Tissue paper sellers paying a $120 licence fee

From ‘Tissue paper peddlers are unlicensed hawkers, says NEA’, 17 April 2014, article in CNA

Mobile peddlers selling packets of tissue paper on the streets are unlicensed hawkers, said the National Environment Agency (NEA) in response to a letter posted on a website that these peddlers are charged a S$120 licence fee. “Although technically in breach of the laws against itinerant hawking, those peddlers who are needy are referred to the relevant agencies by the NEA for appropriate assistance,” the agency said on its Facebook page on Tuesday.

In a letter posted on the socio-political website The Real Singapore, the writer had questioned the need for street hawkers to pay S$120 to get a licence following his encounter with a visually-impaired man who sells tissue paper for extra income.

The NEA said that, at present, only 11 street hawkers under its Street Hawking Scheme are licensed to sell tissue paper in town council areas. Under the scheme, which started in 2000, those who meet the eligibility criteria pay a nominal fee of S$120 a year, or S$10 a month, to peddle their wares at fixed locations without having to pay rent.

In response to TODAY’s queries, the NEA said unlicensed peddlers selling tissue paper at coffee shops and hawker centres will be warned to stop selling their wares….”If they ignore the warning, the NEA will take enforcement action against them, just as it does for other illegal hawkers,” it added.

‘Enforcement action’ against what the law describes as ‘itinerant hawkers’ entails a fine not exceeding $5000, or up to $10,000/imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months for repeat offenders. On surface, this appears to be a major ‘compassion deficit‘ on the part of NEA to anyone who’s ever encountered a blind tissue peddler led by a relative walking around hawker centres, or the lady in a wheelchair who sings ‘Tissue paper One Dollar’ around MRT stations. I wonder if she’s also required to apply for an Public Entertainment licence.

Tissue paper ‘hawker’ Edwin Koh, 43, makes about $30 to $40 over the weekend, charging $1 for 3 packets. Rejected by his family, he sleeps in the playground after getting thrown out of a shelter for smoking. 75 year old Chia Chong Hock is reported to be the ONLY licensed tissue vendor in Singapore, earning his keep at Tiong Bahru MRT wearing a Santa hat, his makeshift ‘stall’ decorated with cherry blossoms and a Singapore flag. Even with all the props and decor, he still makes $20 to $30 a day. A Madam Rani who used to hang around the junction at Orchard Road facing Heeren (and someone I personally encountered) was reported to earn only $14 a day even for a busy district. Most of us spend that same amount in a single meal without even thinking about poverty lines. There are exceptions of course, foul-tempered peddlers who curse at you for rejecting their sale, or pushy ones who stuff tissue packs in your face as you’re eating bak chor mee.

While the cost of everything else seems to be going up these days, it’s a sobering thought that these Singaporeans are still keeping their tissue prices at 3 for $1,  especially since there is a constant demand for the goods, being used to reserve tables and all. Without the milk of kindness by strangers giving beyond the selling price of tissue paper, I wonder how these folks even survive. Some ugly Singaporean customers however, have even been known to compare prices (5 for $1 vs 4 for $1) between peddlers and haggle. If you take a closer look at some of the brands of tissue hawked, you’ll find a popular one called ‘Beautex’, with a tagline that reads, rather ironically, CHOICES FOR BETTER LIVES.

To be fair, the government hasn’t completely turned a blind eye to their plight. Amy Khor calls tissue peddling a ‘ very uncertain livelihood’ and that such elderly folks should be referred to the MCYS and CDCs for financial assistance. Then again, there are ministers like Wong Kan Seng who in 1987 slammed a group of blind tissue sellers for ‘acting like beggars’, his Ministry even accusing members of the ‘Progressive Society of the Blind‘ of duping the public with claims that proceeds were going into building a music school. It would be temporary blindness of the officers under his charge that led to the escape of a very famous fugitive 10 years later.

Still, I question how the statutes define ‘itinerant hawker’ (any person who, with or without a vehicle, goes from place to place or from house to house carrying for sale or exposing for SALE OF FOODS OR GOODS of any kind) and why selling tissue paper is subject to NEA’s regulations. If the NEA clamps down on people selling curry puffs or otak-otak, I doubt anyone would complain, since you could get sick from consuming their wares without proper sanitary controls. How does the need to control something as benign as tissue paper fall under the Environmental Public Health Act? Does tissue paper give you lip salmonella? Has anyone been hospitalised from severe allergic reactions after wiping their faces with tissue paper? If you use tissue to chope tables at food centres, do they leak toxic fumes all over the place? Does tissue paper turn your pimples into 3rd degree burns?

Since the rise of tissue peddling in the early 2000′s, NEA have not relented on their stand against illegal hawking, with a spokesperson in 2004 deriding the hardship as ‘disguised begging’. Tell that to the Santa Claus uncle, NEA.

 

About these ads

Lavender food heaven closing for development

From ‘Losing our food heritage in the name of development’, 31 March 2014, St Forum

(Edwin Lim): I READ with disappointment the article “Clock is ticking for Lavender’s ‘food heaven’” (last Friday). This marks the demise of yet another popular food haunt.

A few weeks ago, Singapore’s largest McDonald’s outlet, at King Albert Park – a place that many Singaporeans remember fondly as one where they “mugged” for exams and had their first date – also made headline news when it closed down to make way for redevelopment.

In place of these local favourites will rise yet more mixed-purpose developments of retail outlets, offices and residences.

