Hawkers head to Shangri-la

With ageing hawkers hanging up their aprons and younger people opting for cushy office jobs instead of getting into the hawker food trade, the outlook for the continuation of Singapore's hawker heritage looks bleak. But there is some light.

A handful of younger, new-generation hawkers have entered the trade, offering not new-fangled, hipster foods, but traditional local delights from fried Hokkien mee to hand-made fishballs served with mee pok, home-made chilli paste and crispy cubes of lard.

Their offerings are not too far off the mark, judging from the queues some stalls enjoy.

To celebrate the new generation of hawkers, The Shangri-la Hotel Singapore in Orange Grove Road is offering a food promotion called Hawker Heritage - The Next Chapter. Diners can head to The Line, the hotel's buffet restaurant, to taste dishes made by nine new-generation hawkers from six stalls.

It is on this Saturday night and the following Saturday night, on Sept 28, from 6 to 10.30pm and costs $78 for an adult and $36 for a child. Diners can call 6213-4398 or e-mail dining.sls@shangrila.com for inquiries.

The promotion also includes a talk by Mr Daniel Wang, retired commissioner of public health and director-general of public health at the Environment Ministry. He was responsible for relocating itinerant hawkers and introducing hygiene regulations in the 1970s.

There is also a photo exhibition of old hawkers from the book Not For Sale - Singapore's Remaining Heritage Street Food Vendors by Sinma DaShow. The book was partially funded by the National Heritage Board and launched during the HeritageFest in July.

The participating hawker stalls are: Xiao Di Fried Prawn Noodle in Serangoon North; Toast Hut, which offers kaya toast and traditionally brewed coffee at Old Airport Road Food Centre; fishball noodle stall Ru Ji Kitchen, also at Old Airport Road Food Centre; Rong Cheng Bak Kut Teh in Sin Ming Lane; Indian rojak stall Habib's Rojak at Ayer Rajah Food Centre; and Kway Guan Huat in Joo Chiat, a popiah and kueh pie tee shop that still makes hand-made popiah skin.

The new-generation hawkers range in age from 23 to 39. Some are entrepreneurs, while others have left their jobs, or are intending to do so, to help run the family business.

The hotel says it has had a strong commitment to preserving Singapore's hawker heritage, which is part of the reason for the promotion.

It has been offering local delights since 1971, at the former Coffee Garden restaurant, which then became The Line in 2004. These days, it continues to offer hawker dishes from satay to teh tarik.

Mr Manfred Weber, 43, the hotel's general manager, says: "Hawkers form an important element of Singapore's heritage. We have been following recent reports on the lack of new blood to carry on the hawker trade with great concern. Instead of inviting guest chefs from other countries for a food promotion, we decided to invite young hawkers and promote popular Singaporean dishes which may be more interesting to foreign visitors."

He adds that he hopes the theme will also raise awareness of young entrepreneurs, and second- and third-generation hawker heirs who have decided to continue the trade.

Some of the hawkers in the promotion, including Terence Chee of Xiao Di Fried Prawn Noodles; Habib Mohamed of Habib's Rojak; and Joanne Ng and Daniel Lee of Ru Ji Kitchen, were featured in a SundayLife! story about young hawkers in May.

The general manager, along with colleagues from the communications, and food and beverage departments, tried more than 20 stalls before deciding on the six for the promotion.

The dishes from the participating hawkers will be complemented by other food such as laksa, oysters and sashimi, as well as local drinks including teh tarik, kopi tarik, bandung, a drink of rose syrup with evaporated milk - and Milo Dinosaur, a cold Milo drink topped with Milo powder.

Some of the hawkers will be closing their stalls to take part in the promotion, but see it as an opportunity because being at The Line will increase their exposure.

They are not paying to participate in the promotion and the hotel is funding the costs of all ingredients and food supplies.

Others, such as Mr Habib, will be working double shifts. He plans to head to his stall an hour earlier, at 2am, to get all his rojak items ready by 11am. Then he will head to the hotel to do the same - making everything from scratch - in time for dinner on both Saturday nights. He has even factored in time to head home for a shower.

He is so particular about his ingredients that he has asked the hotel to buy them directly from his supplier so that he can be assured of consistency.

The 25-year-old second-generation hawker, who learnt the trade from his father, says: "If I change the brand of the dhal powder for my vadai (prawn fritter), for example, the colour and taste will change."

Mr Chee, 23, who will be closing his shop on both Saturdays to participate in the promotion, is a little apprehensive about whether the hotel can provide the right gas stove for his noodles.

The stove at the restaurant is fitted with a high-heat flame for wok frying, but what he needs is a medium-flame to braise his Hokkien mee. He says: "If the fire is too big, my noodles will be burnt even before they get fried."

The hotel says it is working to get the right equipment and ingredients for all vendors in time for the event Mr Chee adds: "When they approached me, I felt honoured and I thought it would be fun. And it would also be good exposure for me."


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