The biggest news to hit Singapore’s food and beverage (F&B) industry recently was the announcement that foodcourt operator Banquet was finally shuttering its operations.
The news may have caught some by surprise, considering that it was once Singapore’s largest operator of halal foodcourts, but the proverbial writing was already on the wall back in August 2012.
At that time, it was revealed that Banquet had shrunk from an original 46 outlets across the island to 14.
News reports indicate that the decline was largely attributed to cash-flow problems, causing the company to be in the red since 2010.
Banquet’s management at that time blamed rising rents, along with an escalating wage bill and skyrocketing food costs for its financial troubles.
Its cash woes were reportedly so bad that the foodcourt chain had been unable to pay its stall operators on time.
Some have commented that Banquet’s shutting down is no loss to Singapore’s food scene, pointing out that in recent times, the quality of food served in its various premises has been dismal even as prices shot up.
They may be right, but Banquet’s demise may just be a portent of things to come for the F&B scene here.
RISING COSTS OF EVERYTHING
Doing business in Singapore has become extremely difficult due primarily to business costs, and it is not going to get easier anytime soon.
Traditionally, the F&B industry, with its long hours and generally lower wages, has struggled to attract workers.
Banquet was already in financial trouble and making it more difficult was the Government tweaking the rules to make it even more difficult for the sector — any sector — to hire cheaper foreign labour to fill its ranks, forcing companies to stump up more for local workers and just make do with less.
This is not to say that the policy is a poor one, but the market correction due to the change is one that has left a pall across the industry.
Food costs have also gone up, affecting all in the F&B sector from the humblest of hawker stalls to the swankiest of high-end restaurants. Foodcourt operators, despite having the size and scale to leverage economies of scale, are not spared either.
Singapore’s Consumer Price Index shows that food prices have gone up by 8.9 per cent YTD (year-to-date) since 2009. But what is interesting is that during the same period, the price of prepared meals (when you eat out) rose by 7.8 per cent, while the price of food excluding prepared meals (ie. food ingredient costs) rose 10.8 per cent.
In layman terms, what this has meant is that F&B businesses have been absorbing part of the price increase in food over the years.
But the biggest cost bugbear for an F&B business in Singapore is that of rent.
Commercial rents have largely risen across the board, and especially within shopping malls, and even more so for food-related businesses.
When your lease is due for renewal and the mall landlord decides to squeeze you for more, how many more bowls of fishball noodles do you have to sell to cover that increase?
If even a large foodcourt operator such as Banquet struggles to manage these costs, what chance do small independent F&B businesses have?
SCOURGE OF INSTITUTIONALISED SUBLETTING
In the recent news article that announced Banquet’s closure, it also reported that the foodcourt operator still owed some of its tenants their rightful payouts.
How Banquet operates is to first collect the takings of all its stallholders, taking 20 per cent of the monthly revenue as rental payments, and the remaining 80 per cent goes back to stallholders the following month.
When Banquet dithered on those payments, this meant that the stallholders did not get their rightful income. It was reported that the payment delays got so bad that some stall operators were owed more than four months worth of revenue.
At one point, a stallholder reportedly put out a notice telling customers she no longer had any money to buy ingredients.
And like in any other workplace, if stallholders are not paid promptly and sufficiently, it can lead to resentment that soon leads to a drop in service standards and food quality.
If stallholders do not have sufficient cashflow, how do they pay their suppliers on time? If they are unhappy, how can they smile and provide quality customer service? And if food quality and service standards drop, why then should customers return? It’s a vicious circle.
DRIVING AWAY INNOVATION
In such a model, you can probably argue that unlike the majority of hawkers, foodcourt stallholders are not exactly independent business owners, that they are merely employees. It arguably curtails real entrepreneurship behaviour.
Yet this business model is rampant in Singapore’s F&B industry. Large operators buy up or rent large swathes of space — whether it is a foodcourt, coffee shop, or even hawker centres — and then reapportioning the space and re-renting it to others.
And just like how a hotel developer would seek hotel operators to run a hotel after it is built, foodcourt operators are courted — pun fully intended — by mall owners to start an operation for every new mall.
