Category Archives: A Food-Loving Nation’s Dilemma

A Food-Loving Nation’s Dilemma – Everybody Suffers When Landlords Become Greedy

Photo credit:

Yet another impending closure of a local eatery at the end of this month has left a very bad taste in many mouths. Nasi Padang River Valley is yet another Singapore eatery that has fallen victim to the greedy-landlord-syndrome. Word is out that the money-infatuated landlords have increased the stall’s rent by 300%. Yes, a ridiculous and eye-watering three hundred percent. This brings about a relatively shocking and disgustingly crude illustration about living off others – quite literally.

So, without the financial means to meet that absurd figure, it will mean that over half a decade of food and memories looks set to be gone – all because of the landlord’s unhealthy desire and obsession of what can only be described as monetary glut.

Someone Needs To Step In

Echoing famed Singapore food campaigner KF Seetoh, I believe it’s about bloody time somebody steps in to quell this madness of unwarranted rent increases that verges on bullying and a just-because-I-can attitude exhibited by landlords. Though agreements and discussions between landlords and tenants are usually deemed private, something urgent needs to be done to curb such acts of blatant profiteering at the expense of people who are just out to earn a living. Additionally, it doesn’t take a marketing or finance graduate to see that the trend of increasing rent costs would open the floodgates to many more copycat landlords who will mete out similar demands to their tenants; often under the (groundless and copycat) guise of “increased costs of utilities and such-and-such”. As a whole, F&B businesses in Singapore (from hawker stalls, to coffeeshops, and even “hip” and “high-end” restaurants) are lamenting the increased (and continually increasing) cost of rent.

What Can Be Done

Lines need to be drawn to demarcate and distinguish areas of real estate pertaining to food and beverage (F&B) businesses, away from residential and commercial sites. “Market forces” and other related jargons should not affect the former’s territories. The authoritative body in charge of overseeing this should be helmed and run (a.k.a. taking full responsibility) by an entity – and people within the entity – with prior knowledge and understanding of the needs of F&B establishments, coupled with powers related to the well-being (as a whole) of the areas under their purview. For a start, urgent action must be taken to address and subsequently suppress the current state of uncapped rental hikes and spikes.

The establishment of such an association would be highly beneficial, reassuring, and encouraging to both current and potential individuals or small businesses to want to improve on and/or initiate their own F&B establishments. By knowing that one of many financial-related issues is taken care of, this would then allow them to concentrate better on their core offering of food, among other underlying factors. Additionally, it would solidify the country’s claim to fame of being a food haven as concrete and serious.

Alas, all this depends, on the current government and the respective authoritative bodies – a factor that KF Seetoh (and many other Singaporeans) can relate to; because “it always starts and ends with them”.

Related reads:
It’s Time To “Take a Break”
High Rents Hit Small Businesses
A Food-Loving Nation’s Dilemma – Another One Bites The Dust


A Food-Loving Nation’s Dilemma – Don’t Be Afraid to Question Authority

Photo credit: Daniel Goh

Daniel Goh’s inquisitive nature seems to have catapulted him into stardom (hawker hero, anyone?). A now-viral photo he uploaded onto Facebook which shows the “Conditions of Licence” for a hawker is coupled with a caption which questions the ambiguity and existence of an “archaic rule” forced upon hawkers. What made it even better (I may be jumping the gun on this), is that environment minister Vivian Balakrishnan reacted almost immediately and “instructed NEA to remove this archaic rule from the hawker stall licence with immediate effect”. Following which, the ministry stated in the papers that the rule was in place “to ensure zhi char stalls had proper equipment to deal with smoke”. I don’t know about you, but sometimes, knowing the supposed truth about why something that shouldn’t have happened, well, happened, doesn’t make me feel any better than the experience (or thought) of the said thing happening in the first place (read: repeated reasons excuses for the increasing number of train breakdowns in Singapore; didn’t anyone tell them about learning from mistakes and NOT repeating them?!). But I digress.

I first learned about this “archaic rule” during the Youth Hawkerprise workshop last year. Suffice to say, the NEA‘s representative (an anonymously named “NEA Officer”; as published on the event’s official (but now defunct) page) failed to properly and convincingly address the aforementioned rule (conveniently and coincidentally, as opposed to other speakers at the workshop event, the video of the “NEA Officer”‘s speech/presentation isn’t listed on the Youth Hawkerprise YouTube channel either). Other than ambiguity, such rules only serve to discourage and deter potential chefs and cooks from venturing into the food and beverage industry; particularly in the hawker/hawking “sub-division”.

Let’s hope that this step in eradicating outdated and ridiculous rules shall pave a way for much more glorious days for our hawker culture. Maybe they can follow up with looking into rule #2.

Related reads:
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan surprises web with swift action on ‘archaic’ NEA rule
Outdated rule for food hawkers meant to deal with ‘zhi char’ stalls: NEA
NEA explains ‘archaic’ zhi char rule for hawkers

A Food-Loving Nation’s Dilemma – Another One Bites The Dust

Tong Seng Coffeeshop (photo by Clubsnap member recap)

Tong Seng Coffeeshop (photo by Clubsnap member recap)

Tong Seng Coffeeshop – synonymous with halal Chinese delicacies such as chicken rice, laksa, and wanton noodles – has drawn its shutters down for good. On their final day of operations (14th October 2013), the owner decided, rather generously, to give away free portions of some of their signature dishes as a token of appreciation to the loyal patrons of the eatery (albeit only during two separate lunch and dinner mealtime windows).