Singapore is fast losing a generation of hawkers and efforts are being made to train a new generation of hawkers. Yet at the same time, we seem to be speeding up their disappearance by making their future uncertain. Will the future Singapore landscape be filled with just HDB blocks, condominiums and mixed-purpose developments? Of course, there is a need to build more homes for a growing population. But many residential units are also being bought for rental income.

How many patches of forest and popular haunts are making way for buildings that are aimed solely at property investors?

The essential guide to Singapore’s lost (and never found) hawker centres/markets can be found at the Remember Singapore Blog, a must-read for all hawker nerds and gluttons alike. Other than HDB blocks, condos and malls, another major culprit of hawker extermination is our MRT system, with food centres at Farrer Park, Labrador and Lakeview making way for development directly or indirectly related to MRT construction. The other dreaded word is ‘upgrading’, which may affect not just the ‘character’ of the hawker centre, but more importantly the livelihoods of hawkers too.

It’s also interesting how people remember certain McDonalds outlets (King Albert, East Coast) fondly but not other ‘lost’ fast food joints like BK or KFC. People even ‘mourn’ the loss of just ONE out of 120 of McDs to greater tribute fanfare than your neighbourhood coffee shop. Chicken McNuggets will never go away even if the CEO of McD’s dies, and it’ll taste the same for eternity whether it’s at King Albert Park or People’s Park.  Not the case for your favourite Cheng Tng at Bedok Corner hawker centre.

The former Bugis Square was itself a relocation of hawkers originating from Bugis Street, sans the ‘transverstite habitues‘ who were often the ‘centre of attraction’. Lavender Square’s demise comes quickly after news to shut down Longhouse at Upper Thomson Road, a food loft that used to be from the Jalan Besar stadium area, the taste of the famous duck rice still fresh in my mind long after my family brought me there in my teens (The duck rice stall, Soon Lee Kor, is slated to move BACK to Jalan Besar).

It’s sad to see anything make way for development really, whether it’s an open field or a cemetery, but if we can’t save Buona Vista swimming pool from decimation, even with celebrity Pam Oei fronting a petition to Chan Chun Sing for it, what more a hawker centre? How many of us are even willing to stop complaining about hawker extinction and give up our day jobs to pursue the trade in the first place?

Here are 12 facts inspired/extracted from the Remember Singapore piece that you never knew (or at least I never knew) about Singapore’s hawker history.

1. Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre, a merger of a market and 2 food centres, included the very FIRST hawker centre in Singapore: Yung Sheng Food Centre. Prepare your mecca now.

2. Telok Ayer Market was the first ever market in Singapore. It survived a demolition in 1879, was torn down due to MRT construction in 1984, and was refurbished in 1991 as ‘Lau Pa Sat’, which translates to ‘old market’. It wouldn’t exist without the work of  Municipal engineer James Macritchie. So he didn’t just build a reservoir here.

3. The sprawl of watering holes that is Boat Quay used to be Boat Quay Hawker Centre.

4. What used to be Simon Road Market is now string of plush condos, including one named Kovan residences.

5. Seletar Hills Market and Food Centre Centre is now a shopping mall that no one has ever heard of: Greenwich V.

6. The former Neo Tiew Market and Food Centre is now a training site for NSmen and a place to shoot a zombie apocalypse movie.

7. Tekka Market was for a while known as Zhujiao Market, or literally ‘bamboo feet’.

8. The Gateway at Beach Road was once the Clyde Terrace Market, also known in Hokkien as ‘thi pa sat khauor’ or ‘Iron Market’.

9. The Golden Bridge at Shenton Way used to be an overhead bridge CUM HAWKER CENTRE. In 2011, it was reported that there may be signs of a revival, but its fate remains uncertain till this day.

10. Taman Serasi Food Centre, near the Botanic Gardens, used to be famous for roti john. I’m not sure if the revamped Taman Serasi Food Garden is still around. Or has it devolved into ‘Food Canopy’, a glamorised food court?

11. The original ‘Glutton’s Square’ was located at Orchard Road Car park, what’s now become the much under-patronised Orchard Central. (Another Orchard Road favourite Cuppage Centre is now Starhub centre)

12. If you thought Golden Bridge was cool, we used to have a hawker centre UNDER A FLYOVER along Whitley Road. Another unforgettable place for a family outing which my folks referred to affectionately as ‘Under the Bridge’. An empty desolate patch where foreign workers like to hang out drinking remains.

Sumiko Tan believed that Singapore is in the midst of a ‘Golden Age’ in 2012 and that she preferred ‘progress’. If progress meant the loss of our food heritage and our local haunts replaced by bogus 24 hour ‘kopitiams’ if not spanking condos, then many Singaporeans who were born and bred on the foodstuff of our forefathers would rather starve to death than settle for ‘Mixed Economic Rice’.

So yeah, in the vein of a classic Paul Young 80′s song, everytime you close down a hawker centre, you take a piece of Singapore with you.

 

Indranee Rajah defending uncle with holey moley shirt

From ‘Indranee Rajah stands up for man mocked for hole in shirt’, 22 March 2014, article by Goh Chin Lian, ST

People still do not appreciate enough that their actions can have unintended consequences for others, especially on social media, said Senior Minister of State for Law and Education Indranee Rajah in a Facebook post on Saturday. The Tanjong Pagar GRC MP was defending a resident in her ward whose attire Miss Singapore Universe 2013 finalist Jesslyn Tan had mocked in a recent Facebook post.

Mr Koh Hee Huat, 55, was asleep in the MRT and wearing a T-shirt with a hole in it. Ms Tan, 25, posted a photograph of him on Wednesday with the caption: “Holey moley. Sibei trendy worzxxz.”