What this can mean is that it takes away precious F&B space — and drives up rents — to the point that independent business owners with potentially new and innovative concepts are unable to afford to set up or grow their businesses.
Ever notice that every time a new mall opens, the usual suspects are almost always there when it comes to F&B outlets?
Perhaps that is why true food innovation happens in clusters where rents were originally cheap: Little India, Tiong Bahru, Duxton Hill, and in more recent times, Tras Street.
The important question is how all these factors impact Singapore’s food scene.
Banquet may have come to an end, but the march of foodcourt culture looks to continue unabated. In the meantime, our hawker centres — where hawker stall operators are largely independent — continue to decline.
This article was first contributed to and posted on Insing.com.
Chinatown Complex is in a horrible, horrible mess.
A new cleaning agency that earlier this year took over cleaning duties at the food centre has found it extremely difficult to hire sufficient workers to do a decent job. At the same time, Tanjong Pagar Town Council (which oversees conservancy in Chinatown Complex) is in the midst of changing its maintenance and conservancy contractor in charge of the centre, which means that none of the current batch of workers are bothered with actually carrying out their duties (they’ve pretty much been effectively laid off, you see).
So aside from tables not being cleaned up as fast as it should, there’re piles of rubbish heaping in corners and food waste scattered all over. Overflowing bins and empty beer bottles line common walkways (above). The few cleaners there are - mostly the middle-aged and elderly - work exceedingly long hours in tough conditions for pay under Singapore’s non-existent minimum wage to make up for the lack of manpower. But it’s not enough. It never is.
And then every hawker in Chinatown Complex was just served this notice:
Talk about rubbing salt into seeping wounds.
So there we have it - NEA is basically saying that the dirty, filthy centre is the fault of its hawker tenants. Because the rule book says so. But is it really fair to lay the blame on the hawkers?
To answer this question properly, we have to look at the various stakeholders in this mess:
As you can see, the National Environment Agency has oversight across the current 107 hawker centres across Singapore. Of that number, the Housing Development Board (HDB) owns 82 of them, while the remaining 25 belong to the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR). According to the MyHawkers website run by NEA, NEA “engages cleaning contractors to maintain the common areas” in MEWR centres, while respective Town Councils are responsible for those under HDB.
Ok, here’s where it starts to get slightly complicated. Both the Town Councils and NEA outsource the cleaning work to cleaning service providers. In hawker centres where there is a hawker association, the latter is roped in to help engage those contractors. I’m not sure if it happens for every hawker centre, but in Chinatown Complex representatives of the hawker association collects cleaning fees from the hawker tenants, to a tune of between $250-$350 per month per hawker. Note that this is not inclusive of the conservancy charges that are paid to the Town Council, which for our centre amounts to $209 per month per hawker. This means that each hawker in Chinatown, aside from paying their rent, forks out between $450 to $560 per month to cover cleaning and conservancy charges.
Interestingly, in some centres there really are two types of cleaners - the workers hired by the Town Council through a maintenance contractor only do conservancy cleaning like sweeping the floors and clearing the trash, while the employees of the cleaning contractors are responsible for clearing tables and returning soiled crockery to its hawker owners. (That’s the reason why sometimes you hail a “cleaner” at some hawker centres to help clear a table, only to be replied by mute silence and indifference followed by a disappearing act.)
So the real question should be: if hawkers are already paying for an outsourced service provider engaged by NEA to ensure that common spaces within the hawker centre are clean, why oh why should hawkers be warned or penalized for the fault and failures of the contractor? Aren’t there service level agreements stated in some contract that penalizes the contractor instead of its beneficiaries? After all, I’m pretty certain foodcourt operators - and even kopitiams - pick the right offender and punish the owners of the cleaning agencies, not the hawkers, if eating spaces aren’t clean.
Issues with cleaning contractors aren’t new. But punishing hawkers who have stumped up hard-earned cash to pay for cleaning services at rates they hardly have control of by threatening punitive action such as enforced business closure is a slap to the face of hardworking folk who toil for hours to help feed Singapore’s masses affordably and yet make subsistence wage to barely feed their own families. It is sad irony.
