Singapore's hawker centers concentrate the excitement of street food into hubs that are assaults on the senses in the best possible way. There's the smell of flaming woks and long-simmering broths, the sounds of serving spoons clattering and the constant chatter of orders. Everywhere you look, there's another answer to the most important question of the moment: what should I eat right now?
Whether the answer is savory, smoky char kway teow or chili crab, fish porridge, or moist chicken over chicken-fat glossed rice, it can all be found at a hawker center. But, as stall owners age and Singapore's younger generation grows up wealthier and more educated than its predecessors, this is changing.
Singapore's reputation for delicious, affordable (and safe!) street food, mingling the highly-spiced flavors of India, Malaysia, and China, is one of the best in the world. Offering a local's view of the "hives of social, gastronomical, and entrepreneurial activity," Straits Times correspondent Chris Tan writes, "most of us spend large parts of our lives here, eating and drinking and shooting the breeze." James Oseland, then editor-in-chief of Saveur, was struck by "the beautiful heaps of chilies and kangkong, the crazy-quilt of melamine plate colors, and most important of all, the delicious aromas," describing a trip to a hawker center as being "like visiting a museum that you can eat."
But the hawker centers are at a crossroads. Singapore was less than a decade into nationhood in 1971 when the centers began to open as part of a system concerned with feeding, sheltering, and employing the citizens of the brand-new country—and clearing the streets. Opening hawker centers appeased store owners upset with the chaos of street food stalls; the system gave the government control over registration, licensing, and inspection of the hawkers.
Filling the centers was an easy task: the government simply gathered the huge population of vendors roaming the streets with carts full of Indian prata bread, Malaysian nasi goreng (fried rice), and Chinese prawn mee (noodles). What would happen to the street-food system in the next generation was fairly far down the government's list of priorities. At the time, it seemed like the country had an endless supply of hawkers on the streets. But many of the original hawkers still fill the centers' stands today, dishing out rice porridge or popiah (spring rolls made with soft crêpe-like wrappings and fresh fillings) in stalls they rent for the same $200 Singaporean Dollars (SGD) per month they have paid for nearly half a century (some rents do not increase for existing tenants, depending on a complicated system of subsidies and leases). Bidding now on a new stall (they're auctioned by the government's National Environment Agency) could cost a new vendor ten times that.
The original generation of hawkers is nearing retirement, and some have passed away. The government can't just grab new vendors from the streets, because there have been no street vendors for the last 40 years. Singaporean street food expert KF Seetoh laments the lack of continuity, saying it's not as easy as passing the stall on to a relative or apprentice: "The old hawkers don't know how to teach, only how to do."
There's a cultural shift happening too: the younger generation in Singapore is drifting away from the hawker tradition. Nicole Loh, a 27-year-old local who works as assistant PR manager of the Grand Hyatt Singapore, explains that "My peers and I don't eat at hawker centers as much as the older generation." Loh and her friends lean toward new flavors and European foods.
"When our parents travel," she explains, "they prefer selecting travel tour packages which promise 'Chinese food' even in places like Europe and America." The younger generation is more enthusiastic about new foods and flavors. In Singapore, though, "most of these [Western/European] cuisines are only being offered in restaurants," rather than hawker stands or the informal, affordable coffee shops. Loh says she and her friends are also more likely to make group plans to meet up at a restaurant: "making an event out of having a meal...It's a chance for us to gather with friends and catch up, all while keeping 'in trend' with the latest culinary offerings popping up on our scene." In addition to newer flavors, they seek out the perks of sit-down, brick-and-mortar restaurants, including air-conditioning, modern design, and table service. Among her crowd, hawker centers are "mostly kept to a meal with parents or a last resort basis." A 2014 article in the Straits Times backed this up, citing a study that found Singaporean household spending at restaurants, pubs, and cafes had increased more than 250% over the last decade, while spending at hawker stands had increased only about 130% in the same time period.
