Hawkers fret over centre renovations

SINGAPORE - Leases will be up within the next two years for stall owners at three hawker centres, and hawkers there are unsure of what the future holds.

What is certain is that the centres at Block 69, Geylang Bahru; Block 163, Bukit Merah Central; and Block 84, Marine Parade Central, will undergo an overhaul once the leases run out.

The Geylang Bahru and Bukit Merah centres are slated to close in November next year for major renovations, while the third will follow a year later.

The revamps will take about a year, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA), which put out a tender in April for a project manager.

"The improvement works to the three centres will enhance the condition of the centres and prolong their economic lifespan," the tender document stated. There was no mention of temporary centres being set up.

Some stall owners, including those of popular ones such as Red Stove Prawn Mee in Geylang Bahru, told The Straits Times that they hope to stay on.

Stalls at these food centres were sold to hawkers for an upfront sum under the Stall Ownership Scheme between 1994 and 1997. Leases were for 20 years, after which the stalls go back to the Government.

The NEA said hawkers who owned stalls will have the option of continuing their business after the revamp.

First-generation hawkers - those who had been relocated off the streets in the 1970s - will pay subsidised rents, while others will be charged according to prevailing rental market rates.

But some hawkers worry that business will dip when the centres reopen. Others asked whether a temporary food centre will be put up during the renovation.

Usually, hawkers who wish to move to a temporary market can do so, as in the case of the centre at Block 85, Bedok North Street 4, in 2012.

"Business will be affected for sure... After a whole year, people will forget about us and go elsewhere," said Madam Ong Keow Eng, 54, of Red Stove Prawn Mee.

Madam Siti Rohaia, 59, who runs a Malay food stall in Geylang Bahru, said she is the sole breadwinner in her family of six and needs to continue working when the centre is closed.

"I don't know if (the NEA) will compensate us or provide alternative sites," she said.

Some hawkers also worry that management of the food centre will be outsourced to the private sector, which may impose restrictions on their operations.

"It will dictate operating hours and we will have to apply for leave to take a break. I will not be returning if that is the case," said Mr Tan Hock Soon, 56, vice-chairman of the Bukit Merah Central hawker association. He has been running a drink stall there since 1980.

Bukit Merah resident Serene Ng, 51, said she hopes the food will remain affordable after the revamp. "It is largely an elderly population here. Three dollars for a bowl of noodles is okay, but if it goes up to $4, no one will buy."

Will they return? Rental cost a major consideration

He has been selling fried kway teow at Marine Parade Central food centre for more than 30 years.

But Mr Tan Ah Guan, owner of Apollo Fresh Cockle Fried Kway Teow, said his days there are almost over.

The 63-year-old has no plans to return after the centre completes its revamp at the end of 2018 as "business has been bad and it is too expensive".

Other tenants at the centre were pessimistic or uncertain about the future of their stalls.

Mrs Zheng Qiu Rong, 57, co-owner of Qiu Rong Ban Mian, cited rental costs as a factor.

"If there are incentives to return, we will. But if the rental is too high, we will not," she said. "We don't earn a lot."

She and her husband moved from Roxy Square to the food centre across the road just six months ago, and were surprised to hear about the renovation plans.

"Of course, renovations must be done to make the place cleaner but, at the same time, they are very inconvenient.

"One year is neither here nor there and too short to find a new place," she said.

She plans to take a break during the renovation period, as it would be too troublesome to find work elsewhere, given the high costs of renting a temporary stall.

Asked about her hopes for the revamped food centre, Mrs Zheng said: "It would be nice if they could install air-conditioners as the weather these days is too hot... We old folk ask for nothing but a bit of comfort."

Mr Tan had loftier ambitions for the place. "It would be better if they could build a multi-storey complex over this site and relocate the hawker centre to a food court inside," he said. "Right now, space is wasted because everything is spread out."

This article was first published on June 2, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.