How the Hawker Centre was Born

Text and Photos by Sheere Ng

The man was smoking a cigarette when two kids, possibly siblings, walked up to him, then waited patiently. He acknowledged the young customers and stuffed what was already a tiny joint between his lips. He then reached out to a heap of crushed ice behind his pushcart stall and began moulding it into an ice kachang ball.

Across the street, more than half a dozen people were seated on wooden stools in a haphazard semicircle, unfazed by the rats zipping past their feet. In a rhythmic motion – in out, in in, out out – they dipped their half-eaten satays into the same aluminium pot and recoated them with a thick layer of peanut gravy.

To some Singaporeans, these were known as the good ol’ days. But in the eyes of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, it spelled pollution, food safety issues, and as a result, a dysfunctional nation.

In 1972, he created the Ministry of Environment – possibly the first government department in the world dedicated to the environment. The Public Health Department became a division under the new ministry and one of their first assignments was to remove the itinerant hawkers from the streets.

Daniel was appointed the Public Health Commissioner in 1979, almost 10 years after the project commenced. One of his first jobs was to find suitable sites to build more hawker centres. He soon realised it was a tricky business. “They (the hawkers) already had their clientele. If you move them far away, they would not be happy,” he said.

The hawker enclaves included places like Bedok, Bukit Timah, Chinatown, just to name a few. Although he didn’t move them to the next street, he made sure that the new location was within the vicinity.

The most challenging part of the relocation process was convincing the hawkers that no one would occupy their space once they moved out, hence taking away their businesses and clientele. Despite what was an uphill task it was, Daniel saw to it that the hawkers’ greatest fear did not happen.

But even in a sparkling new environment, the hawkers continued to sweep food crumbs onto the floor and shaft their fingers into the drinks when they carried the glasses. “You don’t know if they washed their hands after going to the toilet,” Daniel remarked.

To raise the food hygiene standards, he introduced a compulsory course where hawkers can learn the proper way to handle and store food. The benchmark for hygiene was based on nothing but common sense. “It is common sense to use a glove. It is also common sense to not scratch your body and touch food with the same hands.”

“The people who served drinks liked to wear pyjamas to work, but they also brought their bedroom habits with them, scratching all over their body,” he said. Pyjamas was favoured because it didn’t have a pocket, he explained, and the towkays liked it that way so that the assistants couldn’t pocket any money when they were collecting payment from the customers.

For the sake of public health, Daniel banned the wearing of pyjamas at hawker centres.

Every now and then, one would hear the old lament about the drop in hawker food standards and the entrance of hawker centres often took the blame. Daniel disagreed. There is now, he said, clean water for cooking, refrigerators for keeping the ingredients fresh and most importantly no more annoying houseflies. “Of course, the nostalgic Singaporeans will say the ambience is different. They prefer the good old days of rats running around!” 

We reckon the drop in standards may be due to the lack of second-generation hawkers, and replacement by foreign cooks, who are transient, untrained and even uninterested – a topic that calls for another article by itself.

There is something, however, that Daniel would attribute to eating street food. The older generation is blessed with a stronger stomach that allows them to take anything from the streets of our neighbouring countries. Their children or grandchildren, on other hand, would have to bear with some side effects.

Hawker Timeline: Shaping the Hawker Centre we know today

1950 Hawker Inquiry Commission was set up by Governor Franklin Charles Gimson to house itinerant hawkers at centralised locations

1960s Hawking was legalised through an island-wide hawkers’ registration.

1971 The first hawker centre built in this year, for the relocation was Newton Hawker Centre, to house the hawkers from Glutton’s Square.

1971 to 1986 Hawkers were relocated to the hawker centres.

1986 All the hawkers were successfully moved into the 140 newly built hawkers centres. Today, the number is down to 110, all managed by the National Environmental Agency.

1986 No new hawker centres have been built in the last 25 years.

Makansutra celebrates Asian food culture with various platforms – managing food courts, food guides, events and consultancy. For more, click here.