According to unconfirmed reports, the owner of Tong Seng sold off the premises to a businessman for a rather handsome profit (unsurprising, as the eatery sits on prime real estate which sees high pedestrian and vehicular movement).

Of Drastic Moves and Mediocre Offerings

As the price of everything (except salaries and wages) increases, people are often forced to take rather drastic actions. The untimely closure of Tong Seng Coffeeshop is one such example. While it would be unwise to speculate and come up with conspiracy theories and/or various hypotheses as to why they really decided to call it quits, I believe that current buzzwords such as “inflation” and “economic uncertainties” have something to do with their decision.

As a customer of the eatery, I personally think that Tong Seng’s offerings are only mediocre at best (not forgetting certain staff members who could do with a little more smiling and less plate-thumping). Regardless of that, one of the more positive points to note is; they are one of the few places in the city area which serves unpretentious local cuisine with rather wallet-friendly prices. Sandwiches, steaks and cupcakes are, once in a while, a breath of fresh air; but such dishes are simply not us and always seem to come with a hint of pretentiousness – no matter what people say.

Final Farewell

Apart from the fact that I was greeted with half-closed metal shutters when I arrived at their premises on the eve of their closure (I had no prior information with regards to their “designated hours of food giveaway”), I am still thankful for the food they have provided to me as well as the millions of others who have partonised their humble street-side establishment.

Thanks for the food, thanks for the memories; thank you Tong Seng.

A Food-Loving Nation’s Dilemma – Hawker Heroes Aftermath: What Now?

“Hawker Heroes” Challenge at Newton Food Centre (Photo credit: Yahoo!/Catherine Ling)

It was billed as “Singapore vs Ramsay”; a supposed “test” as to see whether Singapore hawker food was worthy of a Michelin starred classification and/or recognition. Initial response was (and still continues to be) mixed, but the show went on as planned.

Of Eager Fans and Lingering Questions

With the rampant use of social media, it was no surprise that folks received and issued updates and news via their tablets and smartphones. Scores were reported to have turned up as early as 1am before the day of the event – which was mostly made up of young people (based on the numerous photos plastered by means of websites and social media, a safe guess-timate would be that most attendees were a starstruck and technologically-savvy/updated (and hungry) bunch – aged between 16 and 35).

In true Singaporean fashion, numerous other opinions, comments and criticisms came flying in at all angles; ranging from an upset hawker stall owner who claimed the “Hawker Heroes” event hurt his business, to social media posts (by home cooks, “foodies” and even professional chefs) where challenges and call outs were issued to the multi-Michelin starred chef, and everything else in between. Even before Gordon Ramsay landed in Singapore, there were questions asked as to whether a dish such as Chilli Crab could and should be classified under the hawker food umbrella – not to mention that the local Chilli Crab maestro chosen to fend off Gordon was a chef/CEO of his own restaurant, compared to the other shortlisted candidates who conducted their businesses mainly in hawker centres and coffee shops.

There was also the outrage as to why dishes of the ethnic minorities in Singapore were not featured in the event; such as nasi lemak and roti prata. Some chose to air their grief and discontent via the title sponsor’s official Facebook page for its alleged disregard and racial prejudice when it came to showcasing the dishes of a country which prides itself as a multi-racial nation.

What Now?

So – they came, they ate, and they voted (via voting slips which were distributed to the first thousand in line at the Newton Food Centre). To cut the story short; the final score was 2 – 1 in favour of Singapore, with Gordon Ramsay scoring his only point by pipping his adversary in the Chilli Crab battle. Different people aired their opinions as to who or what went right and wrong; such as Dr Leslie Tay who provided a pretty comprehensive analysis of taste, techniques and handicaps. Ultimately, the deal is done and the show has ended. While I was not physically present at the Newton Hawker Centre to witness and/or taste the dishes prepared by Gordon Ramsay and his competitors (a.k.a. the “Hawker Heroes”), I echo Dr Tay’s sentiments by saying that many would agree the event was nothing more than a publicity stunt aimed at pushing people to support our local hawkers and their food – not to mention eating it. Despite this, the “Hawker Heroes” can heave a sigh of relief as a nation’s weight is lifted off their shoulders, and local self-proclaimed “foodies” celebrate with much delight in what is seen as a historical moment in Singapore gastronomy.

However, has the initial question – that triggered the idea of having this whole event in the first place – been answered? Definitely not, I say. To add to that, other questions now come to mind – questions such as; “What now?”, “What does this “victory” mean?”, and “Where do we go from here?”. In my opinion; through this event, we’ve only managed to prove (albeit almost entirely to Gordon Ramsay) that this little dot on the world map makes pretty darn good food. And that’s about it.

While the small (and rather indecisive) battle may have been won, the main (and much bigger) fight – on how to preserve a nation’s famed pastime – is far from over.

Related reads:

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?