'Preserving craft by passing down recipes'
If you visit the Ci Yuan hawker centre in Hougang, look carefully before you call the hawkers "Uncle" or "Auntie".
This is because 14 of the 40 stalls there are run by youngsters who have graduated from the Entrepreneurship Programme run by Fei Siong Food Management, the centre's managing agent.
The two-month programme, which started last July, paired hawker hopefuls with retiring veterans. The veterans taught the rookies their recipes, checked on the food quality and mentored them on managing their businesses.
While the programme is not the first here - the authorities launched the Hawker Master Trainer pilot programme in 2013, for instance - it reflects growing concern about a lack of successors to ageing hawkers. The median age of cooked-food hawkers is 59, it was revealed in Parliament earlier this month.
Under the Fei Siong scheme, each rookie was attached to a hawker stall and paid $3,000 a month for two months. The rookies worked 10 hours a day, six days a week.
They went on to operate their own stall independently at the 20,000 sq ft Ci Yuan hawker centre, which opened last August and has 640 seats.
At Ci Yuan, a not-for-profit project, all stalls sell at least two dishes for under $2.80 each.
Fei Siong owns eateries and foodcourts in shopping malls, including Tangs Market in Tangs Orchard, the Malaysia Boleh foodcourt in Jurong Point and the Eat chain of noodle shops.
Fei Siong group managing director Tan Kim Siong, 46, hopes that the programme will give aspiring hawkers a head start in the trade.
Fei Siong, which received more than 60 applications, chose 18 of them for its pioneer cohort. It does not have plans for another run of the programme for now.
Mr Tan said: "The young generation has a lot of new ideas. We believe they are also fast learners and are able to learn the ropes from seniors and help continue the hawker tradition. They are also open to innovations such as social media and food delivery.
"But we are careful with our selection. The young hawkers need to be resilient as we need them to work long hours. They need to know it is not an easy trade."
One of these young hawkers is Mr Ang Yi Jie, 29, who sells porridge and handmade noodle soup at the centre.
Mr Ang, who graduated from Nanyang Technological University's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering in 2014, had started an online business selling pet supplies for about a year, but closed it down last year as it did not do well.
"I have always wanted to start my own business, especially in the food and beverage industry. But a huge concern is always capital and expertise," said Mr Ang, whose mother and sister help him at his stall.
"The Entrepreneurship Programme is a guiding platform for that as it reduces the operation costs needed to start your own business."
Mr K.F. Seetoh, founder of food guide Makansutra and creator of the World Street Food Congress, said the programme can make things easier for aspiring hawkers.
"Street food is not fast food, nor is it easy to make, or else we can all make it at home, like making pasta. And unlike burgers, there is not one definitive recipe to any one hawker dish.
"Younger Singaporeans are keen to get into this line, but don't know how best to do so and how to progress, other than (to) mimic the best... how the old hawkers do their thing all these decades."
Mr Tan said Fei Siong has had feedback from old hawkers who said they cannot stand for many hours and want to retire.
He said: "It is a pity to see time-honoured recipes fade away whenever an old hawker decides to call it a day. The Entrepreneurship Programme is a way to preserve their craft by passing down their recipes."
This article was first published on April 20, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.