Let’s not talk about clean ceilings or clean politics. Let’s talk about doing the right thing and clearing up this mess, shall we?
Now that we have established that there are actually three different hawker generations in the Singapore hawker scene, we can start to address one of the most critical challenges that’s facing our hawker heritage today - the dearth of talent.
Traditionally, people entered the hawker trade because they couldn’t find other jobs. In the 1950s and 1960s when unemployment was rife, hawking was a means of livelihood. You cook because, in a manner of speaking, you needed to eat. Today, hawking - as is with driving a taxi - still remains one of the last refuges of those who need a job, such as the result of being retrenched from one’s workplace.
The sad truth is that many of those who enter the trade this way today may not even have a background in cooking or even running a small business. And unless they are very, very good in the kitchen, their chances of survival is slim, and to thrive, even more abysmal. In fact, just visit NEA’s hawker department at HDB Hub on any given day - you’re likely to witness at least one hawker giving up his premises because they just aren’t good enough.
My question is then - can we expect them to be the ones to save Singapore’s hawker heritage? I’d argue it’s highly unlikely. We may unearth perhaps a culinary gem or two, but my gut feel is that these will at most help round out the numbers.
Another source of talent, if one can call it that, is the hope of some sort of generational transfer where hawkers of the first generation pass on their god-like kitchen skills to their children and hope they take over the business. They are probably a lot more comfortable passing on their prized recipes to their own descendants too.
While this thankfully happens more often than we suspect, still far too many good hawker businesses are forced to close at the end of the day due to the general lack of interest from scions - and that’s not much of a surprise. There is an opportunity cost to them, after all!
Some hawker bosses are likewise reluctant to have their kids take over. “I worked so hard to give them an education so they can get a good job,” an elderly hawker tells me. “And so they don’t have to do what I do. Why would I want them to take over?”
In any case, this source is also unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.
In recent times, the great big hope in Singapore’s hawker scene has been placed on the hordes of youth that descend upon our island’s various culinary institutes. Whether it’s SHATEC, the At-Sunrice Globalchef Academy or the food-related courses in ITE or polytechnics, these youngsters are touted as ones who would bring Singapore’s culinary scene to new heights.
I don’t disagree, except that doesn’t quite equate to being the saviours of Singapore’s hawker culture. I’ll put it to you this way: most - if not all of them - who entered culinary school aspire to the new Claus Meyers, Jamie Oliver, Jiro Ono, Ferran Adria or Daniel Boulud. They want to be world-renown. They don’t go in wanting to become the next Wee Toon Ouut (of Wee Nam Kee fame). After all that they’d be learning, wouldn’t asking them to be hawkers asking them to aim a bit low? Not exactly encouraging their entrepreneurial spirit, are we?
There was a culinary panel during the recent World Streetfood Congress where representatives of various culinary institutes discussed the role of their students in creating, reviving and renewing Singapore’s street food and hawker scene. Denise Tan from ITE and Margaret Heng of SHATEC waxed lyrical about how some of their students started out as hawkers, before moving on to other things. What they couldn’t - or wouldn’t - tell us was how many of these, if any, are still working on their hawker businesses.
I would therefore argue that, at best, many culinary students see working from a hawker stall only as a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Are we really relying on them to save the hawker trade?
If we can’t expect retrenched folks to be good enough for the trade, cross our fingers and hope for scions to take over the hawker business from their parents, or depend on the talent that emerges from our culinary institutes due to their transitional expectations, where’s our talent pipeline?
That’s the dilemma.
Before there is any discussion on what are the best ways forward to safeguard the future of Singapore’s hawker culture, it is first imperative to establish the understanding that there are actually different kinds of hawkers. By that I don’t mean hawkers selling different kinds of food, but that there are - depending on when they entered the trade - three totally different generations of hawkers that exist today.
Let me explain.
The first generation of hawkers in Singapore were really those street hawkers who were (forcibly) encouraged by the government to relocate into facilities in the 1970s and 1980s purpose-built for them to ply their trade. They were offered subsidized rentals - lower than the market rate - even though the exact amount may have been revised upwards over the years and some of these hawkers already retired (or passed on).
