Ask any Singaporean what reminds them most of home and they’re sure to name a plate of fragrant chicken rice, piping hot laksa or any other sumptuous dish you can find at a hawker centre. These food hubs have long been the backbone of our city, feeding generation after generation of Singaporeans with good food at low prices. Today, they stand threatened by rising costs, changing tastes and a digital landscape. To find out where Singapore’s hawker culture is headed, we speak to three hawker families: one carrying the torch forward, one picking up a new trade and one laying old traditions to rest
Leaving the hawker trade behind
David Law, Jenny Ang and Pat Law
Katong Keah Kee Fried Oysters and (formerly) Changi Terminal 1 Keah Kee Braised Duck
If you ask Pat Law where she thinks Singapore’s hawker culture is headed, you might not like her answer. “I say this with sadness—I genuinely think it will die out in this generation.”
Her view is a grim one, but who could have a more credible opinion on the future of hawker centres than someone who grew up in and around one? As the daughter of second-generation hawkers, Law found her feet within the four walls of a stall from an early age. “As a kid, my pocket money always smelt of braised duck,” she recalls with a shuddering laugh. “I ate leftover duck rice from my dad’s stall nearly every night for 20 years. It’s safe to say I don’t eat it much anymore.”
Law, a creative director and entrepreneur, is sharing her story with me one night over Zoom. “My dad stepped into the hawker business young. He was 10, maybe 12. Along with his eldest brother, he used to sell oyster omelette at Marshall Road from a wooden pushcart. Those don’t exist anymore,” Law says. By the time Law had arrived to the family a few decades later, her dad was running a braised duck rice stall at the staff canteen in Changi Airport Terminal 1.
This was where Law grew up. It was also where she first got a taste of what life for hawkers in Singapore often looked like. The first problem, she realised, was that while everything around them got more expensive, their food was not allowed to. “The whole idea of a staff canteen is that food needs to be sold at staff prices. I still distinctly remember that we sold drumstick rice for $2.80. That price didn’t change for years.” The rental cost for the stall, however, ballooned from $600 a month in 1981 to $6,000 by the time her parents left. Unable to raise the prices of his dishes, her father was running losses of a few hundred dollars even on his best days.
“I say this with sadness—I genuinely think hawkers will die out in this generation”
Law remembers helping out around the stall and watching patrons interact with her parents. “Not so much as a thank you from most of them. Sometimes, I used to call out ‘you’re welcome’ to buyers who were exceptionally rude to my parents,” she quips. We share a laugh, but the reality is that while Singaporeans proclaim their love for local hawker food on social media, many turn their noses down at hawkers themselves. Law recalls countless incidents of diners asking for free soup and getting agitated when her mother charged them for the styrofoam bowls they came in.
And yet, Law’s father, David, has never wavered from his full-of-heart, customer-first approach. “He loves feeding people and has immense passion for his craft. And he always tells us to just give whatever customers ask for.” Today, he is back cooking what he first started with—glistening plates of oyster omelette, each perfectly crispy on the edges and bursting with flavour. This time, his stall is housed in the vibrant Chinatown Food Street.
“I can taste a marked difference between a plate of fried oyster omelette made by dad and one made by mum,” Law says, immediately adding: “Not to bash my mum! It’s just that he’s had decades of practice cooking the same dish.” Hence, Law knows that unlike dishes that rely primarily on recipes and easy-to-follow- instructions, technique-heavy items like the one her father makes is a dying art in Singapore.
“Most Singaporeans don’t want to take up this job. And I get it—it’s long hours of work and not a lot of pay-off. In Japan, if a chef has made a ramen dish hundreds of times, he’s called a master. People queue up on the streets to buy his food. Our hawkers, too, have perfected their dishes over decades, but no one pays them that respect.”
The fact that Singaporeans don’t seem to hold local food traditions in as high regard as they do foreign imports is a threat to hawker culture and it likely stems from our postcolonial hangover, Law and I agree. And when it comes to her father’s stall, she doesn’t have any plans to take over. She says with a wink: “My dad refuses to teach me his recipes anyway. I’ll admit, I’m not the best cook. He always says, ‘anyone but you!’” So, once her father has sold his last dish of oyster omelette, the recipe will be laid to rest. All good things must, after all, come to an end.
Enterprising corporates turned hawkers
Jeevan Ananthan and May Leena Krishnan
Li Na Fishball Noodles
It was the combination of a couple wanting to see each other more often and their passion for local food that led Jeevan Ananthan and May Leena Krishnan to open a hawker stall together. Ananthan, who was previously an investment banker, and Krishnan, who worked in digital marketing, began by writing down a list of their favourite local dishes. They ended up with a shared love for heartwarming bowls of fishball noodles and bak chor mee, and Li Na Fishball Noodles—which bears Krishnan’s Chinese name—was born.
To witness Ananthan and Krishnan (he is Indian while she is Indian-Chinese) mastering a Chinese noodle dish of Teochew origin is the beauty of being Singaporean. But in the early days, it caught many people by surprise. Random members of the public would question Ananthan’s abilities to cook Chinese food, some even asking him to paint his face white.
