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.”
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.