…”If anyone merits a boost, it is this quiet, hardworking, unassuming man. He may not be sibei trendy but he is definitely ‘SIBEI HO.’”

Before she took part in MSU, Jesslyn was a 2012 FHM model, and when asked what superpowers she would like to have in an interview segment, she replied that she wanted Wolverine’s healing powers. Not to mention razor sharp claws so that she can take a vicious swipe at innocent passengers on a train. She probably thinks it’s a better idea to have Invisible Woman’s powers now.

01102011_batman1

Jessyln’s intrusion of privacy and insensitivity is one thing, but as a MSU wannabe, poking fun at someone’s dress sense and suggesting that he can’t afford to buy new clothes is against the image of a compassionate, world-peace loving beauty queen that every contestant aspires towards. Imagine sending a representative like Jesslyn to help rebuild a school for impoverished kids, only for her to spend more time commenting on the kids’ shabby uniforms (or lack of) rather than do anything remotely charitable.  It also takes some serious cheek to comment on others’ outfits considering the kind of fashion abominations that MSUs have had to put on over the years. Oh, and THAT spelling. I can’t tell if ‘worzxxz’ is a typo or the language of an alien insectoid race.  She happens to be a Bachelor of Communication graduate too, maybe one who specialises in exotic languages.

MP Indranee was quick to come to Koh’s rescue, explaining why he wears ‘holey’ shirts to work and how he works his ass off till 3 am at Ye Shanghai Teochew Muay stall. Koh was apparently so affected by the post that he thought of quitting the job, and if an aspiring MSU can’t be bothered to come forward to apologise personally or even buy him some new shirts out of goodwill, then it’ll take an MP to soothe some nerves and offer protection. Thankfully for Jessyln, his salvation comes in form of Indranee, and not some furious kopitiam friends out for revenge who also happen to be Ah Long associates.

Or this guy.

This guy knows Teochew Muay Thai worzzxxzzz!

If I ever get verbally abused by Stompers for wearing ugly Crocs on the train, I doubt my MP would speak up for me, even if I threaten to kill myself because I got cyberbullied by a beauty queen. In fact, people get ruthlessly mocked for the way the dress all the time, the sloppy uni student, the aunty with a bucket on her head, the oversexy bareback with bra showing. Where were our MPs then?

There are many people like Koh out there, of course, sweating it out to earn a living and having to tolerate snobs like Jessyln Tan. They may not have holes in their clothing but have deeper holes in their pockets than most of us. If they weren’t sensationally victimised like Koh here on social media, would our MPs share real-life sob stories so readily with the rest of us outside of election rallies where such anecdotes are potential speech (and vote) winners?  You don’t need a beauty queen shooting her mouth off before you realise people like Koh exist and celebrate them for making sure we have porridge supper to eat at 3am. I’m also not sure if there’s an unintentional pun with Indranee describing Koh as ‘SIBEI HO’ following this ‘HOLE’ in a shirt saga. It sure was ‘SIBEI SUAY’ for Jessyln to get caught, though.

Well, if you do drop by for supper at Mr Koh’s Bukit Merah stall (thanks to his MP’s free publicity), try to refrain from inspecting his shirt, or it’d look like people are flocking to Ye Shanghai just for a glimpse of the famous hole like it were national treasure rather than the Teochew Muay. Meanwhile, it’ll probably be a while before we see Jessyln participating in any kind of pageant whatsoever, nor should she even think of going into fashion consultancy. I’d also suggest that she think twice before appearing in public wearing ‘trendy’ ripped jeans, before someone goes up to her and says: Hey Jessyln! HOLE SAY BOH??

Vivian Balakrisnan calling Low Thia Khiang an honourable man

From ‘WP MPs ‘untruthful’, says Vivian’, 10 July 2013, article by Elgin Toh, ST

WORKERS’ Party MPs Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh made “false and untruthful” statements to cover up their town council’s demand for extra charges for hawker centre cleaning, the Government charged yesterday.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reprimanded them thus in Parliament, before telling the media he was withdrawing his parliamentary privilege for his statements. The highly unusual move means he is effectively challenging the two MPs to sue him for defamation for accusing them of lying.

…Explaining why he would not let the matter rest, he framed the issue as one of integrity and clean politics, and not the cleanliness of hawker centres. “All of us will make mistakes. But when a mistake is made, just come clean and say so… don’t cover up. That’s why I have not let this go.”

…Rising to speak, WP chief Low Thia Khiang said he agreed with Ms Lim that the episode arose from a misunderstanding over annual versus quarterly cleanings. As the 36-minute exchange came to a close, the minister urged Mr Low:

“Because I know you to be an honourable man, I appeal to you: Go back, do a thorough investigation of what’s gone on and what’s gone wrong in your town council and put it right.”

The Environment Minister may think the PAP is the epitome of ‘clean politics’, but as Low Thia Khiang retorted after the backhanded compliment, his confrontational style akin to a pitbull not letting go of a bone may not necessarily be ‘good’ politics either. Earlier in June, Balakrishnan said: “Either Mr Pritam Singh OR the hawkers are telling the truth. It is obvious that the hawkers are speaking the truth.” A terribly long-winded way of calling someone a LIAR, for someone who insists on calling a flood a flood (and a spade a spade). It is set theory for babies; Either a Circle has edges or a Rectangle has edges. It is obvious that a rectangle has edges. Duh.

