The Hawker Centers in Singapore were on the verge of disappearing. Then the UN intervened.


At the counter of the roti prata stall, I watch a peddler crush, fold and transform a stretchy dough into flatbread. Working quickly, he turns the roti prata, golden brown and flaky, on a plate and hands it to me with hot curry for dipping. Another hawker “pulls” me a cup of teh tarik, pouring a drizzle of milky black tea between two containers until it is frothy, which I sip as I walk along the queues for stalls selling coffee. shrimp noodles, mutton biryani and curry cabbage.

These are the Tekka Market & Food Center in Singapore, one of the country’s best-known hawking centers, or food markets which are “bustling common spaces where Singaporeans from all walks of life come together to dine and create. links, ”says Yeo Kirk Siang of the country’s National Heritage Council (NHB). There are over 110 centers across the island, and they are essential to its identity.

In the 1800s, Singapore, a port city and commercial center, attracted immigrants from all over Asia. Some, mostly workers, turned to hawking. They have traveled the island to sell food from their homelands, finding a way to support their families and feed an increasingly international community. In the 1960s, the government began to regulate hawking, moving these entrepreneurs to food stalls in designated areas, often near housing estates, and the hawker culture flourished. “When you walk into a hawking center, you can find stalls selling Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and many other types of food from different groups of immigrants who have settled in Singapore,” says Siang. “Over time, they have evolved into distinctive local dishes that we love and have been an important part of our food heritage.”

Alexandra Village Food Center Shrimp Noodles

Photo by Faris Mustafa

But running a booth is taxing, requires long hours and physically demanding work, and profit margins are low. With globalization providing more options for Singapore’s young workforce and a generation of stall owners nearing retirement, there are concerns that hawking centers will disappear.

The government therefore took action by creating programs to encourage new generations to continue in the craft through mentorship and grants and to help veteran hawkers plan their succession and purchase automated equipment such as steamers. and meat grinders. And globally, Singapore has undergone the multi-year process to nominate its culture of peddlers for inscription (or inclusion) on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Yes, the UN is known for having inscribed places such as Machu Picchu in Peru or the Acropolis in Greece on its World Heritage List. But it also recognizes the “intangible” heritage, the ways of life that make up a culture. The aim of the list, established in 2008, is to protect and raise awareness of these parts of cultural heritage, communities and identities. The process to get an “element” on the list is involved, including a detailed request that must demonstrate cultural value, consent from the communities that create and maintain the element, and evidence that the communities will promote and safeguard it. . When I visited Singapore at the end of 2019, the NHB was more than halfway through the two-year process of putting hawker culture on the UNESCO list.

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