The recent death of Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew—both of the country and the hawker center system—seems symbolic as the Pioneer Generation (from the era of Singapore's founding as an independent country in 1965) ages out of the hawking profession and leaves a gaping hole in one of Singapore's most famous industries. In 2012, Singaporean chef Malcom Lee commented to the New York Times on the advanced average age of hawkers: "When this generation is gone, their recipes will probably go with them. Their children want to be bankers or lawyers. Who wants to slog it out six days a week, morning through night, in a hot, dirty environment?"
The answer is Nick Soon, who four months ago opened a hawker stand called One Kueh at a Time, joining a small new generation of hawkers hoping to continue the tradition.
Meet Nick Soon
Nick Soon, 48, was in the insurance business for 20 years, followed by a brief stint at an art gallery. He knew he wanted to do something different, but wasn't sure what. Looking around, he realized the answer was right in his own backyard—or rather his kitchen, where his parents made small traditional snacks found in Singapore, Malaysia, and China called kueh, which they sold to friends and family.
20 years ago, Nick's parents decided they wanted to learn the traditional recipes and techniques for dumpling-like kueh, and looked around to find an instructor. They couldn't find an expert willing to teach them, so they taught themselves through trial and error, eventually turning the hobby into a side business. Originally, Nick hoped to sell the kueh wholesale to cafés and restaurants, but he wasn't able to find any buyers. It had been his parents' dream to open a hawker stall, and in his search for a new career, Nick made it happen.
Before opening his stall, Nick didn't know any hawkers. "They are," he lowers his voice as if he's embarrassed to say it, "sort of..." he motions down, "lower class, Mandarin- [rather than English] or dialect-speaking." When the current generation of hawker "aunties" and "uncles" started out, Singapore was a fledgling country and there were not many opportunities. Now a major economic center, much of Singapore's population is well-educated and no longer interested in the long hours and hard physical work of running a food stand.
Today, young hawkers are rare—and there are even fewer cooking traditional dishes—but the hawker center where Nick's stall resides seems to be a magnet for them. A coffee stand in the center has a newspaper article posted about the proprietor, a former executive: "He paid $3,000 to have someone teach him to make coffee!" Another snack stand brags on an overhead sign that it is the second career of the son of hawkers with a successful stand elsewhere in the city.
While learning the tricks of making kueh from his parents, Nick bid on a stall, winning the right to it for $1,886 SGD (about $1,400 US) per month plus $550 SGD per month to pay for the hawker center's cleaning service. With kueh priced between $1 and $1.50 SGD, Nick needs to sell a lot of dumplings to make a profit. On a recent visit, he gave me a glimpse into what the day of a new Singaporean hawker looks like.
"Getting up at 5 a.m.," Nick says, is by far the biggest change in his life since opening his stand. But he needs the two hours before he opens to prep his kueh and set up the approximately 10-foot by 12-foot stall, which is fronted by a display case. Upon arrival, Nick sets up a display of or ku kueh that he prepped the night before.
Or ku kueh literally translates to black tortoise kueh, named for the skin, which is made with sweet black sesame (though it actually has a greenish hue.) The filling inside is salty green mung bean, so each bite is a sweet and savory combination. The tortoise designation comes from the rounded hump shape with a design imprint that gives it an eerie resemblance to the turtles you might see bobbing about in the Singapore River. This dumpling is Nick's only meat-free offering, even though Nick is vegetarian (and doesn't eat eggs).
He also puts out two bottles of sauce: a sweet black one—dark soy—and a bright orange chili sauce. For to-go customers, there is a box of the same sauces divvied up into tiny plastic bags.
After setting up this first display, Nick begins making the dough for his soon kueh (turnip dumplings) and gu cai kueh (chive dumplings). He mixes hot water, boiled on one of the stall's two burners, with tapioca flour and wheat starch. Later, he'll add glutinous rice flour. Each batch of dough will make 70 or 80 dumplings, enough to last the entire day. He used to have a machine that did the mixing for him, but found it made inconsistent dough and that he preferred the flavor of hand-mixed dough.
