Snapshots from Asia: Grading Singapore's Food Hawkers

This is a C grade. But not just any C grade. This is a C grade issued by a Singaporean Ministry of Health official to a none-too-hygienic food hawker. A nationwide scheme introduced in 1997 to “enable consumers to make informed choices of the food outlets they want to patronize," hawkers here in Singapore are required to display their cleanliness grades prominently beneath their signage.

A C grade is "average," with only a D grade, "below average," worse than it. You would assume that in a country as notoriously perfectionist as Singapore, a lousy grade would doom a stall—customers would shun it, suppliers would not want to be associated with it, the sky would fall down, that sort of thing.

But like I said, it’s not just any C grade—it’s a money-making C grade. Here’s the local logic: Being generally one-man outfits, if the hawker’s food were any good, he would be flat out busy taking orders, cooking, serving, collecting payment, and doling out change. Where would he find time to clean the stall to the obsessively nit-picky standards of a government official? Therefore, only nonpopular stalls with sub-par food would be able to earn an A or B grade.

A D grade, however, is in local parlance “asking for trouble." Hence in Singapore, the wise patronize the C's (and you see how this becomes a profitable, “virtuous cycle” for hawkers—for surely only a stall with seriously good food would be able to survive with a C grade?), the sua koos (ignorant) and most tourists patronize hawkers with A's and B's, and the emm zai ci (not afraid of death) play gastronomic Russian roulette with the D's.

Photograph by Shimin Wong