A Food-Loving Nation’s Dilemma – A Brief History

With thanks to immigrants, Singapore has become a palate-stimulating experience when it comes to cuisine and food choices. Early settlers came mainly from lands such as Europe (Singapore was under British colonial rule for a significant number of years), China, India and the Malay Archipelago. This blend of people, cultures and practices also brought along a large variety of food and flavours. Most, if not all, of what we now know and recognise as “Singapore food” had major influences from the immigrants who came from the aforementioned countries and regions. Tons of street hawkers peddled their humble wares to anyone and everyone who had a tummy to fill.

History of Singapore’s hawker centres

  • Many migrants in the 1950s and early 1960s took up street hawking
  • The Singaporean government became concerned about hygiene standards and conducted an island-wide registration of street hawkers from 1968-1969
  • The government started building food courts with cleaning facilities and basic amenities in the 1970s
  • All street food traders were relocated into newly built hawker centres close to residential areas in the 1980s

(Source: National Environment Agency; Daniel Wang, former Public Health Commissioner)

Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre

Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre

As of late, there has been an abundance of discussions on social media, both online and offline forums and news reports regarding the future of Singapore’s hawker heritage. Other than our parents (and perhaps grandparents), hawkers are the ones who have – quite literally – fed millions of locals such as myself. A hawker centre has the unspoken ability to attract people from all walks of life (as well as people from all over the world). From the fragrant nasi lemak to the a tall glass of thirst-quenching sugar cane juice, savoury hokkien mee to a rich and frothy teh tarik, these dishes and its creators have a part to play in what our food culture has become today. The hawker centre is a multi-sensory experience that we locals often take for granted, and – in my humble opinion – one which each and every Singaporean has the obligation to preserve.

Now, more than two decades after the introduction of hawker centres, the pioneering batch of officially registered hawkers are close to calling it quits as age inevitably catches up with them. While a small number are fortunate to have their children and other younger family members helm their stalls’ name and legacy for at least another decade or so, numerous others are considering closing shop for good. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post; if the French and Italians can pride and give support to their brasseries and ristorantes respectively, why can’t another food-loving nation do the same with regards to its own food culture’s establishments?


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