While the mixed dough cools, he arranges sticky-rice stuffed dumplings called png kueh in a steamer on the second burner. Made without wheat starch in the wrapper, these are packed with sticky rice that's flavored with dried shrimp. As the png kueh steam, a fragrant rice aroma fills the stall. Meanwhile, Nick finishes the dough he was making, kneading for about 15 minutes and adding cooking oil as needed.
One hour in, Nick has accomplished a fair amount, but he's still not ready to open. The first customer comes by the stand as Nick finishes kneading—that customer is turned away as Nick works on straining the filling for the soon kueh. These translucent dumplings are stuffed with turnips, radishes, black fungus, and dried shrimp. The turnips retain hints of their former crunch and the radishes have a little bite, but it's really the savory mushroom and shrimp flavors that define the dumplings. Nick flours his hands, grabs a chunk of dough, and shapes it into a small log. He then cuts that into golf-ball-sized pieces with a pastry scraper.
He flattens each ball with his palm, rolling it into a rough circle with a dowel, and then cutting it into a perfect circle using an old pot lid. As he's making these skins, help arrives. Christine Tan is Nick's girlfriend's aunt, an avid cake maker and food lover. When Nick first opened, his parents were lending a hand, but his 81-year-old mother hurt her arm, and soon Christine jumped in to help. Later, when his mother had another health issue, Christine came on board in a more permanent role. She now works at the stand regularly on a profit-sharing agreement.
She gets to work immediately, setting up the steamed png kueh in the display case and filling each rolled-out soon kueh skin with a heaping spoonful of the turnip mix before pinching them shut. By a quarter to eight, Christine has sold the first kueh of the day, and the first batch of the soon kueh are in the steamer.
As his official opening time rolls around, Nick adds the soon kueh—the third dumpling in his lineup—to his display. He has found that focusing on four types of dumplings is ideal: early on, he tried to offer more, but discovered that paring down to his best-sellers made more money.
When he's not at the stall, Nick's still trying to learn more recipes. As his parents get older (his father is 89), Nick is concerned about the need to learn as much as possible from them sooner rather than later. Making kueh by hand is a vanishing skill—most are made in factories these days, and lack the freshness and delicacy of hand-shaped kueh. One of the stand's customers bites into one and looks up, surprised, saying, "these are just like what my mother used to make." The soon kueh here stand out for their thin skins, offering a higher ratio of flavorful shrimp-and-mushroom-laced turnip filling to dough.
Nick's mother, an energetic octogenarian, stops by the stall, bringing the chive and egg filling for the gu cai kueh, Nick's priciest dumpling at $1.50 SGD. She soon disappears again to pick up a few more ingredients, while Christine makes the gu cai kueh, folding them into a leaf shape.
The woman from the fish soup stall next door drops by with a bag of turnips; he'll pay her later at her stall. Nick mentions that he was initially surprised at how supportive the nearby stall owners have been: "I was expecting my biggest supporters to be my family, but the other hawkers were a huge help, the first ones to buy from me, then telling their own customers to come by."
The fish soup stall vendor and her husband have served their specialty—a rich broth with fried and poached chunks of fish—in the hawker center since 1983. A line builds near their stall half an hour before they open, and continues until they sell out. Before I visited my first hawker center, my Singaporean future-sister-in-law told me to always "wait in the longest line. It's the longest one for a reason." It's a sentiment my Singaporean tour guide and nearly every other local I spoke with repeated. When I asked Nick and Christine if hawkers ever pay people to stand in line to make the stall seem better, neither had heard of it, though Christine added that "maybe they try to work more slowly" to build up the line.
Christine cleans the counters and serves the rush of morning breakfast customers, even selling the first chive kueh before it's out of the steamer—she brings it out to where the buyer sits nearby. There's no stopping now: Nick makes himself a breakfast of granola and a bit of chocolate but only has time to steal bites here and there as he continues to make kueh.