This hawker spat was given a rest due to the haze, but now that it’s clear skies, the Minister decided it was time to exhume the ceiling cleaning debacle. While people are DYING of dengue. This time, he suggests that Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh are ‘dishonourable’ by taunting Low Thia Khiang and cornering him to do the ‘right thing’. The Parliamentary Privilege allows MPs to speak ‘freely and frankly without fear of consequences’, but it doesn’t say anything about penalising you if you act like the whole world owes you an apology.

Breaching this privilege comes with consequences, including imprisonment. That, I would assume, includes stuff like insulting the PM’s dead mother, or exposing a fellow MP’s racy affair, though it’s unlikely that anyone would put a PAP MP, not to mention a Minister, in jail for abuse of this immunity and spewing nonsense in Parliament (In 1987, however, JBJ was fined $1000 for acting in a ‘reprehensible manner’ and threatening to TEAR down the very pillars of society). Being a wise guy who takes smug digs at fellow parliamentrians doesn’t make you any more a ‘clean’ politician than the possibility of a ‘clean’ hawker centre. For a profession that is known throughout the world as a ‘dirty game’, it takes some serious cheek to believe that you’re setting an example of something totally opposite.

This style of ‘clean politics’, or rather ‘come-clean politics’ is similar to LKY pouncing on James Gomez during the 2006 election, where he called the then WP candidate a LIAR, a ‘bad egg’ and wondered what he ‘uses those brains for’. He even dared the WP to sue his ass, which is what Vivian is doing here. At least the old man didn’t need to tease us with logic puzzles in his accusations. Last year, Khaw Boon Wan accused the WP for misleading voters during the Yaw Shin Leong incident and to COME CLEAN too, which we all know by now is an euphemism for ‘Stop the goddamn BULLSHIT already’. Except you can’t say Bullshit in parliament without breaching your bullshit parliamentary privilege.

I guess it’s pretty obvious right now that Low never did accept Vivian’s invitation to chit-chat over a cup of kopi after all. Some may call the Minister’s hawker ceiling obsession a tenacious pursuit for truth. In the face of more dire matters at hand, I see it more as a crafty diversion.

Gordon Ramsay hawker cook-off a publicity stunt

From ‘Hawker cook-off with Ramsay a publicity stunt’, 6 July 2013, Mailbag, ST Life

(Dr Michael Loh): Is the cook-off between foul-mouthed British chef Gordon Ramsay and Singapore’s so-called Top 3 favourite Hawker Heroes on Sunday (Gordon Ramsay Takes On Hawkers, Life!, July 4) an irresponsible publicity stunt?

The reasons given for this event, organised by SingTel, are wishy-washy. SingTel’s publicity materials say: “Recently, there’s been great concern regarding the decline of local hawker culture and whether Michelin-starred accreditation would encourage fresh blood to join the trade and preserve our beloved heritage.”

If you cut through the gibberish, anyone will know that this is just another publicity stunt for the telco. There is nothing wrong for companies, in the face of fierce competition, to clutch at straws to win customers. But, to have an expletive-spewing, abusive, megalomaniac – who is hardly a role model for our children – come to Singapore and take on our hawkers is, to me, a shameless act by SingTel.

I haven’t watched a single episode of Hell’s Kitchen, but just an uncensored swearing compilation alone would give you some idea of what a nasty, violent bastard Ramsay the TV personality is, cussing at women, spitting into food and short of bashing participants senseless with crockery. As entertainment, the boot camp-in-a-kitchen concept is a success, though the vulgarities tend to lack imagination after a while.  Fans believe that his volcanic personality and potty mouth is what makes the Gordon Ramsay brand, hence the mobbing at Maxwell hawker centre while he was chopping chicken at Maxwell’s Tian Tian (incidentally the same stall that fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdian promoted when he was here some years back).  Singaporeans gravitate to the rude ‘bad-boy’ celebrity chef the same way they idolise meanies Simon Cowell and Donald Trump on the Apprentice, though some of the hawkers interviewed had no idea who Ramsay was (‘Is he Singaporean?) or what, or who, Michelin is (Name of a KTV girl?).

Ramsay’s promo for the Hawker Heroes event was designed and scripted to irritate the most passionate hawker food lover, and nothing would please a Singaporean more than seeing a brash, haughty ang moh beaten at his own game. Yes, it’s a publicity stunt that banks on the clash of cultures – Obnoxious Western chef meets the heartland hawker – and I’m not sure how getting Ramsay to cook his own version of chicken rice, laksa or chili crab would help the hawker dilemma in any way whatsoever. If nothing is done to change the way we educate our kids or how they view employment, we will lose our heritage no matter how many top chefs we fly in to help boost it. You don’t get into the business to just to please the occasional celebrity visitor, but the people who keep you employed, Singaporeans themselves. In fact, Michelin maestros have been settling down rather nicely here since 2007 with their fancy brand extensions. If anything they’re inspiring fine dining as a profession rather than saving hawker cuisine from certain death. I, for one, wouldn’t eat at a ‘Michelin-starred’ char kuay teow stall because it’s patronising to tradition and utterly pretentious. What next, gold leaf on carrot cake?

But so what if it’s just shameless publicity? I didn’t even know this was Singtel sponsored until I read this letter. Singtel doesn’t need to sell its services anymore than the Army needs recruitment videos. This is, after all, the same telco that brought you the F1 and Singtel Grid girls. In fact, I’d rather a naughty celebrity chef fly in here to promote the country as a culinary destination, than them holding a energy-consuming, air-polluting monster night race. So far, reports of Ramsay’s behaviour have been described as ‘kind’ and somewhat humane and I doubt he’d throw a hissy fit at the chicken rice aunty and jeopardise his contract with Singtel and even reputation by giving her a heart attack. Interviewers would have to tread carefully when it comes to personal questions with the chef though, in case they get labelled as ‘old, ugly, lesbian pigs’ behind their backs.

