SINGAPORE—It’s lunchtime at the Ghim Moh hawker center, and scents of wonton noodles, mutton biryani, and other Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian fare hang in the hot and sticky air. Lines have formed at the most popular stalls, and the tables between the rows of eateries are filling up. “What you want?” calls out a hawker in Singlish—Singaporean English, an often abbreviated form of the American or British tongue—and I order the beef hor fun, stir-fried beef with flat noodles, bean sprouts, and greens. It’s delicious, and it costs little more than $3.
The Ghim Moh center is one of 112 hawker centers on the island city-state; each features dozens of food and drink stalls, many of which pay subsidized rent to the government and consequently sell inexpensive food. In October, Singapore’s government announced that it will construct ten new centers over the next decade—26 years after it built the last one. In doing so, it’s continuing an urban innovation that aids the poor and provides a space for cultures—and classes—to mix.
Food vendors had been peddling in the streets of Singapore since the 19th century. After independence in 1965, according to a 2010 article published by Singapore’s National Library, “Inappropriate disposal of refuse led to an increase of flies, mosquitoes, rodents, and cockroaches that fueled the spread of diseases.” From 1971 to 1985, the government built centers and required hawkers to move their businesses into them so that food could be prepared more hygienically. When no more hawkers could be found in the streets, the government stopped building. Today, Singapore boasts an extremely clean environment, and hawker centers are no exception. Each stall is judged according to a strict system, with gradings from A to C for cleanliness (C still being fairly clean, as things go).
The government’s announcement has been met mostly with praise from the public. Hawker centers are a huge part of Singaporean culture, for one. “They are a way of life,” says Leslie Tay, 42, physician by day and food blogger by night at ieatishootipost.sg. “We all grew up eating hawker center food.” Helen Lee, 57, a resident of the city’s West Coast neighborhood reminisces about the hawker food she ate as a child—particularly breakfast items, such as ban jian kuih, or peanut pancake, and nasi lemak—fish, scrambled egg, cucumber, and chili paste. Like many Singaporeans, Lee knows where the best stalls for certain foods are across the city. Her husband is even more of a hawker center foodie than she is, she says. “Between the food and me, I’m second!” she laughs.
Liang Eng Hwa, 47, a member of parliament from the longstanding party in power, the People’s Action Party (PAP), has been pushing for new hawker centers for some time. He believes that though such centers are found in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Hong Kong, there is something particular about those in Singapore. “The unique thing is that we are multiracial here, and different groups have their own special food delights,” he says. “Our hawker centers encompass them under one roof.”
Singaporeans also tend to mention that hawker centers bring together people from different classes into one space. “If you’re driving a Mercedes or don’t have a car, it doesn’t matter,” says Tay. “Everyone goes there.” But though the wealthy frequent centers, for poorer Singaporeans eating at them may be more of a necessity than a choice. The gap between rich and poor in Singapore is often ranked higher than even that of the United States, and with their subsidized food, hawker centers are an inexpensive and easy means of nourishment. Around 80 percent of Singaporeans live in public housing blocks (called HDBs, they also offer subsidized rent), many of which feature a hawker center on the premises. The new centers will be built in more recently constructed HDBs in suburban areas, whose current food options include pricier air-conditioned (and privately-owned) food courts and coffee shops.
The government’s announcement comes at an interesting moment. Though the PAP continues to enjoy vast majority rule in Singapore, as it has since 1965, the country’s May 2011 parliamentary elections demonstrated that the opposition—in the form of the Workers’ Party—has gained more of a foothold in the political scene, having won an unprecedented six seats in the 87-seat parliament. The subsequent presidential election in August saw the PAP-favored candidate, Tony Tan, win by less than one percent of the vote. “That the government decided to build the centers now may be partly because of the election results,” says Tay. “It’s a way of telling people, ‘we hear you.’”
MP Liang says that the recent decision to build more centers has to do with rising food prices. Keeping the stall rents cheap is crucial for low-income Singaporeans, he says.
“In the early days of Singapore, if you had nothing that you could do, you would sell food or pull a rickshaw,” says Tay. “Today, it’s the same—you drive a taxi or sell hawker food.”
In a city of luxury shopping malls, pricey real estate, and more Ferraris than I’ve seen in my life, hawker centers provide an enduring public space of communalism—as well as a touch of socialism. They are places where people from all backgrounds and income brackets sit side by side and can stay as long as they like, unharassed by the ritual of rapid turnover at food courts. And while hawker coffee may now cost $1.20 when only a few years ago it went for 50 cents, it’s still a far cry from Starbucks prices, which many cannot afford. Hindered from such privatized urban spaces, Singaporeans can head to their local hawker center and feel comforted. Indeed, Tay and others tell me that the first thing Singaporeans do when they get back from living or traveling elsewhere is go to a hawker center. “You think of a hawker center and you think of home,” he says.
Photos by Mimi Kirk