On our disappearing food culture
By Toh Hsien Min
It's been a long time coming, but as a society we're finally focussing on the one of the biggest issues to be bubbling under the surface, too long unspoken of. It's not the ruling party going after the opposition for the petty matter of hawker centre cleaning; rather, it's about what's going on in the hawker centres themselves. As VoicesTODAY puts it: are we losing our good hawker food? The matter has crystallised in recent months because of losses in the trade: two leaders in the trade, Thomas Ng Ba Eng of Eng's Noodle House and Andrew Lim Seng Ann of Ye Lai Xiang Cheng Tng, have recently passed on. My own favourite, Lim Seng Lee Duck Rice Eating House, has recently shuttered its doors as the founder, Lim Ah Too, has back trouble and wanted to retire, and none of his four children wanted to take over the business. It's a particularly hard one to take, as I've never remembered a time when I haven't eaten his duck rice. When I was a child, my sis and I used to deliberately roll about in the back seat as my dad drove the winding South Buona Vista Road, all of us looking forward to smooth boneless duck and rich gravy. Abroad for university, I used to crave the duck rice from the corner coffee shop with the Tetris-like parking.
Yet I can see a future in which hawker food in Singapore is a relic kept alive by only a few priests, like making lion dance costumes or pawnbroking. Running a food stall is a hard living. To do it properly requires that one is up before the sun has risen to procure fresh ingredients, prepare stock and marinade ingredients, depending on what food one is selling. Being on one's feet for hours at a time, having to endure the heat of the stove on top of Singapore's tropical climate, and then seeing only a few dollars come in for every bowl of noodles going out: it's not surprising that not many people want to take up the challenge. And many of those who do are willing to go only as far as centrally prepared ingredients can take them, rather than originating their own recipes, which is why even if the number of food stalls isn't on a precipitous descent at the moment, the quality of the food is certainly declining.
For me, it's indicative that when a Singapore telco brings in a television celebrity for a cook-off against three local hawkers, the crowds were there at Newton Hawker Centre only for Gordon Ramsay. The social proof is not there: the older generation of hawkers have worked hard to put their children through school so that they never have to be hawkers, and running a hawker business remains something that is seen as only for those who have few other options in life. Unless this changes, unless a hawker can take as much pride in his craft as a sushi chef can and be recognised for it by the wider society, and unless the bowl of prawn noodles becomes as rewarding to sell as a pastrami sandwich or slice of cheesecake and for as good reason, there's only one direction this can go. Ramsay's got form for this kind of media splash, of course, having taken on similar challenges in Thailand and Malaysia, but he was never going to get the hang of laksa in a few days. Nobody can, so if we want it to stick around, we've got to give it good reason to.
This issue isn't by any stretch the sort of spread one can get at a decent hawker centre like at Smith Street, but it remains a decently sized coffee shop. We have a view from a visitor on the comparative magic of Singapore, which she discovers has a different kind of depth. We have our regular interview features with American icon Robert Pinsky and our own Gwee Li Sui. Amanda Lee's short stories have the authentic flavour of home, and Laremy Lee contributes a review of a book of spiced Asian myth, while the poetry is again a little bit of everything. As the Cantonese would say, sek fan!QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013