The generation that followed - and by that I don’t mean the children of the first generation taking over - are those new hawkers who subsequently entered the trade after the first generation. Note that by this time the government has already decided to remove any form of hawker subsidies, so this generation of hawkers were paying essentially market rates. Even worse, the government had also instituted minimum bids for those interested to rent hawker stalls that benchmarked rental prices against those of commercial properties - using vague, complex valuation formulas unknown to the public, and for reasons now lost in perpetuity. What this means is that for any hawker interested in taking up a stall, they needed to bid for it in a closed tender process against other bidders but above that minimum bid price, thereby driving prices up even higher.
What the government - by which I mean the National Environment Agency - probably didn’t count on was the birth of a gray rental market built on the seeds of human greed. That’s right, I refer to the scourge of subletting. As with what was happening with housing in Singapore, existing hawker stall owners soon realized - because of inflated rental prices as a result of the minimum bid price - it would actually be a lot more lucrative (and a lot less tiring) to sublet their subsidized stalls to interested parties. Why slave over a hot stove day-in, day-out when you can essentially be a landlord and let someone else do that instead? As for the potential tenant, they could simply negotiate for a transparent price from the owner, instead of leaving it to the vagaries of fate by renting direct from the government!
Needless to say, that gray market quickly exploded out of control, exacerbated when even property agents got into the picture to help owners find tenants (getting a cut in the process, and pushing prices up even further). You would hear of takeover fees - the F&B business equivalent of COV (cash-over-valuation) - hitting $80,000 just to obtain the right to rent a hawker stall. I even heard of a case where the hawker of a particularly famous (and financially lucrative) food stall in a Bedok hawker centre who had passed away, and his funeral was plagued by strangers demanding to buy over the rights to the stall (since this way they could bypass paying agent fees).
The NEA then probably realized its folly, and as of March last year it proceeded to abolish minimum bid prices as well as the practice of subletting. Which brings us to the third generation of hawkers - those who entered the trade after March 2012, who today have to undergo a far more complex two-step bidding process but without needing to bid above a reserve price. And due to the need to attract more hawkers into the trade, there have also been rumors that the NEA is even looking at subsidizing new - and especially younger - entrants into the system (as far as I know, these plans are still in their infancy).
So herein lies the problem: these different hawker generations may co-exist alongside one another within the same facilities, but each would be paying vastly different prices. It is not uncommon, for example, to have a char kway teow seller of the first generation paying a subsidized amount of $500-600 per month, and next to him a second generation hawker selling bak kut teh paying a sublet rental price of over $3,000 per month. The new guy that just came in this month, who’s taking up a stall opposite? Maybe $1,000. You may put this down as the cruel machinations of a capitalist, free-market system, but I would argue otherwise.
In any case, it is extremely important to understand the difference between the different hawker generations, because any change to the current system at this point of time affects them very differently. The problem is that far too many commentators out there are often unaware of this difference and thus often obfuscate others with their own recommendations on the subject.
Here’s an example. As pointed out earlier, it is very easy to argue for subsidies to attract more hawkers to populate our hawker centres, especially the 10 new ones slated to come online across the island over the next 10 years. The problem with that, however, is that doing so may have an adverse - and possibly death-dealing - impact on the second generation of hawkers who are suffering from far higher rentals (either from subletting, which is their own choice, to minimum bid prices, which mostly isn’t) than those of the other two generations. What may conceivably happen is a further hollowing of the hawker centres as these abandon their trades.
I don’t envy the policymakers charged with overseeing Singapore’s hawker trade, but they do have to recognize that the current system isn’t a fair one, and one that may be seriously overdue for an overhaul.
I was queuing up for my turn at the customer service counter at the office of a local government agency, and if you’ve ever been to one that handled enquiries concerning public services - especially the HDB and CPF - you can come away quite damaged by the experience. Not so much by the fact that the service is bad - it usually isn’t - but by the people around you.