As the pre-office rush dies down, Nick sits down to finish his breakfast. His girlfriend stops by to chat before she heads to work. She says she was surprised, perhaps a bit apprehensive, when Nick told her his plan to become a hawker. He is an unlikely stall owner: he has no formal cooking background and has plenty of more lucrative work experience and marketable skills. But, she adds, he is a great cook and quick learner. More importantly, she says, "He enjoys kneading the dough," and "is fulfilling his parents' dream." When I ask Nick his favorite part of owning a hawker stand, he's quick to reply, "I enjoy interacting with people."
Each time kueh are sold, Christine or Nick tends to the display, keeping the snacks neatly stacked in increasingly smaller piles. Nick's mom returns with more flour. Christine takes a phone call for a large rush order, which is swiftly picked up by a man who in a polo shirt and jeans who never stopps talking into his Bluetooth throughout the interaction.
Things settle into a bit more of a slow rhythm before the lunch rush begins. Nick's mom and Christine start to make more png kueh to make sure there's enough for the lunch crowd, shaping the dough into a cup, filling with the glutinous rice mixture, then closing it into a ball before pressing it into a small wooden mold. Then the mold is flipped and smacked against a hand or hard surface to knock the kueh out.
After most of the day's dumplings are made, Nick's mother cleans up a bit before heading out, and Christine and Nick turn their attention to lunch customers—mostly office workers—who begin to arrive regularly. Anytime there is a lull, Nick and Christine begin to prep for the next day. The fish soup stall owners come by to grab a snack before they open up for lunch.
By noon, the stall has sold out of the gu cai kueh and the soon kueh. Christine says the soon kueh is the most well known and always sells out first. When they're gone, they're gone: it's not worth making another batch this late in the day. When there aren't customers, Christine is constantly moving: stocking plates, wiping counters, and sprucing up the display. Nick pauses to eat his lunch, then is right back to work, dealing with a drainage problem in the sink.
Despite paying a large sum monthly to cover his utilities and stall, Nick is frustrated by the lack of maintenance. He can't wash his turnips until the sink drains (into a hole into the floor), but the NEA, the government agency from which he rents, doesn't do anything about it. The NEA is also the body responsible for giving health safety rankings—they do so anonymously, checking on stalls in plainclothes. Nick's stand has a "B" ranking, which is fairly common among stalls.
The day is almost over: just a few png kueh and a lonely or ku kueh remain. Before leaving, Nick shreds the turnips on a small wood and metal grater for the next day's soon kueh. There are machines that do it, but Nick says, "I prefer to do it all by hand," grinning as his knuckles pass just barely above the metal grate.
By 2 p.m., Christine and Nick have cleaned, mopped, and closed up the stall. Nick plans to go home for a bike ride or run—later on, he'll need to do any remaining cooking prep for the next day.
KF Seetoh points out the new difficulties today's hawkers face beyond just learning the recipes: "A good recipe doesn't make a pro. Today, the new guy suddenly has to worry about bloggers, presentation, pricing, and design." Nick spends at least a half an hour each evening on Instagram, which he credits as one of his top marketing tools. "There's at least one Instagrammer in each day," he says. He also says his new sign—which graces the top of the stall—is a big help, as it's visible to those leaving the supermarket across the street.
Nick didn't expect to break even as soon as he did—just two months after opening. Four months in, he estimates that he sells about 200 kueh each day. His goal is to sell 400 or 500. To get to that point, he plans to have Christine trained to operate the stall on her own, so he can get out and distribute flyers. Word of mouth is helpful marketing, but bloggers, social media, and flyers would probably help.
At 48—which is young for a hawker—Nick is an anomaly making such a traditional dish by hand. Younger hawkers tend to be bringing in new foods, not the traditional bites the older generation sold. Nicole Loh mentions that it is the less traditional stalls opening in hawker centers, such as a ramen stand and a brewery, that appeal to younger audiences and are "changing our mindset about hawkers and hawker centers." As the older generation ages out of the hawker center, though, Nick Soon hopes to fill the gap. Somewhere between the aging Pioneer Generation and the young entrepreneurs bringing in foreign foods, Nick Soon kneads dough and folds kueh and hopes to keep traditional Singaporean foods—and the hawker centers themselves—alive.
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