Introducing: the Singapore Hawker Center
Let’s take it back to the mid 1800’s. Singapore was a scrappy, busy, port with loads of laborers from China called coolies. They mostly loaded and unload ships at the docks. No surprise these men were here alone, either single or far away from their families. Many of them lived in appallingly crowded flats and earned little money. Without the time, means, or female family members to cook for them, there had to be an alternative. The male to female ratio was a lopsided 10 to 1. Enter the street hawker.
In these days, street food was king. The street hawker had a cart with wheels and economically served up hearty fare to mostly workers each day. They cooked fried noodles and rice, soups, chicken, pork, and other dishes. Others had drinks carts selling teas and various beverages. This system of street carts was good for some, but in the mid 1900’s Singapore’s authorities became concerned about the sanitation both in the streets and of the food. They wanted to clean up the streets and give the hawkers a place they could get fresh water for better cleanliness. They also wanted to eliminate unlicensed street food vendors. Enter the hawker center.
Singapore hawker centers were built to house the many street vendors under one roof. They provided seating for customers and utilities for hawkers. Today life without hawker centers in Singapore is unimaginable. You can find traditional street food not only in the hawker centers, but at coffee shops, air-conditioned food courts, and even upscale restaurants.
In contemporary Singapore, the hawker center is a place for social gatherings as well as the obvious practical purpose of feeding people for cheap. Though the venue has changed, street food remains part of the culture here and the hawker center an indelible part of the fabric of life in Singapore.