As for whether children care enough about celebrity chefs to look up to them as role models I’m not sure. Ramsay’s popular TV shows sure as Hell don’t look appealing to the young and impressionable, though in the ‘F word’ he talks to his children about the harsh reality of where pork comes from. He even teaches them how to make Christmas Mint Chocolate Truffles in the clip below. Given his kitchen persona as a sadistic, arrogant bastard, Ramsay mentioning ‘honey’ and ‘chocolate’  in the same sentence is as creepy as a serial killer singing a nursery rhyme.

Postscript: Of the 3 dishes, Gordon won for chilli crab, which was the odd one out in the first place. Well, they had to give the man something.

The disappearing of our hawker heritage

From ‘Real chance of hawker heritage disappearing if young do not step up’, 1 April 2013, article by David Ee, ST

There is a real possibility that Singapore may one day lose its rich hawker heritage if the next generation of Singaporean hawkers do not replace our current veterans.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged this at the inaugural Partners Forum on Monday which was attended by about 200 participants from schools, non-governmental organisations and businesses. Participants were invited at what is likely to be annual affair to talk about ways to build a sustainable and gracious Singapore.

“It’s easy to build (new hawker) centres,” he said. “But the key challenge is to find enough Singaporeans who’d be willing to enter this profession, which is a difficult, challenging one.”

The only sexy hawker in town

In a TNP commentary on a 22 year old female professional happily marrying a chicken rice seller, reporter Benita Aw Yeong quipped:

I grew up conditioned to believe that the path to success and financial security follows years of slogging in school followed by a degree and a good job in a posh office. Not sweating it out with my spouse in a hawker centre.

I’m not looking for a trophy boyfriend or husband, but introducing a blue-collar boyfriend to friends and family is a worrying prospect.

If you’ve a knack for hawkering, willing to work long hours and make the best bak chor mee in the land, there is no question that the job will earn you a decent living as your own boss, but if the above statement is to be believed, you should also be prepared to remain single for the rest of your life. Perhaps it’s not so much the hardship factor that drives young Singaporeans away from a trade that was once associated with the underprivileged and poor, but that it’s just not ‘glamorous’ enough. If a Singaporean child shows signs of displaying the slightest interest in frying char kway teow, the typical parent would stow away his masak-masak kits and hook him up to a plastic stethoscope instead.

It’s not the first time that the government has tried to instill some prestige into hawkers. In 1989, stallholders received a laughable call to ‘dress up’ and were warned that the wearing of attire such as shorts, singlets, slippers and wooden clogs should no longer be the accepted norm. There were even suggestions of a standard uniform to project a ‘good image’, believing that if a hawker comes to you dressed like the butler of the mansion holding a bowl of  fishball noodles, your kid would want to be like him too. It wasn’t like this in the 1970′s, when the government felt that policies to promote hawking amid throes of unemployment such as licence subsidies resulted in ‘many able bodied young men’ pursuing hawking as a full-time job rather than being more productive elsewhere. Today, these same young men are being seduced by the Ministry to keep hawker centres alive. It’s a little like our Stop at Two campaign, proof that the surefire way of killing an endearing part of our heritage is to have the government step in trying to save it.

Nothing screams romantic ‘blue-collar’ in pop culture like the hawker persona.  In Eric Khoo’s 1995 film Mee Pok Man, a humble hawker falls for a prostitute. 2000′s Chicken Rice War, about rival hawker families, was a self proclaimed parody of Romeo and Juliet. In countless local movies and dramas, the hawker character is often depicted as a slovenly, unshaven, bucktoothed, happy-go-lucky, simple-minded, Hokkien-spewing bumpkin with a white towel draped around his sweaty neck which doubles up as a fly swatter. If you’re the kind of girl who adores French and literature, you’re unlikely to find the man of your dreams flipping carrot cake off a greasy wok.

By typecasting hawkers from movies to National Day videos, we’re comforting ourselves that despite our lust for progress, there are still those among us still holding on to local culinary traditions and skills handed down from one generation to another. But more importantly, hawker food is one of the few reasons people even visit Singapore, and we are goners if every single one of these became converted into air-conditioned food courts dishing out nothing but mixed economical rice. Or if the hokkien mee seller with the straw hat gets replaced by the ‘hawkerpreneur’ who mixes it up with French and Western influences. It’s not hawker fare anymore; it’s bargain fine dining. It explains Vivian Balakrishnan’s urgency about ‘hawkership’ dying off, a horn that he has been tooting ever since 2011 when he felt that hawker centres should be ‘professionalised’ to attract the younger generation. Till today, he has yet to sell the hawker profession to the Singaporean woman, who would willingly have a one-night stand with a buff carwash attendant, but not a man who comes to bed smelling like pork lard.

Sungei Road should no longer be called a Thieves’ Market

From ‘Thieves’ Market: Time to stop the name-calling’, 2 Oct 2012, ST Forum

(Tay Boon Suat):IT IS regrettable that people still refer to the market in Sungei Road as Thieves’ Market (“Time catches up with Thieves’ Market”; last Saturday). Yes, years ago, when life was difficult in Singapore, perhaps some dishonest people relied on this place to make a living. But those times are long gone.