There would at least be one member of the public haranguing a customer service representative, two or three at the same time isn’t uncommon. This time an elderly gentleman was giving grief to a young chap behind the counter, complaining about how his questions aren’t being answered and his needs not being met. “It’s my livelihood you know!” he yelled. “All you office people wouldn’t understand the wretched existence of us poor folks!” It went on and on.
All due credit to the young man, he did what he could to defuse the situation, and finally referred the man a list of contact numbers he could call to help solve his woes.
When it came to my turn, I quietly said, “You’ve seen a lot of these, huh?” He grimly looked me in the eye and answered, just as quietly, “Far too many.”
"You know the list of contact numbers you gave him is near useless, right? I’ve personally called all of them, and they either don’t pick up or brush you off even when they do. I don’t even get the courtesy of a reply when I email them."
And then came the surprisingly frank reply. “I know, but what can we do?” He gestured around at his colleagues. “We do the best that we can but it’s not enough. It’s never enough. Those public service officers on that list? I’ve even been scolded by some of them for giving their numbers to members of the public.” I could only nod in sympathy, and thanked him for helping me on my own matters.
As I left, another din broke out, this time an angry elderly woman venting her own frustration at yet another helpless, hapless customer service officer.
Customers often ask me what I like to eat in Chinatown Complex. Truth be told, I’ve gotten sick of the food there long time ago. After all it’s almost been two years since The Good Beer Company started up in this hawker centre, and I daresay I’ve tried at least half of the options available. Some of them more than once.
I still eat here, of course. But now I eat not by choice or preference - what many people don’t realize is that I try as far as possible to patronize most of my neighbours in the “Green Zone” as often as I can. And I make sure I spread the love around, so I don’t get accused of favouritism or bias. One day it’s fried rice or seafood soup from next door, otherwise it’s KL-style Hokkien mee from around the corner. Lately I try the new scissors cut curry rice from the newly opened Damn Nice Curry Rice.
It’s a way to maintain the harmony and relationships in a place that - let’s face it - can be as political as the nastiest corporate office environment. If you knew half of the shenanigans that petty hawkers can get into, you’d understand why I choose to eat here the way I do.
Just found out that a nearby stall here in Chinatown Complex was successfully bid at a monthly rental of $1,700 per month, just a tad over what I’m currently paying. Another stall, just 4 metres away, was acquired at a rental price of - wait for it - just $50 per month. Mind you, they’re just 3 stalls apart.
If this system isn’t broken, I don’t know what is.
Incidentally, the owner of the first stall intends to sell noodles priced around $3. I guess I won’t be seeing them in eight month’s time.
It’s rather obvious Singapore’s authorities are in a little bit of a bind where preserving our hawker culture is concerned. This was most evident when Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources whose ministry oversees the National Environmental Agency (which in turn looks after hawker centres in Singapore), bemoaned the risk of the hawker trade dying out due to lack of new blood.
In my previous post I looked at some of the issues threatening the survival of our hawker heritage (you may also want to look at this excellent article from The Breakfast Network detailing more observations). In this post I’ll address…
That problem with ownership.
Let’s get this clear. The NEA may be in charge of managing the Singapore’s hawker centres, but their charter is food safety and environmental health. They put in systems and processes and guidelines to make sure that the spaces in which you eat are as clean as possible, and that you won’t inadvertently get poisoned as you tuck into your favourite chicken rice. It is not in their job scope to make sure that your hawker food remains tasty, or that it stays - in its past or current form - around for future generations.
That’s right - this means the NEA may not the best custodian in helping preserve that unique slice of culture. Indeed, expecting the NEA to do so is kind of like expecting the Land Transport Authority (LTA), whose charter is to ensure an efficient transport system in the country, to build and maintain the (now cancelled) Motorsports Hub.
But if the NEA isn’t the best custodian, then who is?
In late 2011 a 19-member Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel, headed by 77th Street founder Elim Chew, was appointed by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) to look at exactly these issues and to provide ideas for hawker centres of the future. The result was this rather skimpy report that aside from a few impressive terms really doesn’t say much and addresses even less.
