What does Singapore street food mean to you?
Meet 73-year-old Uncle Soon, the hawker behind Havelock Road Blk 50 Hokkien Prawn Mee. “I started helping my mother make fishballs since I was 16 years old and have been frying Hokkien Mee for 48 years,” he recalled in Teochew.
I visited his stall at ABC Brickworks Food Centre last week after hearing amazing stories about him through Tiger Beer’s recent street food movement. When everyone else hopes to retire at 55 years old to travel around the world, he is still at his shop frying Hokkien Mee everyday without fail. “I wake up at 4am every day and start working at 5am.” He cooks the stock, peels the prawns, prepares the sotong with the help of his wife and works till 10.30pm. “We are not educated, and there is nothing much we can do besides being hawkers.”
At about 1.30pm, the couple switches off the lights, dishes their lunch on the table and shared it with me. “Just a simple home-style lunch. If you don’t mind, please tuck in together.” So we sat down on the same table, chatting and eating. There were still streams of customers coming for their Hokkien Mee. Aunty Soon has to constantly tell them, “No more, we are having our lunch now.”
“He is getting old and needs rest. So we close from 2pm to 4pm to let him sleep, while I work,” explains Aunty Soon. “It’s better to be working rather than idling at home,” Uncle Soon added.
What does Singapore street food mean to you?
For many of us, we spend a large part of our lives eating and drinking in hawker centres – succumbing to the delicious aroma of chicken rice, joining the crazy queues at famous char kway teow stalls, or even travelling from the east to the west just for a bowl of bak kut teh. Hawker food defines Singapore and we should give our street food the recognition it deserves.
“Our unique street food is part of our Singaporeaness. When my favourite street food is gone, it’s like losing someone important whom we will never see again, except in our longing memories.” — Tony, blogs at johorkaki.blogspot.com
As I look at my plate of Hokkien Prawn Mee by Uncle Soon, I began to appreciate the heart and sweat that goes behind it. No, it may not be the best Hokkien Mee in Singapore. But what we are looking for is the passion beyond the taste and flavour. Have you ever wondered how much work goes into a plate of your favorite bowl of noodles?
The dying street food culture
Sadly, many first-generation hawkers are nearing retirement or some have passed away. On one hand, MissTamChiak.com constantly shares about good ol’ hawker dishes that everyone loves. On the other hand, sometimes we have to announce the closure of places, which have given us so many fond memories since young.
As society becomes more educated, who would want to take over the hawker stall that their parents have set up? There really seems to be a lack of continuity. Moreover, taking over the business is not as easy as it is. The difficulty lies in maintaining it and making the food as good, or if not, better than their predecessors. That is tough.
It is also evident that there is a shift towards new flavours and posh restaurants, with our local street food sometimes taking a back seat. A 2014 article in The Straits Times cited a study that found that 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.
“Local street food is like our nation’s roots and heritage. If street food is gone, it’s like losing a part of Singapore’s history.” — Derrick, blogs at sgfoodonfoot.com
If you would like to understand the life of a hawker, watch Uncle Soon’s story in this amazing video produced as part of Tiger Beer’s recently launched street food movement that aims to invigorate pride in our street food culture. At this moment, there is no one to take over the business but Uncle Soon will continue dishing out plates of Hokkien Prawn Mee until he is unable to do so. “My kids have their own jobs, I won’t want them to work as hawkers.”
As I waved goodbye to the old couple after my lunch, Aunty Soon waved and said, “Come back often, we don’t know when we are going to retire.”
Food for thought:
- What is your view on our street food culture?
- What if your favourite street food is no longer available?
Share your thoughts with us by using the hashtag #uncagestreetfood. If you are a huge fan of Singapore’s hawker culture and heritage, do use the hashtag #uncagestreetfood whenever you dine in a hawker centre or coffeeshop. Let’s all keep our street food heritage alive!
For more information on Tiger Beer’s new street food movement to celebrate and preserve our nation’s unique food heritage, visit http://www.tigerbeer.com.sg
Havelock Road Blk 50 Hokkien Prawn Mee
Address: ABC Brickworks Food Centre, 6 Jalan Bukit Merah #01-100, Singapore 150006
Opening Hours: 10.30am - 10.30pm, closed on Tuesdays