In fact, Sungei Road is now known as a place where many poor and old people rely on selling used household articles to make a living. Many of them have been selling goods there for 20 or 30 years. Some of them are creative enough to add value by repairing old household items and in doing this, are able to turn trash into cash.

They are the majority of sellers, and make an honest living, so why call the place Thieves’ Market?

In Singapore, there are very few local traditional markets that have been able to survive since the 1930s, so why destroy them for the sake of modernisation? I hope our urban planners can be more inclusive, and let this little market have some breathing space, and let it survive. Who knows, this karung guni market might some day become as big a local attraction for foreign tourists as the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok.

The Dirty Dozen starting work

In 2008, MP Denise Phua called the Sungei Road market ‘a slum’, and urged authorities to ‘clean it up’, but it’s not just the notorious flea market that’s in a mess, so was Ms Phua’s English:

I’m not seeking to ‘prettify’ the Sungei Road market, but I think it can be cleaner and better managed’

The same MP would be invited to a gala dinner next year to celebrate the launch the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, intended to protect the vendors’ interests. With the MRT development around the area, it would be impossible for Sungei Road to achieve the gonzo hustle and bustle of Chatuchak, but that doesn’t mean it can’t retain it’s ‘old world charm’, or its ‘sustainable model’ of karang guni trading. If there’s any ‘thieving’ going on, it’s how vendors get to set up shop at ‘a steal’, without having to apply for licenses or pay rental. If pitched right, ‘Thieves’ Market could be a weird and wonderful retro curio paradise, a likely place to find a vinyl player, a ship in a bottle or a Walkman. You may even get a ‘wacky’ pepper spray there too.

Although no longer the chaotic haven for crooks to make a quick buck off stolen junk, you just need to go back a couple of years to uncover incidents which justify why this legendary bazaar still has an air of ‘Ali Baba’ about it. In 2010, you could buy suspected contraband like mountain bikes for $300 (usual price $700). It was 60 years earlier that one of the first references of Sungei Road as a ‘thieves’ market’ was made by a certain Court Magistrate D. A Fyfe, who fined a vendor $100 for selling stolen SWIMMING TRUNKS. In a comical twist of events, the thief was caught by the original owners of the trunks HALF an HOUR after they were swiped at Rochor Road. The victims headed straight for Sungei Road to sniff him out, hence the name stuck.

Swimwear and bikes aside, if you’re lucky you may chance upon someone’s car keys, reels of copper wire worth tens of thousands of dollars, or used army uniforms.  But before it earned the reputation as a one-stop garage sale of pilfered bounty, Sungei Road was affectionately known in the 1930′s as ‘Robinson Petang‘, in reference to the ‘Robinsons’ department store where, other than the iffy stuff, most of it was traded from the rag-and-bone, or karang guni, man, stuff ranging from cigarettes to tin cans and gramaphones. It was raw entrepreneurship at work, a spirit that lives on in the many indie flea markets and pasar malams that line our streets today. I still have my suspicions of those paperbacks which I see at some of these roadside stalls. These are books which obviously NOBODY ever reads and I suspect they were ‘borrowed’ from libraries and never returned.

‘Thieves’ Market’ comes across as a romantic, catchy title that brings to mind flying carpets, genie lamps and even lost treasure maps if you let your imagination wander a little, though anyone strolling through the area in the hot sun would consider it anything but. You may still find the occasional yanked bicycle part, car tyre or bootleg Nokia if you search hard enough, but if a flea market run by pot-bellied uncles is called a ‘Thieves’ Market’, then what is Sim Lim Square? Pirates’ Cove?

No peeling of pineapples allowed in Geylang Serai market

From ‘Fruit sellers upset over NEA regulation’, 1 Oct 2012, article by Eunice Toh, TNP

…Fruit sellers at the market said they were verbally warned by a National Environment Agency (NEA) officer on Thursday last week that they are not allowed to skin or cut the pineapples they sell. They said they were told that anyone who violates the regulation would be slapped with a fine, believed to be $200.

The New Paper understands that the move is part of licensing regulations. Stallholders at markets are not licensed to sell peeled or cut fruits. These can only be sold at hawker centres and coffee shops under a different licence, and you need to go through the Basic Food Hygiene Course to get it, says NEA on its website.

…The enforcement of the regulation means a loss of customers, said the fruit sellers at the Geylang Serai wet market. Said Mr Ng Ah Bee, 62, in Mandarin: “Have people fallen ill from eating my fruits? We haven’t received any complaints all these years. “How do we do business like this?”

…Regular patron C. C. Choo, who visits the Geylang Serai market every Tuesday, said: “I live at Changi Road and I come all the way to buy pineapples because the stallholders peel the fruit for me.” The 79-year-old retiree added: “I can’t even cut an apple. How am I supposed to peel a pineapple?”

Another customer shocked by the news was Madam Bebe Seet, 62. She said: “I thought the stallholder was joking at first. I couldn’t believe it.” She is also worried about how this would affect her 15-year-old business. She owns a Peranakan heritage shop along East Coast Road, which also sells pineapple tarts.

She said: “I usually order about 80 to 100 pineapples at one go. Pineapple tarts are my speciality. Where am I going to get cut pineapples now?”

It may just be a coincidence, but another ‘SEET’ complained to STOMP about being deprived of this ‘buang kulit’ service, though this person claimed that the fine was not $200, but $1000. There haven’t been cases of people dying of pineapple poisoning in recent memory, but there have been deaths from consuming rojak in Geylang Serai in 2009, that’s excluding 150 others who fell sick from it. Which may explain why NEA officers are picking on Geylang Serai stallholders rather than those in other markets, with its infamy of being the site of the WORST case of food poisoning in Singapore’s history. It was also a PR disaster for NEA, otherwise known for their rigorous maintenance of hygiene standards. And asking people to clear their trays after eating.

