The early days
From as early as the 1800s, roadside hawkers were a common sight in Singapore, and they sold anything from freshly prepared food to produce and sundries, usually at cheap prices that catered to the blue-collar worker. Most of these hawkers were part of the wave of immigrants looking to make Singapore their new home and hawking was a relatively easy way to eke out an income, especially for those who were poorer, unskilled or uneducated.
These immigrant hawkers often brought their homeland heritage along with them – you could usually tell where a person was from just based on what they peddled and where they set up their stalls. For example, Chinese Teochew people were usually found selling fruits and vegetables wholesale because of their links to the farms, while the Malay and Javanese could often be found fanning grills of satay skewers. Indian hawkers were known for their delicious snacks like kacang puteh, assorted nuts wrapped in a paper cone and crispy fried muruku.
Legislation kicks in
Street hawking had become a part of Singapore daily life, but it wasn’t without its problems – bad sanitation and food contamination was a major issue as it led to diseases and public health issues. Also problematic were the haphazard spread of roving hawker stalls that blocked roads and sidewalks, took up prime commercial areas that the government wanted to redevelop and even caused territorial disputes that were linked to gang-related activity.
In the early 1900s, the ruling British Colonial government passed legislation to require all hawkers to get licensed and try to regulate hours and locations of these hawkers, though little headway was made until the 1960s in Singapore’s early days of independence. An island-wide hawker registration exercise was carried out, along with the government building actual fixed buildings as food centres in the ’70s and ’80s, ultimately resulting in the hawker centres that we know and love today.
Some noteworthy hawker centres in Singapore
There are over 100 hawker centres in Singapore today, from small ‘kopitiam’-style hawker centres underneath residential blocks to sprawling stand-alone buildings with surprisingly modern features. Many of these hawker centres have been upgraded in recent years to improve their facilities (some even have robots now), while others have gone on to win Michelin awards, and they continue to be well patronised by locals and tourists alike.
Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre in the far western end of Singapore was the first hawker centre in operation in the ’70s, then known as Yung Sheng Hawker Centre. The largest hawker centre in Singapore today can be found at Chinatown Complex with over 200 food stalls spread over the second floor of the building.
Popular hawker centres on the tourist must-see list include Newton Hawker Centre, Lau Pa Sat with its iconic octagonal shape architecture and Old Airport Road Food Centre, and others also worth checking out include Tekka Food Centre, Changi Village Hawker Centre and the unusually named Chomp Chomp Food Centre. Indoor air-conditioned food courts found in shopping malls are favoured by those who rather not work up a sweat, but they just don’t have the same flavour as a typical hawker centre – it’s part of the whole experience.