Faye Sai and her siblings grew up working in the small coffee shop, or kopitiam, of their father, just as he had worked in his own father’s kopitiam decades before. Situated in one of Singapore’s famed hawker centers, the stall was hot and tiny, even for kids. Sai remembers the hard days, the long hours, and the endless complaining. Ultimately, though, none of it was enough to deter Sai in following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a hawker herself.
Since Sai took over her father’s stall, Coffee Break, in 2011 at the popular Amoy Street Food Centre, she and her siblings have been selling the same traditional Nanyang kopi (coffee) made from dark robusta beans. But under Sai’s leadership, Coffee Break now also offers trendy flavored lattes like salted caramel, black sesame, and pistachio. Where the older kopitiams serve takeaway drinks in clear plastic bags, Coffee Break offers customers disposable cups, not unlike what they’d find at a Starbucks.
Sai is one of the country’s new hawkerpreneurs, the ambitious young Singaporeans who are using the country’s traditional hawker centers for a very different style of food business. While these flashy new operations are bringing vital foot traffic to Singapore’s struggling hawker centers, some feel the menus are skewing too far from classic Singaporean cooking, and that important parts of the country’s culture and cuisine are at risk of getting left behind.
For years now, Singaporeans have worried that there simply aren’t enough young people interested in pursuing work as a hawker for the historic centers to survive. So much more than mere food courts, the centers are havens of Singaporean cuisine, where bak kut teh (herbal pork rib soup) and flame-licked satays are served alongside saucy chile crab and skinny wonton noodles. Without these centers — and with tough legislation prohibiting street vendors to operate outside them — there’s nowhere for the food to go, at least at the prices Singaporeans are accustomed to.
“For many, hawker centers actually serve as the convenient kitchen for local housing flats,” says Leslie Tay, a family doctor who is also a culinary advocate and member of the government’s Workgroup on Sustaining the Hawker Trade. “That’s why Singaporeans don’t cook — cheap food is just downstairs.”
At its best, the hawker center represents all the things that the young nation-state espouses: multiculturalism, a sense of shared heritage, and a communal kampong (village) spirit. But it’s also a hard life, and few longtime hawkers today say they want their children to follow in their footsteps. Jasmine, a 62-year-old hawker who has been selling Hainanese chicken rice and roast meats for more than 40 years, put it this way: “Even my own nephew and niece, I won’t want them to continue.” As she sees it, “[It’s] better they go study and work somewhere easier.”
Thanks to the country’s growing economy, that kind of “easier” life has become a reality for more and more young Singaporeans who are opting to climb the socioeconomic ladder over grinding in the hawker trade, which is traditionally associated with hard labor, low pay, and low social status. “In general, hawkers are seen as blue-collar jobs,” says Tay. “I wouldn’t say young people are unwilling to become hawkers, they just don’t necessarily aspire to be one when they grow up.”
Tay’s efforts are part of a larger government movement to change that reputation, incentivizing young people to consider becoming hawkers by offering grants toward purchasing kitchen equipment, and fostering the sense of a broader hawker community through conferences and other events. But it’s a double-edged sword: With new hawkers come new ideas, nontraditional foods, and an emphasis on image and branding that some worry might pull business away from the more classic stalls.
Not everyone sees it that way, of course — most notably the hawkerpreneurs. Lee Syafiq, 28, became a hawker four years ago. He trained as a professional chef and worked in hotels and fine dining restaurants, but when he wanted to open his own spot, a gourmet burger concept called Ashes Burnnit, he chose to do so in an open stall inside a local hawker center.
“One of the reasons I decided to become a hawker is because the startup cost is actually not as high compared to being in a restaurant or cafe,” says Syafiq.
He eventually hopes to franchise the concept and turn Ashes Burnnit into a nationwide chain.
“People always talk about fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King,” he says. “We also wanted to be a household name, but still at the same time start off in a Singaporean hawker center. Starting off in a hawker, you know, as part of the new generation? That has impact, that has a storyline to it.”
On Ashes Burnnit’s menu you’ll see dishes like smashed cheeseburgers and pulled brisket. It’s a far cry from the usual bak kut teh and fish-head curries that you’ll find a few stalls down, but for Syafiq, that’s sort of the point.
“For our case, we want to prove something,” says Syafiq. “Hawker culture is evolving, and the food is also evolving. More people are coming in and hawker centers have the possibility to sell more than just local fare.”
Unsurprisingly, there’s been pushback. Early on, a number of older hawkers expressed reservations about Syafiq’s franchise model, concerned about food quality declining through expansion. Sai, too, has been met with resistance. Some customers complain about the store leaning into what they see as cheap gimmicks and novelty menu items, rather than good, honest cups of kopi. There is a sense here that young folk should honor the legacy of practices that came before them.
But Sai argues that innovation isn’t inherently contrary to the hawker spirit. “It was really my father who told us we had to innovate and we had to set the trend,” says Sai, explaining that he had begun experimenting with almond- and hazelnut-flavored kopis long before Sai and her siblings took over.
Other traditional hawkers aren’t exactly immune to trends either. In 2017, when Singapore went through a national craze for everything salted egg, many of the older vendors began serving classic dishes glazed in the salty-sweet egg sauce. Even the iconic Singaporean carrot cake, usually doused in sweet and thick dark sauce, got the salted-egg treatment, and you’ll still see salted-egg dishes on the menus of classic stalls today.
“They think we’re young, they think we’re new, they think this has never been done,” says Sai, “but actually just take this experience and go back maybe 15, 20, or even 30 years — it’s kind of the same.”
Fighting to retain traditional foodways in an age of rapid globalization is complicated. Singapore is a relatively young nation state, yet it has emerged as a hub for international trade, enterprise, and ideological exchange, with a constant influx of powerful foreign influences — K-pop, western media, and the like. In that environment, food suddenly becomes a cultural anchor. One that even most hawkerpreneurs want to protect.
“It was fun growing up in a hawker center when my grandfather opened up a kopitiam in our neighborhood — the sights, the smells, the food and the neighbors,” says Sai. “For me, [that] is what heritage is about.”
Lee Syafiq is now part of a newly launched Hawkers’ Development Program, an idea proposed by Tay, and he has already taken a trainee under his wing. The apprentice works at his stall, learns the ropes, and Syafiq gives feedback on his menu and technique. Syafiq hopes that his apprentice may one day open his own stall, and may take on starry-eyed young pupils of his own.
“For me, the idea that a small business could actually attract as many as 200 or 300 customers in a day and, at the same time, have longevity in terms of how they operate — to me, that is hawker culture,” he says.
Jacklin Kwan was born and raised in Singapore, and currently resides in Manchester, UK, where she is pursuing a career in journalism. Huiying Ore is a Singaporean documentary photographer with a focus on telling stories of communities and places in Southeast Asia affected by development.