By far the biggest problem I had with the panel in the first place was the fact that out of the 19 members of the panel, really only one was a hawker. On the other hand, at least two of them were food court operators. I’ll concede that food court operators are really good at what they do and can provide great input into how to run an F&B business, but their presence in the panel represented a conflict of interest - it is not in the interest of food court operators to see hawker centres thrive now or into the future.
Does Google invite Apple to sit in a consultative committee to discuss future iterations of the Android mobile operating system? Would the Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party invite members of the opposition Worker’s Party to provide ideas on how to attract youth to join Young PAP? It’s preposterous.
In recent times, private individuals and organizations have also stepped up their individual efforts to help support Singapore’s hawker culture. We’ve seen how KF Seetoh of Makansutra fame (he was also a member of the Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel) start the World Streetfood Congress as a way to elevate hawker food in the minds of the public. By positioning Singapore’s hawker food on the level of, say, Oregon’s food truck scene, perhaps Seetoh hoped to spur interest and raise the appreciation of our street fare. A noble idea, although we heard he suffered financially to see the event through. Similarly, Dr. Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost came up with the Ultimate Hawker Fest last year (with another upcoming this year in October) for the same purpose.
That these two individuals decided to step up in their own private capacity is laudable (even if some argue it’s really for their personal fame or commercial interest).
But the fact remains: there’s still no real, concerted ownership in this space, and therefore what we are seeing are piecemeal efforts that’s struggling in the face of reality - that hawkers and hawker centres are facing obsolescence in Singapore’s changing social and cultural landscape.
Will the real custodian of Singapore’s hawker future please stand up?
If there’s one thing that really stood out for me from the recent HawkerHeroes challenge - where Scottish-born celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay took on three of Singapore’s favourite hawker dishes - was how much trouble Singapore’s local hawker heritage really is in. If an angmoh chef - however talented and celebrated - who hasn’t been in Singapore in the last 15 years can pull together a decent performance in putting three local recipes together (and winning one of the three challenges to boot), there’s simply something worrying.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way - it’s a view mirrored by Dr. Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost. This issue is even of international interest - the vaunted BBC recently questioned the survival of Singapore’s hawker heritage.
But what exactly is wrong?
I’m no expert in the matter - I am, after all, only a new-age hawker with less than 2 years of experience under my belt - but here’s my take on the issues currently ailing our hawker culture:
By far the biggest problem facing our hawker heritage is the fact that there is little or no renewal in the system. For every young hawker who picks up the ladle - and when I say young I am referring to anybody under the age of 50 - there are many who leave, whether it is a change of occupation, retirement or death.
We’ve already lamented the loss of Hai Seng Ah-Balling's Mr Loh when we first started in 2011; this year the Singapore food scene recorded the loss of hawker legends Mr. Ng Ba Eng of Eng’s Noodle House from a heart attack, Mr. Andrew Lim of Yue Lai Xiang Chng Tng at Bedok Corner also from a heart attack, not to mention the impending retirement of Lim Seng Lee Duck Rice Eating House’s Lim Ah Too.
When was the last time you heard of young hawkers entering the field? Sure, there are definitely some new generation hawkers coming into the fray, and most recently we’ve heard about Alan Soo (33 years old) and Adrian Neo (35) taking over the reigns at Sin Heng Claypot Bak Koot Teh at Joo Chiat Road, but anecdotally it seems that we’re losing our hawkers far faster we can replace them. And as we lose these masters (and gain rookies in their place), hawker food standards are falling across the board.
With ten new hawker centres coming online within the next ten years, it makes it even more imperative that we increase the pipeline - and reduce the dropout - of hawkers to feed the system.
Much of the root of the cause for the lack of continuity is the indisputable fact that few people really want to be hawkers. It’s hot, dirty, and tiring work that pays little compared to what a decent graduate can plausibly draw in other jobs. And while kids grow up wanting to be a lawyer, doctor or even a chef, I’m pretty sure no 10 year-old out there ever says they want to become a hawker when they grow up. And even if they did, no kiasu Singaporean parent would ever let them entertain the idea.
