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The History of Hawker Culture in Singapore

The History of Hawker Culture

1800s - The Origin

In the 1800s, Singapore was a growing port city, and this attracted migrants from China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries seeking to have a better life. These migrants brought with them food that is familiar to them and adapted those food based on the ingredients that they could find in Singapore to eventually create the SINGAPORE TASTE.

Many of the immigrants saw that setting up hawkers on the street was a good way to earn money because of the low capital costs hence they started their business there. It is not long until the streets started bustling with activities and food. Chinese hawkers would carry their portable kitchens together with their bamboo sticks along with their ingredients and utensils, so they could immediately serve to-go meals. Malay hawkers generally sold fruits and satay while Indian hawkers sold colourful sweets, cakes, and jellies. It is also not rare to see hawkers walking around with their cow or goat on the street, to sell freshly squeezed milk.

Up to 1960s – A need for regulation

After the Second World War, many people were unemployed and they turned to hawking in the streets as a profession. That was when the street hawker scene became a thriving.

However, the problem comes when not everyone shared the optimistic opinion of Singapore’s street hawker scene. In 1950, Governor F. Gimson set up the Hawkers Inquiry Commission and in the Hawkers Inquiry Report, it was stated that “There is undeniably a disposition among officials ... to regard the hawkers as primarily a public nuisance to be removed from the streets.”

He was concerned because the hawkers in Singapore did not have access to clean water. This made it difficult to keep their utensils clean and prevent contamination by rodents. Without a properly assigned disposal area, hawkers often left piles of trash on the streets, causing a red flag for public health and hygiene. Many hawkers who were selling cold drinks, cut fruits, and ice cream used water and ice that might be easily contaminated, potentially causing outbreaks of diseases.

Another problem faced by the government was the challenge in street cleaning due to the messy obstruction to traffic and city planning. As such, the government started looking for ways to regulate the hawkers and relocate them.

Late 1960s to 1980s – The first hawker centres

After Singapore’s independence in 1965, along with the initiative to turn Singapore into the region’s business hub, licensed hawkers were moved to a designated area. In 1968 and 1969, the government conducted an islandwide registration of street hawkers, to issue temporary licenses and to carve out a space for these hawkers to sell food.

Despite this operation, illegal hawking remained rampant. In 1974, the Hawker’s Department Special Squad was formed to manage the situation. Public Health Inspectors were employed to keep illegal hawkers off the streets. These new measures were very effective against the illegal pasar malam (night markets) that grew across the city.

Enforcement also had good outcomes. From 1971 to 1986, the government tried to relocate up to 18,000 hawkers to markets and hawker centres with proper amenities, so that hawkers could have a safe and sanitised place to work without the fear of inspectors. The Housing Development Board (HDB) was responsible for the planning of every hawker centre to make sure that they were accessible and located in well-populated areas.

1980s to present – Building a legacy

Within a short period of 5 years from 1974 to 1979, 54 hawker centres were built to cater to residents and workers across the nation. Different designs gave each hawker centre their own personlity. An example would be the Newton Hawker Centre, that was built in 1971 with the concept of having “hawker stalls in a garden setting” with trees for shade, hedges and shrubs alongside a car park and a public toilet. The last food centre to be erected during this period was Block 505 Market and Food Centre at Jurong West Street 52, in 1986.

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