Hawkers have been steadily decreasing in number over the past few decades as Singaporeans with higher education prefer to take on high-paying white-collar jobs. Singapore won its bid to become a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in December 2020, but it has done little to increase the appeal of this tedious, back- breaking job.
You must love food and serving it if you want to be a hawker. Hours aren’t great and customers aren’t always gracious. Their struggle with steam and smoke is accompanied by an overwhelming cacophony of fragrances and odours. They also have to keep up with constantly changing pandemic restrictions in addition to strict quality control and hygiene measures.
BRIYANI RUNS IN THE BLOOD
Even though he needed a bit of convincing initially, easy-going Sheik Abdul Hannan, born into a family of briyani hawkers, joined the business because of his love for family. “I wanted to become an aircraft engineer,” he says wistfully. Geylang Briyani Stall was started in 1964 by Hannan’s grandfather, a migrant who brought his family’s briyani recipe to Singapore from Tamil Nadu, India.
Briyani, also called biryani, is a fragrant basmati rice dish originating from Persia and South Asia that’s made with an array of herbs and spices. Similarly to the experiences of other hawkers, Hannan explains how preparing this intricate dish every day was quite a change from the lifestyle he had been used to earlier.
The desire of Hannan’s father, Hamid, to preserve the family stall, along with the senior hawker’s passion for cooking briyani for others, eventually changed Hannan’s mind. These days, the 6.30am preparation at the stall is a full-fledged family affair. Hannon, his father, aunt, and cousin crowd this stall in Geylang Serai Food Centre as they slice red onions, peel potatoes, and mix the ginger paste in silence.
By 9am, Hannon and Hamid don their white chef hats as a queue starts forming. It typically consists of mainly older customers waiting patiently for their nasi briyani with curry chicken, fried chicken or mutton and classic South Asian sides.
Hannan divulges that his customers come from all walks of life and their compliments keep him going. Occasionally, he’ll get a customer telling him that they have been eating his family’s briyani since his grandfather ran the stall. Another says that he only gets his briyani fix from Geylang Briyani Stall because “they are good people”.
Now married with children, Hannan is already planning for the next generation of Geylang Briyani Stall. “I let my children try briyani the moment they could eat solid food,” Hannan reveals with a cheeky laugh. “I used to bring them to the stall weekly, so they could watch me working and to inculcate an interest in F&B from a young age.”
During the pandemic, they saw a decline in sales and donated surplus briyani to mosques to avoid waste. “As the circuit breaker happened when Ramadhan came around, I had to activate my delivery service. I delegated jobs to family members who were retrenched at the time,” he says. He also introduced a ‘Buy Under One Roof’ programme, which allowed his customers to add dishes from neighbouring stalls at Geylang Serai Food Centre in addition to their biryani order.
ATTRACTING FIRST-TIMERS TO THE HAWKER INDUSTRY
It’s not just Hannan who has the foresight to plan. The government has rolled out a few schemes and programmes in recent years to attract the younger generation into the industry.
Temasek Polytechnic now offers a 12-month Work-Study Certificate in Hawkerpreneurship. It comprises foundational skills classes, mentorship and training in business planning and product differentiation. Trainees will be eligible for the National Environment Agency (NEA)’s Incubation Stall Programme that offers pre-fitted stalls with discounted rental in the initial months. NEA also runs a five- day Hawkers’ Development Programme with SkillsFuture Singapore, followed by a two-month apprenticeship with veteran hawkers.
The allure of running your own business may get the next generation interested in setting up a hawker stall, but operating one daily requires more than the entrepreneurial spirit as Shawn Low can attest to.
As the one-man show behind 168 Curry Chicken at Old Airport Road Food Centre, the home chef sought the advice of several friends in the F&B industry before committing to a stall in 2015. “I wanted to start a business of my own but I had limited capital so a hawker stall seemed to be the best option,” he recalls.
Specialising only in curry chicken served with an assortment of carbs such as bread, rice and noodles, the recipe is from his grandmother, albeit with a few tweaks here and there. He cooks two batches: one for lunch and one for dinner.
Low expands, “I cooked, tweaked the recipe and failed countless times before finalising my current recipe. I spent a lot of time fine-tuning it to cater to the majority of our customers. I prepare the curry paste myself, manually every day, which requires lots of time and effort. But when customers tell me that my curry chicken tastes like their mother’s or grandmother’s cooking, the sense of satisfaction that I feel is priceless.”
As being a hawker is categorised as a high-risk job, he hasn’t been able to visit his grandmother who has dementia and stays in a nursing home. The pandemic also saw Low’s income drop by 50 per cent, despite the food centre’s central location.
PRESERVING TRADITION IN UNORTHODOX WAYS
Fortunately, Hannan and Low have been able to weather the fluctuating restrictions. Not everyone has been as lucky. Many have been forced to find alternate methods to keep serving fuss-free food.
John Paul Lim, whose father owned the famous Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow at Siglap and maternal grandfather founded Hock Lam Street Beef Kway Teow in the 1920s, had a thriving modern beef kway teow stall of his own before the pandemic – Gubak Kia (meaning ‘beef kid’ in Hokkien).
Situated at Timbre+, he opened in 2019, offering several versions of rice noodles including his family’s recipe for Kuala Lumpur-style beef kway teow, and kway teow with bone-in Australian beef short ribs. He also sold tendon chips (beef tendons dehydrated for eight hours, deep- fried and powdered with spices) and Gubak Bao, which is a beef-stuffed interpretation of the traditional Chinese pork belly bun, kong ba bao. The stall shut in March 2021, due to rising overheads and dismal returns. After 17 years, his father closed Empress Place Teochew Beef Kway Teow stall in early 2020.
However, Lim hasn’t let his family’s legacy go quietly into the night. Gubak Kia has found a new home at Moonstone, a popular bar along Amoy Street. With this new joint venture, the overheads are easier on Lim, who cooks his acclaimed beef kway teow for Moonstone’s diners, while in- house bartenders supply the drinks. He’s added a few new items to the menu such as fried beef tripe chips, Hong Kong-style oxtail stew and Japanese-inspired beef short ribs sando.
In Christine Yue’s case, the pandemic led her to bank on a cherished lor bak family recipe. The former nail salon boss started cooking four-hour braised pork belly in her home to pay for the overheads of her ailing business in the Central Business District. She created Lor Bak Mama in 2020, a home-based business selling traditional lor bak based on her mother and grandmother’s Southern Chinese-style recipe, and runs it entirely on her own.
In September this year, she closed her nail salon to focus on Lor Bak Mama. “I realised that not many people sell traditional lor bak, which is why I chose this hearty comfort food. I hope it reminds customers of their family dishes,” Yue says.
Her generational recipe uses 12 types of spices and sauces, and it includes a secret ingredient. The braised pork belly is served in a rice bowl (complete with braised tofu and hard-boiled egg) or as kong ba bao. She also offers chicken cooked the same way.
HAWKER CULTURE WILL KEEP EVOLVING
With the rising costs of rental, inflation, land scarcity and an ageing generation of hawkers, the road ahead will be bumpy. Young and old hawkers are finding different ways to innovate.
From social media to collaborations with modern establishments, they’re trying to reach out to the younger audience, and with some degree of success. More can be done, however, to attract people to join this trade. Future hawker food might also not be as cheap as we expect, but it’s a small price to pay to nourish Singaporean culture.
The landscape will continue to change, but one thing’s for sure: Singaporeans love the food they grew up with. We will not let this culture go without a fight.
(Related: Desmond Chow is crazy for crawfish)