Which brings me to…
Hawkers don’t get enough respect for what they do. During one of the panel discussions at the recent World Street Food Congress, Crocodile King Mr. Tony Tee - who sells crocodile meat dishes at his stall Crocodile Kingdom at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre - rued how hawkers are generally looked down upon by fellow Singaporeans. He pointed out that most hawkers in the trade - excepting those A-listers - are generally treated rather shabbily. “Not all of us are uneducated boors,” he told the audience.
Sure, many first generation hawkers - those (forcibly) moved from the streets into huge hawker centres by the authorities - had no choice but to join the trade due to lack of education and job opportunities. It seems as though people still harbour the misconception that the hawker trade remains the final refuge of the lowly, uneducated classes. “Can make money, meh?” were the first words uttered by my skeptical mother-in-law when I told her I’d become a hawker.
Here’s another aspect of the contempt that hawkers face. A fellow drinks hawker once complained to me that a few customers verbally abused him when they found out he raised prices of his coffee drinks by 10 cents. “I’ve not raised prices for almost ten years!” he decried. “They bitch they have to now pay $1 for a kopi, but these are the people who don’t even blink at paying $7 at Starbucks.” Search your hearts - you know he’s right.
The trouble is, such prejudice only reinforces the belief that the trade is not worth joining. Times may have changed; mindsets sadly haven’t.
Another troubling issue facing hawkers is the spiraling costs of everything. According to various industry observers, food ingredient costs alone have gone up by several factors over the past few years, squeezing margins even thinner than usual.
As for rents, while stall rents in hawker centres are generally relatively stable (now that NEA is clamping down on the scourge of subletting and the reduction of minimum bids), one can’t say the same for kopitiams. The recent news of a Hougang kopitiam changing hands for almost an eye-popping $24 million doesn’t bode well for the industry in general.
Let’s not even talk about staffing costs, especially when hawkers in hawker centres generally can’t even hire non-locals due to NEA guidelines.
Of course, this is not helped by the bizarre (read:crazy) idea by the authorities of encouraging hawkers to somehow maintain prices despite price pressures so to be able to offer food at affordable prices for the masses (those self-same authorities, however, were far less able at stopping landlords from increasing rentals across the board to relieve some of the cost pressures off the hawkers). While I agree in principle that hawker food should be affordable, the idea that hawkers - some of the lowest earners in Singapore society - should be subsidizing the meals of their often more well-off customers strikes me as rather ludicrous.
"But some hawkers are very rich!" I hear a few of you cry. Yes, there have been a number of hawkers who’ve made it really big. A few lucky ones live in big terraced houses and drive big Mercedes (Mercedeses? Mercedii?). But just as in any industry, those who make it big are few and far between. Most hawkers I know struggle to make ends meet.
I may be wrong, but I have an uneasy feeling that perhaps a lot of what’s crippling Singapore’s hawker scene comes from the fact that we’ve been complacent about the superiority of our street food for far too long.
The truth is, Singapore’s street food has seen little real innovation since it began on the streets along our wharves in the early days. We’ve seen quite a lot of old-school dishes die out in our time, and some, like teh kar tang (cold pig trotters) are on the verge of disappearance. Is selling Japanese or Korean cuisine from a hawker stall considered true food innovation? I’m not sure.
If we as a society really believe that our hawker heritage is worth preserving, we must - as a whole - find out how we can rally together to not only keep it alive but make it thrive. We can’t simply depend on the authorities to do so.
Back in April, I submitted a letter to the Straits Times forum regarding an article titled “Hawker heritage ‘in danger of dying out’”. At that time I couldn’t post it up due to silly guidelines set by our main broadsheet, but I’m putting up here in full (and unadulterated) because I can now.
Dear forum editor,
As a new-age hawker who entered the profession mid-career in 2011, I read the article “Hawker heritage ‘in danger of dying out’” dated April 2, 2013 with a mixture of sadness and frustration over the irony of our authorities trying to attract young Singaporeans into this trade yet making it difficult for older, existing hawkers to stay in business.