Ananthan reveals that these comments only served as motivation for the couple to make their mark. They invested in their ingredients, aiming to recreate a flavour they both reminisced when they first dug into a bowl of beloved fishball noodles. The couple decided to handmake everything that goes into their dish, from fishballs to fish cakes, fish dumplings and minced pork. Only their noodles are not their own; however, Ananthan perfected the art of cooking them by training under a veteran noodle seller for a month.
“There’s a lot of misconception around running a hawker stall. People think we are uneducated and we do this because we have no choice”
The initial research and constant refining of their dish paid off. The noodles are delightfully springy and there’s a rich burst of flavour in the fish dumplings. Word spread, and after a year, their customer base was burgeoning and they realised they needed help. “We were waking up at 4am, at our stall at 5am and worked right up to mid-afternoon. Then we would prepare for the next day,” says Ananthan. “We realised it’s not humanly possible for two people to do it all on their own.”
Krishnan is pensive when asked about the winds of change in the couple’s career paths. “There’s a lot of misconception around running a hawker stall. People think we are uneducated and we do this because we have no choice,” she ruminates. “We’ve heard mothers telling their kids, ‘You better study or else you will become like them’. Why would anyone want to consider this as a career if that is the perception?”
The couple believe there’s room for education. “There’s not enough infrastructure to help young people—there’s no information online and nobody to guide you. It can be really daunting,” explains Ananthan. Perhaps the other elephant in the room is about making a comfortable living in Singapore as a hawker. He is firm in his perspective: “Hawkers can definitely make enough money to be comfortable as long as they’re not greedy. We were also in it to win it. We didn’t start a business half thinking it was going to fail.”
Ultimately, it is the freedom of choice and doing things on their own terms that make the hawker path satisfying to the hungry couple. Krishnan concludes: “It’s rewarding when regulars come back often. The feeling when they are excited to eat your food is indescribable.”
Following tradition with a third generation of hawkers
Tan Kim Leng, Khoo Poh Hong, Edna Chen, Terence Tan and Elinor Tan
Song Zhou Fried Carrot Cake
Elinor Tan cannot recall a life without her parents’ carrot cake stall in it. It was there when she was born, it saw her through her formative years, and it is where she still returns to every day. She fondly recalls trekking down to Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre after school to help out at Song Zhou Fried Carrot Cake, surrounded by the piquant smell of food and a congenial community of hawkers.
“I grew up here. I did my homework here and spent every Saturday here while my friends played on weekends,” says Elinor. Despite this connection, working full-time for the business never crossed her mind. “My mother encouraged me to try other things as she didn’t want me to have any regrets.”
But as Elinor, her older sister Edna, and older brother Terence grew up, they realised the immense sacrifices and hard work their parents had put in to raise them and give them a comfortable life. It was in June last year Elinor knew in her heart she would take over the stall with her siblings and be third-generation hawkers—a rare occurrence today. “We wanted our parents to slow down and enjoy themselves,” she explains with a small smile. “This stall has provided our family income for so many years. My family has worked so hard over decades to build up Song Zhou’s legacy and name; it would be wasted if we let it all go.”
“Some customers have been eating our family’s carrot cake for decades and comparison is inevitable. It makes our day when these older uncles and aunties tell us we are doing well”
This family legacy harks back to the ’70s, when Elinor’s maternal grandfather sold chwee kueh in a pushcart. In 1974, when he became tired of getting chased around, he decided to settle at Whampoa Market with a signature black carrot cake recipe that won the favour of many. Five years later, the stall was relocated to Bedok Interchange Hawker Centre, where both black and white carrot cake options were offered, as it is today. Elinor’s mother, Khoo Poh Hong, and father, Tan Kim Leng, took over the morning shift from Khoo’s father in 1984, after they tied the knot.
Inhaling a plate of carrot cake is a religious experience for many Singaporeans. This dish, with origins in southern China’s Chaoshan province, is a delectable fry-up of rice flour, white radish, garlic, eggs and preserved radish or chai poh. While the ingredients are simple, Elinor says it is in the way they control the fire and the ratio of eggs to white radish that makes a difference. She adds: “To my dad, a good plate of carrot cake has to be shiny. We will never serve it if it’s dull-looking or dry.”
While her parents are exceptionally proud of the close-knit siblings, Elinor believes it’s not time to rest on their laurels. To her, success is gaining approval from customers that have been patronising her family’s stall for more than three decades. “We are new and constantly learning, and we don’t have the years of experience that my parents have. Some customers have been eating our family’s carrot cake for decades and comparison is inevitable. It makes our day when these older uncles and aunties tell us we are doing well.”
A second stall is a dream for the family, but Elinor thinks it will be a while away. She surmises: “We can’t have another stall yet when our aim is to let our parents fully retire. Manpower will be an issue, but we will get there one day. For now, we are content with people knowing about us and loving our food.”
Photography Sayher Heffernan
Fashion Jasmine Ashvinkumar and Desmond Lim
Hair and make-up June Goh and Rie Miura using Tarte