Leaving the skin on a fruit doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ‘cleaner’, as anyone who’s been to a supermarket and seen aunties probing fruit with their grubby fingers can testify. It would be interesting if someone decides to send a random unpeeled NTUC apple and a Geylang Serai peeled and cut pineapple for microbial testing. I wouldn’t be surprised to find the apple having a higher bacterial count than the doorknob of a People’s Park toilet, a result by which you can toss the NEA’s case against cut fruits out of the window. I haven’t personally peeled a pineapple myself, but from the looks of its hard, spiny exterior, I wouldn’t call it so much ‘peeling’ as it is ‘deshelling’. You’d probably need a blade sharp enough to pry a tortoise’s carapace off its back. If you force pineapple fans to bring these armoured fruits home WHOLE, they may end up contaminating the fruits themselves if not done in a surgical manner, with a chopper or on a chopping board that has remnants of raw meat on it. If you’re in a mad rush to prepare stacks of pineapple tarts for CNY however,  a chainsaw would be the only viable option.

So what does one make of this ‘Basic Food Hygiene Course’ then? Turns out it is 7 hours of training followed by 1.5 hours of ‘assessment’, which I’d imagine to be nothing more than a T/F or MCQ test. After which you’re a certified food handler, though that doesn’t stop creepy crawlies from finding their way into your dishes, whether you’re slogging it out at a wet market or a fancy restaurant. Unless the NEA can justify how a cut and sealed pineapple is more hazardous than a bunch of manhandled grapes in a supermarket, my take is that this crackdown is excessively erring on the side of caution than anything else, based on nothing more than a legacy of contaminated rojak, the kind of rojak that traditionally doesn’t use pineapple too.

Hawker centre tray return racks too smelly

From ‘Why it’s difficult to return trays at hawker centres’ and ‘Tray clearing didn’t work previously because of poor facilities’, 15 Sept 2012, ST Forum

(Tan Ying San): THERE is a reason why patrons at fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s or Burger King willingly return their trays while those at the hawker centres do not (“Tray-return campaign set for a comeback”; Wednesday).

In fact, patrons avoid seats near the tray-return racks at hawker centres. The reason is simple: Food at fast-food restaurants is dry while the food at hawker centres is a mish-mash of soup, fried vegetables, dark sauce and oily fish. Just look at the mess in the plastic basin where the used bowls and dishes are placed. Not only is it an ugly sight but it also smells sometimes.

If operators of hawker centres and foodcourts want patrons to return the trays, a big effort to clean up the collection centre will go some way in encouraging a change in behaviour.

(Tony Lee): PREVIOUS campaigns to encourage self-clearing of trays failed not only because of a lack of graciousness but also proper facilitation (“Tray-return campaign set for a comeback”; Wednesday).

Hawker centres are cramped with an average of 200 tables, with narrow passages in between. Thus it is already quite an effort to weave in and out of the crowds safely without spilling when carrying a tray of food and drinks to reach one’s selected table. Self-clearing of trays will also lead to congestion.

Even if most patrons were to clear the tables by returning their trays of empty plates and bowls to the shelves placed at various corners in the hawker centre, the cleaners will still be needed to sort them out and return them to the different stalls for washing. Patrons must also walk around to find empty tray shelves if those placed near popular food stalls are full.

What Will and Kate missed

While it is generally true that hawker food tends to be messier than fast food, if you take into account spillage or remnants like bones or leftover sauces, you could make the work easier for everyone by not WASTING food and taking less condiments than you need in the first place. You may also stack your bowls, plates and debris in a neat, compact manner instead of spitting bones onto the table. For whatever reason that makes it difficult for someone to return a tray, be it the stink of the collection centre, ‘congestion’, or ‘feeling bad’ for cleaners who need the job, the least you can do as a gracious human being is to leave your table in a state that wouldn’t require the next patron or worker to don rubber gloves and a decontamination suit to render it less hazardous to one’s health. Or at least not leave behind a sumptuous buffet for mynahs, crows and rats which will not only transfer the waste from tray to table to floor and chair, but poop in your unfinished wanton soup as well.

An exception to the above would be the Ikea cafe culture, where the food is equally messy but the collection centre is centrally located and accessible with a couple of cleaners on hand sorting things out. Maybe it’s not so ‘simple’ as just facilities or the kind of food you eat that determines one’s willingness to return a tray, but rather the psychology and habits of diners. I could just eat a piece of goreng pisang and leave the wrapper behind on the table even if there’s a empty, odourless trash can right next to me if I’m the sort of lazy bastard with a ‘maid mentality’. Also, hawker centre patrons are generally office workers in a rush, and if one had to queue for a longer time just to return trays compared to ordering ‘economical mixed rice’, then you may add another excuse to the list: My boss will kill me if I return back to office a minute late.

Even at Macs not everyone cleans up after themselves, and sometimes even the adults, including teachers of ‘brand name’ schools,  fail to set an example. I personally witnessed a mother telling her daughter to ‘leave it, wait you get your hands dirty’ and walked out of Macs without clearing their trays. Whether out of absent-mindedness, fear of contamination or just plain laziness, the greatest contagion here is not the spread of disease and vermin from uncleared trays, but the attitudes of parents and other ‘role models’ infecting our children.