What people may not realize is that while hawker centres islandwide undergo renovations to keep with modern needs, many - if not most - hawker tenants are still expected to pay rent during the renovation period which can take up to many months. For example, Chinatown Complex underwent a minor refit in March but hawkers were expected to stump up rent even though they are forced out of operation.
We have to remember that many of these hawkers were those forced by the authorities to relocate from the streets and come from the lower percentiles of income earners in Singapore. They are unlikely to have alternative sources of income and will struggle to pay their rent during the months they do not operate. Faced with this challenge, coupled with rising ingredient costs and the continual demands on hawkers to keep prices low, it’s no wonder many hawkers simply choose to retire or find alternative vocations - all to the detriment of our hawker scene.
So rather than taking up a stall in an NEA-run hawker centre which may be due for long-term renovations, those few young Singaporeans who aspire to become hawkers may be better off opting for a commercial landlord instead.
I think all Singaporeans are united in the desire to see our hawker culture stay alive and thrive. The only way is for citizens and authorities alike to fully support both aspiring young hawkers as well as those already in the trade. Anything less is meaningless.
Earlier this evening a heavily tattooed, middle-aged one-eyed man sat down next to me in front of my stall and lamented how he made plenty of wrong choices when young.
Then he asked for a free beer. I told him I’d buy him a meal instead. He said no. So I said no.
Sorry dude, you’re still making the wrong choices in life.
Beer Uncle passed away about a month ago, on 24 April 2013.
His passing was even noted in local Chinese newspaper Shin Min Daily, his wake having attended by regulars both locals as well as expatriates who hail from all over the world.
Beer Uncle’s death was particularly painful as it was only recently that we really started to communicate a lot more as family. In fact, it was only when we started The Good Beer Company that we spent a lot of time together.
But as much as it was a horrible personal loss, losing him is devastating for the business. The truth is that while The Good Beer Company was my baby and my idea, Beer Uncle represented the heart and soul of the business. The Good Beer Company will never be same again.
The question is: how can The Good Beer Company continue without the legacy of Beer Uncle?
In that, there’s a lot of thinking to do.
The past week saw an extremely heartwarming story on “suspended coffees" viral on Facebook.
If you’re not sure what that is, it’s when customers visiting a coffee shop pays for a few additional coffees which can then be gifted to the needy at the coffeeshop’s discretion. It sounds like a great way to extend a helping hand to those going through tough times, and it is.
It’s gained so much visibility and traction around the world it’s even spawned a hawker version in Singapore called CHOPE FOOD for the NEEDY. The idea is similar, except that instead of buying coffees you’re buying packets of food in advance for those who need them.
Now don’t get me wrong, I totally love the “Pay It Forward” concept ever since I watched the 2000 movie of the same name which starred Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Joel Haley Osment (of “I see dead people” fame). But those who are organizing this new movement may want to understand a little from the perspective of the hawker, or small business owner, being approached to give away their products to someone for free, even if someone else had already paid for it.
Getting hawkers to decide who to give the food to - assuming we’re honest, and not all of us will be - is difficult because it forces us to make a judgment call on who we think is needy, and who isn’t. Do we give to that elderly cleaner who cleans up your dirty tables and chairs in the hawker centre? Which cleaner? How about that foreign construction worker? It’s too easy to make the wrong call, and adds unnecessary stress.
Can you also imagine having to tell someone - within earshot of others in the queue - that they’ve been chosen for this privilege because of their downtrodden status? Last I checked, hawkers aren’t the most effective communicators. It can place shame on the recipient.
Again, I feel the need to stress that I am all for the movement. But the organizers may want to consider how to overcome some of these challenges, and communicate to participating members so they can ameliorate their approach when talking to hawkers.
We may then see an even more positive, successful campaign.
The lady owner of a nearby drinks stall hardly ever smiles. Perhaps it’s because she looks upon me as a competitor, but she always has a pained expression on her face whenever I greet her (and it’s not like I look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame).
On the other hand, the owner of another nearby drinks stall - a man - is always smiling. He’s cheery, laughs a lot too, and even once offered to share some of his beer with me.
Guess which stall I recommend to customers when they want something non-alcoholic?