How Covid nearly killed Singapore’s hawker culture

Singapore hawkers ­– large food courts full of stalls – are a tourist attraction all on their own, and perhaps even more famous than the iconic Merlion. Alongside Michelin-starred restaurants in the city are Michelin Bib hawkers who make up half the winners list. Singapore-based writer Anna Murphy reports on how the pandemic almost shuttered hawkers completely. 

Stalls at a Singapore hawkers centre | Photo: Supplied

Singapore’s chicken rice and chilli crab brings the world together around humble tables all over the island. To say that we’re famous for hawker food is quite the understatement. Hawkers make up more than half of the Michelin Bib Gourmand winners celebrating world-class food under $45. Football celebrity David Beckham eats at Hawker Chan, touted by Michelin as serving ‘The World’s First Hawker Michelin-starred Meal’ and ‘The Cheapest Michelin-starred Meal In The World’.

Opening soon in New York City is Urban Hawker curated by  KF Seetoh, local food critic and founder of Makansutra and Gluttons Bay in Singapore. In fact, it was Anthony Bourdain who set that ball rolling, having been a huge fan of hawker food on his many visits prior to his death.

Hawker centres are ubiquitous. We can criss-cross the island to enjoy a delicious meal for less than the price of a Starbucks coffee. There are as many types of cuisines on parade as races that live on the Little Red Dot. The level of variety coupled with relatively low prices makes eating out as a lifestyle choice a no-brainer. The multi-cultural demographic makes for a gastronomic kaleidoscope that’s always on our mind.

Singapore’s top food bloggers like Brad Lau (@ladyironchef), Daniel Ang (@danielfooddiary) and Maureen Ow (@misstamchiak) continue to fan the flames of hawker culture with frequent posts about old and new hawker stalls popping up around the island. The strong bond that natives and visitors alike have with hawker culture may just have saved our hawker centres and food courts from shuttering for good during the Covid pandemic.

Covid kills the foodgasm

Out of order: hawkers dining tables during the pandemic | Photo: Supplied

Covid restrictions over the past two years nearly ended the "foodgasm". Circuit Breaker restrictions from April 2021 allowed only delivery or self-collection options for the food and beverage industry. The hawker stalls started closing almost as soon as the pandemic reached our shores and the partial national lockdown began. It was not quite the Shanghai lockdown but fear kept people at home.

Not a person was spared the chaos of not being able to walk to a nearby hawker for their daily meals. Every household had to rethink grocery shopping, cooking and the clean-up, while working from home and schooling their children.

However, while our domestic inconveniences were relatively easy to overcome, the hawkers were ferociously trawled through the lockdowns from the get-go. With no customers, no labour and little money to float them through the pandemic, numerous stalls simply closed within months.

Our hawkers were poor to begin with. Hawker culture grew out of poverty. Escaping to Singapore from war and economic strife in China, India and neighbouring countries from the early 1900s, many migrants supplemented their meagre income by selling cooked foods from makeshift stoves slung on poles carried on their shoulders.

Cheap and cheerful

A meal at a hawkers centre can cost less than the price of a Starbucks coffee | Photo: Supplied

Whole families are involved in running a hawker stall, and to this day the oldest hawkers are still the husband-and-wife team, with the children occasionally helping in the stalls. A labour shortage ensued when foreign blue-collar workers were caught out in the Covid travel restrictions and hiring practices based on where workers were coming from. The hawkers were left to fend for themselves.

My local chicken rice stall is run by a couple in their sixties whose two adult sons pack food and serve customers. They are pleasant and highly efficient, working together like a well-oiled machine. Throughout the lockdown, they took orders on their cell phones and packed hundreds of takeaway orders each day. An order with extra rice and extra boneless roast chicken with a soy egg costs less than NZD $5.

Our favourite congee or porridge stall is valiantly held up by a couple well into their seventies. They do not speak English but the dishes are numbered so it is not hard to order a Number 1 with egg (point to egg). A large bowl of porridge stuffed with minced and sliced pork, topped with spring onion, fried shallots and sesame oil costs just NZD 3.50. For NZD 1.50 more you can add an egg and a crispy, fried dough stick that is a foot long. The congee is so thick you can stand your spoon in it.

Foodies save hawkers

When you eat out as often as Singapore folks do, the hawkers become as much a part of our lives as we are theirs, says Murphy. | Photo: Supplied

There are numerous hawker businesses that have been handed down from one generation to the next, but most young adults simply don’t want that for themselves. On the other hand, we have seen unemployed graduates who have no option but to join the family food business. This new generation brings with it fresh ways of marketing, on-trend dishes to liven up menus, and they inject our old hawker haunts with infectious, young energy.

When you eat out as often as Singapore folks do, the hawkers become as much a part of our lives as we are theirs. A relationship developed over food needs no words and it is this bond that has saved the hawkers. As soon as people started to realise that the stallholders were on the brink of disaster, foodies went into overdrive  on social media. Their digital marketing prowess continues to unleash wave upon wave of posts by foodie influencers, encouraging followers to support the hawkers. While hawkers are finally getting their share of internet limelight, it is also heartening to see Singaporeans ring-fencing a fragile culture to keep it alive.

Seetoh has championed the plight of hawkers for decades, going to battle with the authorities on measures that harm the stallholders’ ability to earn a living wage. In a Facebook post in May 2021, Seetoh wrote: “If you eat out a lot, please patronise these silent sufferers.”

Hawkers depend on footfall and the lockdowns hit hard and fast. They are not digitally savvy enough to market themselves, nor can they afford the hefty delivery fees charged by platforms such as Deliveroo or Food Panda, two of the most popular food delivery apps in Singapore. With people staying at home and ordering food on these apps, the hawkers saw fewer customers.

In August 2021, Seetoh wrote in another Facebook post: “I stopped counting after over 150 little hawkers (excluding restaurants) went belly up...I still get info about closures almost daily.” It is too early to say if and when the carnage will end. Hawkers and restaurants are closing with alarming frequency. Oddly, many new restaurants have opened during Covid as well, likely taking advantage of vacated spaces for ventures already planned and financed that must go ahead, pandemic notwithstanding.

Our hawker centre is still littered with the plastic nets used for social distancing. Seats and tables still have red crosses in duct tape to prevent customers from using them. After a few weeks of absence, the Safety Ambassadors were back to make sure we were still behaving ourselves. We were clearly sitting in a restricted area today, but they did not trouble us even after walking past our table twice. Since Singapore lifted many restrictions in the past few weeks, the atmosphere is different; people seem less anxious. The crowds and queues are back and it is a lot noisier. It is good to see that most of our favourite hawkers survived Covid and frankly, if they had a tip jar, most of their customers would happily drop a few dollars more to help them through whatever comes next.

 - Asia Media Centre