There have been filthy tables as long as there were hawker centres, and amazingly in the eighties our communal sense of self-consciousness was not as developed as it is today (or maybe we just ran out of cleaners), with fingers being pointed at everything else (hawkers and cleaners included) than at ourselves. Popular spots like Newton Circus greeted patrons with a ‘pong of stewing offal and rotting swill’. People also asked the government to deploy ‘efficient ladies’ to clear tables immediately after anyone leaves.  Those who were part of that generation of sanitation expectation, including myself, are now flag bearers for the younger generation today. And if we don’t snap out of this dependence, how else will the kids learn?

So what can we do to drill tray-clearing into Singaporeans without resorting to toilet-training? Gentle reminders in ads and campaigns such as putting ‘Goodness Gracious’ stickers on tables are inadequate and a waste of time and money in my opinion. Fining failure to return trays under the same legislation as one penalises littering is too harsh. Instead of instilling fear, I think you’d need to create a herd mentality and exploit the Singaporean trait of ‘following the crowd’. If I’m at McDonalds and everyone around me suddenly walks off without clearing their trays, I’m less likely to clear mine, because EVERYONE else is not doing it. Likewise, if I’m at a hawker centre and I see Jenga stacks of dirty plates around me, my brain would register it as the ‘norm’ and I wouldn’t want to ‘stand out’ being the lone ranger clearing his tray.

I would suggest to NEA to recruit not tray ‘ambassadors’ or comedians in starched officer uniform to tell people off, but ‘actors’ instead to dish out some serious guerilla-tactic mind games. This is how I imagine it would work: Target families tucking into dinner in a hawker centre, making sure they are kids in the group. Deploy an ‘actor’ family (with kids as well) next to your target and make sure you finish your food before them. Make the kid actor walk off without the tray while the rest have already started carrying theirs. Make the adult actors admonish the kid ‘Boy boy, what are you supposed to do after you finish your food?’. As the kid does so grudgingly, have the adults deal a little life lesson on being compassionate to fellow human beings and give direction to tray collection areas. Make sure all this is seen and heard without sounding like you’re in Jack Neo film. Chances are your target and those around them will follow suit in a chain reaction of tray clearing. Better still, secretly film the entire scene and upload on Youtube. Like the mini fly haven of a landfill that is the hawker centre tray collection centre, it will go VIRAL.

Hello, NEA are you listening, I’m trying to have CONVERSATION here.

$1.99 set meals when 1 cent coins no longer exist

From ‘Do away with $1.99 pricing for meals’, 2 June 2012, ST Forum

(Lim Kay Heng): I WONDER why NTUC Foodfare prices its set meal at $1.99 when the Board of Commissioners of Currency has stopped issuing 1 cent coins (‘Budget $1.99 meal to beat inflation’; Friday).

Why not price it at $2? If NTUC Foodfare wants to give the impression that it can offer a meal for the needy at less than $2, price it at $1.95 or $1.90.

The most affordable ‘Mixed Vegetable Rice’ money can buy

For 1 chicken wing braised in dark sauce, hard boiled egg and what looks suspiciously like canned achar,  $1.99 sounds like a good deal, even looks appetising, though probably not filling enough for me. According to the original article,  ‘the $1.99 rate is for customers who are part of the Public Assistance Scheme, students, senior citizens, full-time national servicemen with concessionary cards and NTUC union members. Other diners pay $2.50.’ Those on the PAS can opt to fork out ONE miserly CENT more if they forgo the set and choose from 20 dishes for $2. Therein lies the oldest marketing gimmick in the book, the use of the magical number 99 to attract customers, when it’s unlikely that anyone will ACTUALLY pay $1.99 (unless you spent your entire childhood collecting one cent coins in a jar). As you’ll see, the extinction of ONE cent coins is not the POINT here. This isn’t charity, and like any other business you need some play with numbers to stay afloat. And this number play is as old school as it can get.

What one cent coins looked like

One cent coins have been out of commission since 2002, incidentally a time when Woman Entrepreneur of the Year 2000 Nanz Chong’s ONE.99 shop was considering raising prices of all items to $2. First set up in the Heeren, Orchard Road (circa 1997), ‘$1.99 for everything’ was a shrewd, ballsy gimmick at the time (Everything at $199 – in the heart of pricey Orchard Road? 6 July 1997, ST). That business eventually folded, though many other factors such as copycat competition may have brought the budget concept to its knees other than giving up on a ‘magical’ price tag. I personally wouldn’t buy my kitchenware at a TWO DOLLAR SHOP, though I would patronise a $2.99 store because of the illusion of ‘value’ that the numbers create, even if that doesn’t make any rational dollar sense at all. In 2001, someone opened a $10 dollar clothings shop in Far East Plaza called Take Ten to ride on the $1.99 frenzy (And for $10, 15 Feb 2001, ST). I don’t know if this still exists today but I think more people would bite if it had charged everything for $9.99 instead.

You could apply the 99 numerological sorcery to price tags other than ‘economical’ rice or budget shop items as well.

The list of  freakonomic tricks involving magic number 9 is endless, and since you can jolly well top up 1 cent for better variety, I would think a ‘$1.99 set meal’ is more a calculated gamble on flawed human psychology than anything else.  You feel good about yourself if you in fact do pay $1.99, but even better if you ‘pay a teenie-weenie more’ ($2) for something extra. If the ONE.99  shop and the above examples have taught us anything, it’s that you can always make a hungry person pay more than necessary and still think he had a good bargain.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 279 other followers