedication in honing their craft. Hawker food has also catered to Singapore’s multicultural society, and many hawkers have innovated to create dishes with cross-cultural influences.

Communities in Singapore and Community Dining

In addition to the hawker community, various communities across Singapore, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background partake in hawker culture. With over 110 hawker centers located across residential, recreation and work districts in Singapore, making them easily accessible at any time of the day, hawker culture lies at the heart of everyday life for the diverse communities in Singapore. Many families see hawker centers as extensions of their homes, and some enjoy close relationships with the hawkers they frequent, while colleagues and friends also frequent hawker centers for meals.

Today, hawker centers serve as “community dining rooms,” where people from all walks of life gather and dine. It is common to see people from different segments of society queuing at the same hawker stall and for strangers to share the same table at hawker centers. Friends, neighbors, the elderly, and the young, etc. may gather at hawker centers after meals for chats and activities, such as chess-playing, busking, and art-jamming.

Safeguarding of Hawker Culture in Singapore: A Collaborative Effort

Through the years, individuals, private and public sectors, community organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and educational institutions continue to look into different means of safeguarding and promoting hawker culture in Singapore.

A sizable number of community groups, comprising Singaporeans from diverse backgrounds, are involved in safeguarding hawker culture. The Federation of Merchants’ Associations, Singapore, (FMAS), a non-profit organization, works with the hawkers’ associations and representatives from hawker centers to champion the interests of hawkers and safeguard hawker culture.

FMAS organizes many programs that provide hawkers with a chance to network with one another and serves as a conduit between hawkers and government agencies. FMAS also organizes events to raise awareness among the general public about the hawker practice, amplifying the voices of hawkers and keeping the public informed about how they can help safeguard hawker culture.

Colleagues and friends gather at a hawker center to enjoy a hawker meal together © National Heritage Board, Singapore

At the community level, many community organizations and NGOs also organize activities that contribute to the zeitgeist of modern hawker culture. For example, The Birthday Collective seeks to safeguard hawker culture by documenting the recipes and practices of hawkers as well as “hawker terminology,” words that people commonly use in hawker centers.
Among government agencies, the National Environment Agency is the key government agency reviewing and implementing policies relating to hawkers and managing and enhancing Singapore’s hawker centers. It partners with institutions to organize training classes and implements the “Incubation Stall Programme,” facilitating aspiring hawkers to join the hawker practice. It also introduced the “Vibrant Hawker Centres” program, providing grants to the public to organize activities such as workshops and performances to enhance hawker centers as social spaces and foster community spirit.

Lastly, educational institutions also contribute to the safeguarding and promotion of hawker culture. These range from primary and secondary schools, where students embark on projects that seek to foster greater appreciation of hawker culture, such as documenting the different types of hawker food and the history of hawkers, to specialized culinary training institutions such as At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy, where students are taught how to cook hawker dishes alongside other Eastern and Western fine-dining dishes. Thus, students gain a deeper understanding of Singapore’s hawker culture and the importance of safeguarding and promoting hawker culture from a young age.

Hawker culture in Singapore continues to grow and evolve with the changing needs of Singaporeans. While hawker centers are still the go-to place for quick and affordable local meals, hawkers continue to grow their practice by catering to a more globalized palette, introducing food from other new immigrant communities like Thai, Japanese, and Korean and creating innovative fusion cuisine. The enthusiasm of young hawkers in promoting and sustaining the industry, the community initiatives documenting hawker culture and many other collaborative efforts by various communities, groups, and individuals, show the important place of hawker culture in the hearts of Singaporeans and will help ensure that the hawker culture in Singapore will be here to stay for many generations to come.