“Empty stalls are becoming an increasingly familiar sight at coffee shops across the island” (More Stalls Remaining Empty at Coffee Shops, Yeo Sam Jo).
After the poor report on young drinkers last week (ST, Mar. 1) the newspaper had a great piece on more vacant stalls at coffee shops and existing stallholders trying to stay in the black (ST, Mar. 8). The cited reasons include labour shortage, rising costs – “tighter foreign worker quotas and higher levies [have made it] tougher to hire cleaners, dish collectors, and assistants”, “[higher] prices for ingredients, gas, and utilities” – as well as owners going into retirement, yet at the heart of it the lack of interest amongst younger Singaporeans who shun work that gets our hands dirty signals an inevitable death of the hawker trade.
Coffee shops – even food courts, their air-conditioned counterparts – offer cheap and convenient food choices. Foodies hunt for stalls offering the tastiest dishes, although for most the neighbourhood hawker centre is the next best option after home-cooked fare. And often taken for granted. When I was in Helsinki, Finland for instance such cooked food centres did not exist, with the most affordable alternative available at the supermarkets.
But it is also hard work, running these stalls. When I grab a breakfast of noodles at eight the condiments of fried eggs and fishcakes are prepared on metal trays, as the aunty at the neighbouring economical rice stall chops baskets of potatoes and vegetables, and the uncle tosses the wok of soya sauce chicken. They stand the entire day. It is hot and exhausting. They graft away. One might think that those with the food court chains are faring better, yet Koufu founder and managing director Pang Lim shared that eight per cent of his units are now empty, “up from just three per cent a year ago”.
For cultural reasons the hawker trade will not be completely wiped out. Its cultural significance in Singapore means that the government will preserve parts of it, or corporations will monetise and perhaps modernise the traditional recipes. Already the top local hotels feature such fare, and restaurants offering Singaporean cuisine can be found around the world.
It will take some time before the effects are felt. As the hawker trade fades establishments with centralised food processing facilities such as fast food and chain restaurants are likely to dominate. Perceptions are far too entrenched, and young hawkers will remain the exception, not the norm. In the meantime we will eat what we can, and take advantage of what we have.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.