This is the full transcript of my email reply to Lianhe Zaobao's Yang Yang interviewing me on the future of hawkers. The article, "高龄小贩淡出 少壮圆梦入行" was published on 26 May 2013 (see image below).
YY: Do you think hawker business is of low social status in Singapore?
DG: Traditionally, being a hawker was seen as a respectable occupation. Hawkers have been a central feature in our social landscape, as not only do their food provide us with physical sustenance, the very stalls out in the public space provide us with the setting for social and cultural life. If European cities have their public squares, we have our hawker streets and hawker centres.
They have been so central to our social life that in the nineteenth century riots broke out when the colonial authorities sought to regulate or control hawking of food, and today the National Heritage Board is actively promoting hawker food as part of our cultural heritage.
20 years ago, I had friends who were proud to say that their parents were hawkers and had been featured in newspapers for their good food. We would even go and visit to eat the food, and both children and parents were proud of it. The change, I think, happened in the last 20 years.
YY: Be it in a food court, hawker centre and restaurant, they are all considered F&B business, why do people think by selling hawker food is "lower" than those in restaurant? This is especially true as many young people are more willing to venture into restaurants/cafes, rather than being a hawker.
DG: My hypothesis would be that a number of factors contributed to the lowering of hawker social status.
First, as air-conditioned food courts began to make its way into the landscape, food court companies actively cultivated a more "high class" image of food courts.
Second, the more successful hawkers began to franchise their business for food courts, some eventually giving up with their original hawker stalls, thus developing a market hierarchy that defines business progress as one of graduating from hawker centers to food court franchise.
Third, because of gentrification of certain areas like Tiong Bahru, Joo Chiat, coffee shops and hawker centres begin to give way or lose market share to restaurants and theme cafes that the aspiring middle class frequented to imbibe their consumerist lifestyle.
Fourth, in newer public housing estates that are more middle class in character, the government has refused to build hawker centres and have promoted food court culture instead. Government attitudes play a big part too, as the rhetoric seems to condescend on hawkers as inferior to food courts, restaurants, for example, by trying to "upgrade" and "professionalize" hawkers, as though there is something deficient about them, and by only building "new generation" hawker centres that are really food courts operated by government-linked entities.
YY: How do you define social status based on our jobs and occupations? Is it those jobs which require more brain power are considered higher status than those using more manual labour?
DG: There is no objective definition of occupational social status, it is subjective to the society's perceptions and values, which are in turn influenced by a whole range of factors. For example, in old feudal societies, traders and merchants were at the bottom of the social status, but today, being a businessman is a respectable vocation.
In Singapore, because of the government's and society's obsession with "value-add" defined in narrow monetary terms, hawkers are seen as lower in social status because the product they offer is inexpensive and the rentals are inexpensive. This is very myopic, as we miss out on how hawkers play a very important part in our social and cultural life, and to the overall economy because they form the innovative base of our F&B industry.
YY: In your opinion, how would you suggest that we "upgrade" hawker status so as to attract more young ppl into the business?
DG: We should let the "market" do its trick. Provide more hawker centres, deregulate them as much as possible, but keep rentals low, let more people try out all kinds of innovative food products and concepts, and let the consumers decide which ones are good. This way, it will breathe new life into our hawker sector and generate new waves of innovation.
Some of these are happening already, the government just have to provide the right infrastructure instead of trying to control and nurture the sector like a bonsai plant. For example, there are young people opening new types of hawker stalls that are drawing young people. I can think of the Good Beer Company in Chinatown Complex, which is a hit with young people for its specially imported beers, and in a hawker centre where they can eat zi char, fish head, satay with the beer. It makes for diversity and renewal, because we see young people drinking their craft beers sitting next to older uncles drinking their Tigers.
YY: In general, do you really think our hawker culture is dying?
DG: The hawker culture is being squeezed on all fronts, by rentals, big companies, and the government not wanting to build new hawker centres. It is not dying, but it is being threatened. We should not think of simply "preserving" hawker culture, fossilizing it into hardened heritages. We also should not think of "upgrading" hawker culture by government control and direction. Our hawker culture has always thrived, innovated, developed in a liberal market environment with cheap rentals and start-up costs. Restore that, and we will see our hawker culture boom again.
the persistently political pine stays green in the winter of the patriarch ... while, one by one, the gentlemen fall prey to the corruption of power and patronage
s/pores new directions in singapore studies