“Hawker centres are like Singapore in a nutshell! I love how I always have so many different types of food to choose from, and can eat comfortably in a no-frills environment. It feels just like home.”
– Belinda Ho
Hawker Culture in Singapore is an integral part of the way of life for Singaporeans, where people from all walks of life gather at hawker centres to dine and bond over their favourite hawker food, which are prepared by hawkers. Over the years, this unique combination of food, space and community has evolved into a microcosm of Singapore’s multicultural society, with stalls selling Chinese, Malay, Indian and many other diverse types of dishes.
Many of these hawker dishes originated from the food cultures of different immigrant groups who settled in Singapore. Over time, they have evolved to become the distinctive local dishes that we love, and form an important part of our food heritage.
Our hawkers, comprising individual of all races, gender and age, and their repertoire of skills are central to our hawker centres. Well regarded for their mastery of the hawker culinary traditions, it is important that our hawkers’ knowledge, culinary skills and values are passed on through the generations.
Today, hawker centres are an integral part of Singaporeans’ way of life. They are spread across our island and serve as “community dining rooms”, where friends and families gather, interact and bond over their shared love for food. They also serve as vibrant communal spaces that promote social cohesion, moderate the cost of living and foster a common national identity based on shared experiences, values, and norms.
9 in 10 respondents agreed/strongly agreed that hawker centres are an important part of Singapore’s identity – Survey conducted by National Environment Agency (NEA) in 2016
“Food Heritage” was highlighted as the most important aspect of Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage in a 2018 public poll by NHB involving more than 3,000 respondents.
As Singapore’s nomination for the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it is important for the chosen intangible cultural heritage element to be one that reflects our multicultural identity as a people and nation, resonates strongly with Singaporeans across all races and social strata, and yet be able to showcase Singapore’s rich and diverse culture on the international stage.
The choice of nominating Hawker Culture in Singapore for the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage was determined after a series of public engagement efforts with Singaporeans.
Earlier this year, the National Heritage Board (NHB) conducted a public poll which attracted more than 3,000 respondents, and “Food Heritage” was highlighted as the most important aspect of Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage.
From April to July 2018, a series of focus group discussions were also conducted with academics, heritage experts, youths, cultural practitioners and members of the public. Hawker Culture in Singapore emerged as a firm favourite among the participants, who indicated their support for it to be nominated for UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Many participants shared about the importance of Hawker Culture in Singapore to Singaporeans, and how the multicultural dishes and hawker centres form an important part of our daily lives.
The origins of Hawker Culture in Singapore can be traced back to the mid-1800s, when the first street hawkers would ply the streets selling an array of food offerings. Back then, street hawkers took up the trade to earn a livelihood. It was a popular occupation amongst many early settlers as it required little capital and minimal skill.
Up till the 1970s, street food stalls could still be seen in areas such as Chinatown and Orchard Road. They were popular gathering spaces, offering affordable meals such as laksa and satay to customers from all walks of life.
From 1968 to 1986, the Government licensed and resettled street hawkers into purpose-built hawker centres and markets with proper sanitation and amenities.
This period would represent the most extensive construction of hawker centres in Singapore’s history, as hawker centres made their way into housing estates and industrial areas.
Today, there are more than 110 hawker centres across the island. An additional 13 more hawker centres will be developed by 2027.
The vibrant Hawker Culture in Singapore that we enjoy today is the result of the support of many – the hawkers, community groups, organisations, Government, and Singaporeans who patronise them. Together, they have helped make the Hawker Culture in Singapore an integral part of Singapore living.
To ensure its continuity, there have been ongoing efforts to document, safeguard and promote our hawker centres and hawker food. NHB has worked with public agencies, hawkers’ associations and food experts to document Singapore’s hawker centres and food, and supported many ground-up projects.
For instance, NHB and NEA conducted research on 12 hawker centres 2017, covering the heritage and architecture of the centres, as well as their social significance in relation to their neighbourhoods. Storyboards have been installed to share the history of these hawker centres.
In 2016, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) and NEA appointed a multi-disciplinary Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee. To sustain the hawker trade, the Committee assessed that it would be useful to provide structured training programmes for aspiring hawkers, where they can learn from veteran hawkers how to cook and acquire business management skills. The Committee had also recommended the incubation stall programme which allows aspiring hawkers to learn the ropes of being a hawker and test out their business plans. Apart from training, the Committee also suggested setting up a one-stop Information and Service Centre which functions as a service centre for hawker trade-related enquiries.
At the same time, there are strong and ongoing public and private sector efforts to promote Hawker Culture in Singapore through nationwide and international events such as the Singapore Food Festival organised by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), Singapore Day by Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU), City Hawker Food Hunt organised by City Gas and Shin Min Daily News, and Kueh Appreciation Day by Slow Food Singapore.