UNESCO Adds Singapore Hawker Centers to Cultural Heritage List

Recognition cheers Singaporeans and foodies... but not everyone's happy

Hawker center food in Singapore
Hawker center food in Singapore.

Courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board

If there were any doubt to Singapore hawkers’ legitimacy as the tiny Asian country’s cultural calling card, the United Nations put it to rest last week.

On Dec. 17, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed Singapore’s hawker culture on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, joining the ranks of Cambodia's classical dance, Argentinian tango, and Belgian beer.

UNESCO defines "intangible cultural heritage" as a "wealth of knowledge or skills" nurtured by the local community, representing abilities or customs passed down over generations.

“We are incredibly honoured,” responded Edwin Tong, Singapore’s minister for culture, community, and youth. “Hawker culture holds a special place in the hearts of Singaporeans… and is a living heritage that reflects our everyday experience and identity as a multicultural society.”

Makansutra founder and Singapore’s most prominent spokesman for hawker culture, KF Seetoh, celebrated the news that coincided with his birthday.

“I had always known something was right about our hawker food culture, which isn’t just about the hawkers but also you, me, and even the government,” Seetoh posted on Facebook. “Our collective love and affinity for it makes up this whole Hawker Food Culture."

Couple eating at open-air hawker center, Singapore

Courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board

Citizens from cross-border rival Malaysia, whose Penang hawker scene shares roots and dishes with Singapore’s, were less than enthusiastic about the announcement.

Malaysian social media reactions ranged from sour grapes (“Doesn’t look that special when saunas and grass mowing also made the list!”) to a not-unjustified sense that Malaysia invented it first.

“Since when did 'hawker culture' originate in Singapore?” wrote this Twitter user. “If the UNESCO listing is for Singapore's hawker culture, it opens up the field for Malaysian hawker culture to get a listing as well.”

In Singapore’s defense, their hawker culture has evolved into something quite distinct from that of their neighbor.

In Malaysia, “resistance is the default stance of street vendors... towards efforts to bring order to their chaotic hawking.” In contrast, in Singapore, the government conducted a concerted (and ultimately successful) effort to register and relocate street-based vendors into the hawker centers we know and love today.

Also, unlike in Malaysia, hawker centers in Singapore played a major part in uniting the country’s multiethnic populace into a single distinct culture.

Each Singapore hawker center followed the government’s original mandate to represent all of Singapore’s major ethnicities: to this day, all hawker centers in Singapore include Malay, Indian, Chinese, and “Western” stalls, encouraging locals to develop a borderless palate.

UNESCO’s Singapore listing explicitly recognizes the hawker center’s outsize role in welding the country’s communities together as a nation:

[Hawker centers] serve as ‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Activities such as chess-playing, busking and art-jamming also take place.
Evolved from street food culture, hawker centres have become markers of Singapore as a multicultural city-state…. As a social space that embraces people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, hawker centres play a crucial role in enhancing community interactions and strengthening the social fabric.
Octogenarian hawker in Singapore

Courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board

UNESCO recognition aside, hawker centers aren’t guaranteed smooth sailing in the future.

Singapore's next generation has been slow to pick up food hawking as a trade; the median age of local hawkers is 60, and younger Singaporeans aren’t keen to take up a career slinging spatulas when better-paying office jobs are within reach.

The pandemic has also hurt the hawker trade, as social distancing measures have limited foot traffic in some of Singapore’s most popular hawker centers.

In response to discouraging trends, local authorities have poured resources into new hawker training programs, built new hawker centers, and franchised local hawker concepts for a worldwide audience. Authorities hope that accolades from UNESCO and the Michelin Guide portend great things for future hawkers—but experts say more work needs to be done.

“The hawker lines aren't going out the door overnight just because [of the UNESCO listing],” warned K.F. Seetoh. “As enterprising Singaporeans, we gotta leverage on this recognition, for when the airport doors re-open, the world will come hungry and with a vengeance.”

Article Sources
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