The Future of Singapore’s Hawker Heritage in the hands of Millennials
Maxwell Food Centre, Singapore (Photo by EQRoy on Shutterstock)
The hawker culture in Singapore is a powerful thread that connects Singaporeans to their past, better than other tangible heritage icons such as the National Library or the National Theatre. Every Singaporean would have grown up eating at hawker centres, and many tourists visit hawker centres to immerse themselves in ‘Singapore culture’ as well.
It is no wonder then that the hawker culture in Singapore was officially added to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2020, a major score for Singapore on the world stage.
Nevertheless, authorities also recognise that if urgent succession plans are not in place, this cultural badge may remain a mere part of history in the years to come. After all, the overall median age for hawkers nationwide is 59.
Thus, the government has come up with schemes to groom new hawkers, including pairing veteran hawkers with aspiring ones who will take over their business. Further, the rules are relaxed to allow retiring hawkers to handover their stalls to non-relatives. Previously, older hawkers were limited to succession within their family. Unfortunately, many were not as interested to carry on the trade due to factors such as gruelling hours and the preferred white-collar jobs.
It is heartening to note that Millennials in fact have not shied away from the task, but many have come on board the hawker scene, mixing their creative juices with delicious recipes. Some notable young “hawker-preneurs” are:
- Mr Lee Syafiq Muhd Ridzuan Lee, 28, owner of gourmet burger stall Ashes Burnnit at Golden Mile Food Centre, Alexandra Village Food Centre and Blk 69 Bedok South Avenue 3;
- Mr Darren Teo, 30, co-owner of fish soup stall Seafood Pirates at Yishun Park Hawker Centre; and
- Ms Claire Huang, 33, owner of Carrot Cubes at Cheng San Market
However, there is another group of Millennials that took on the reins, not only because they are passionate about food, but even more so because they want to preserve their family heritage.
Sotong Hitam (Black Squid), a dish featured on Orang Laut Food Delivery. (Photo by Orang Laut Food Delivery)
- Meet Mr Firdaus Sani (33), the founder of Orang Laut Food Delivery
Firdaus is part of the Orang Laut tribe, seafaring folk who lived on the isles of Singapore, Malaysia and the Riau Islands of Indonesia. His family grew up on Pulau Semakau, located south of Singapore, but resettled on the mainland in 1977. The remaining families relocated in the early 1990s when the island was set for redevelopment, including being used as a landfill.
Motivated by his dream to keep the Orang Laut culture alive, Firdaus started the Orang Laut Food Delivery (OLFD) in August 2020. To Firdaus, food was the surest and easiest way to pass on the Orang Laut legacy before it got lost.
In pursuit of his passion, Firdaus quit his job as a marketing communications manager at World Wide Fund (WWF) Singapore in February 2021 to focus on OLFD full time.
OLFD offers traditional dishes such as asam pedas ikan (spicy asam fish), sotong hitam (black squid), gulai nenas (pineapple in broth) and kacang Panjang asam rebus (long beans in clear tamarind sauce). These dishes, while familiar, are uniquely Orang Laut in terms of the choice and use of ingredients as well as cooking techniques.
As OLFD is a home-based business, they are only available on the weekends. Their sets are priced at $118 for 4 pax and $168 for 6 pax. Head over to their website at oranglaut.sg to explore the taste of the Orang Laut tribe, and play a part in preserving and passing on the Orang Laut legacy.
See how a family legacy built on food was destroyed in the second generation in Yung Kee.
Ah Five’s Special Chicken Rice (Photo by Miss Tam Chiak)
- Meet Natalie (29) and Lex Lee (26), siblings and co-founders of Ah Five Hainanese Chicken Rice/Fried Rice/Porridge
Ten years ago, Natalie showed interest in learning how to cook from her father, the recipe holder and founder of the popular Five Star Chicken Rice.
A true-blue Hainanese, Mr Lee had been cooking and selling this beloved Singapore dish since he was a youth in his twenties. However, he had sold the business 10 years ago when he retired.
Natalie was rejected from the kitchen, however, because her father thought her too young and wanted to keep her safe. After all, a hawker stall with cleavers and open fires is no place for an inexperienced teen. Natalie thus contented herself with studies and work. She completed her master’s degree in intellectual property at SUSS in May 2021 and worked as an IP associate for a start-up.
During the circuit breaker in 2020, Natalie finally entered the kitchen to pick up cooking from her father. She was an avid chicken rice fan, and she realised that she could not find the taste of her father’s cooking in any other chicken rice dish.
Lex on the other hand worked at the Ministry of Defence’s Central Manpower Base. When the pandemic hit, Lex picked up cooking and discovered a natural talent for it. Motivated by the success of a fried rice chain especially during the pandemic, he decided to venture into the F&B industry.
At that point, his father suggested for him to fry chicken rice instead.
Something clicked, and Natalie and Lex decided to leave their comfortable jobs to open Ah Five Hainanese Chicken Rice. The name of the stall paid a tribute to their father, as he was the fifth child in his family. Through the reopening of the stall, Natalie and Lex have revived his legacy.
Though it is back-breaking work, the siblings are happy doing what they are doing. In Lex’s own words, “it’s about keeping traditional food alive for future generations.”
You can check out Ah Five Hainanese Chicken Rice at Blk 158 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 for a taste of the Lee family’s chicken rice legacy.
Coffee Break stall at Amoy Food Centre opened in 1999 (Photo by Daniel Food Diary)
- Meet the Trio and Third-Gen Hawkers behind Coffee Break
Faye, Anna and Jack are not your typical Millennial coffee lovers. The sibling trio have put a modern spin to Coffee Break, located at the second level of Amoy Street Food Centre and the second level of Hong Lim Food Centre. Coffee break serves traditional coffee, tea and toast. However, if you are craving for more hipster or café-themed drinks, you can also reward yourself with flavours such as Sea Salt Mint, Macadamia and Caramel Rum.
Coffee Break was started by the siblings’ grandfather in 1935, and was later handed over to their father. Faye in particular started working for the family business after her A-Levels and soon developed an interest in managing and taking over the stall.
While the Millennial trio work hard, they are modern in their management of the business as well. Open and progressive, the siblings innovate and adapt according to the feedback they receive. Also, the siblings have work-life balance as they only operate on weekdays so that they can recharge over the weekends.
You can check out their unique and delectable offerings at their stalls or purchase their coffee online at coffeebreaksg.com.
Which aspect of your family legacy are you passing on? Start planning for your legacy by signing up for heritance BETA!
Other relevant articles:
- The Legacy of Tan Kah Kee
- The Walt Disney Family and their ‘Happily-Never-After’
- The Legacy of Alfred Nobel
You may also be interested in:
- Elangovan, N. (2020, December 6). The Big Read in short: What the new generation hawkers are bringing to the table. Retrieved from Todayonline.com: https://www.todayonline.com/big-read/big-read-short-what-new-generation-hawkers-are-bringing-table
- Maureen. (2021, September 14). 29-Year-Old Female Hawker Opens Ah Five Hainanese Chicken Rice. Her Father is the Founder of Five Star Chicken Rice. Retrieved from Miss Tam Chiak: https://www.misstamchiak.com/ah-five-hainanese-chicken-rice/
- Our Grandfather Story (Director). (2020). Life as an Orang Laut on Pulau Semakau [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from oranglaut.sg: https://www.oranglaut.sg/
- Soh, W. L. (2021, August 25). The forgotten first people of Singapore. Retrieved from BBC Travel: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20210824-the-forgotten-first-people-of-singapore
- Wenger, T. (2021, February 4). Meet the next generation of Singapore’s UNESCO-protected hawker culture. Retrieved from Matador Network: https://matadornetwork.com/read/meet-next-generation-singapores-unesco-protected-hawker-culture/
- Wong, A. Y. (2021). Millennials put their spin on traditional Asian. Singapore: The Straits Times.
- Yeo, H. (2019, December 27). Coffee Break: Third-Gen Hawkers Who Believe In Work-Life Balance Sell Unusual Coffee & Toasts At Amoy Street Food Centre. Retrieved from SethLui.com: https://sethlui.com/coffee-break-unusual-coffee-toasts-singapore/
- Yong, C. (2020, November 25). New scheme to help retiring hawkers pass on stalls and skills to safeguard hawker culture. Retrieved from The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/new-scheme-to-help-retiring-hawkers-pass-on-stall-and-skills-to-safeguard-hawker-culture
- Yun, T. H. (2021, January 2). Worth Watching in 2021: Hipster hawkers to keep culture alive. Retrieved from The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/life/food/worth-watching-in-2021-hipster-hawkers-to-keep-culture-alive