The continuing Singaporean tradition of an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

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Such are the myriad of riches summing up the heritage distinction of culture the world over that it takes sometimes literature to muster what the other forms of the art might have done in some other part of the world, while also as easily transcending the appeal of the heartfelt and the soulful in pure literal connotations to take cognisance of wider variations of the shared human experience. Most vital among such shared leanings of the way forward culturally has to be the human relationship with food and foodsters and one such rather interesting mode of continuation of the food trail today is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in its centuries old tradition of humble origins but distinctive and global reputation.

Up for discussion is the world famous heritage hawker culture of the city state of Singapore that which have come to covet entry into the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity only recently, having successfully rounded of a year long campaign by attaining the recognition in December 2020. Though not a feature unique to the country, having found expression also in other regions like Malaysia and Hong Kong, the hawker culture of Singapore is by far the most explored, having existed since at least the time of the 1800s, much, much before its emergence as an independent nation state. A definite element of the cultural identity that continues to be associated with the Singaporean way of life in all its amalgamating diversity and continuance, yet stemming still of simplistic, humble beginnings and residing still in an essence commonplace, the famed hawker culture there is testament to a taste that defines the cosmopolitan nature of Singapore’s present day existence. Indeed a very essential celebration of food at best, but within the realm of which dwells also the celebration of multiple coexistences of different ethnicities and communities, this unique embarkment on the food trail sure earns its place on the representative list by virtue of all means food but also the associated potpourri of the many dynamics of the human world that it has come to embody.

The recent recognition indeed is an ode to the centuries long tradition that continues to mark the facade of life along Singapore’s many streets and markets but even beyond that the more global lauding of its essence does well also to up the ante of the many street hawkers battered by challenges and problems that have made an onset along with the passing tides of time. Most remarkably though, the distinction is expected to provide an impetus to the very existence of this tradition rooted in the cultural heritage of Singapore, as an industry today that while is still persisting, definitely lay closer to its gradual end that what it had been at any time in history. As a continuing mode of occupation that which caters more in its need as being a lifeline for the city’s many hawkers rather than being a choice of profession that the younger, educated folks turn to in all enthusiasm, with however a few exceptions of course, the propulsion of this rather distinctive lineage of national cultural bearings to one that is more globally recognised and celebrated and even sought to be preserved in more concrete and identifiable terms should surely spell wonders for this whole realm of the ‘community dining rooms’ that the UNESCO has referred to as, in all its allusions.

In fact, the very origins of the hawker centers had been one intricately linked to being avenues for livelihood of the vast migrant population that had poured into Singapore during the early part of the 1800s. As the many Chinese and as many Indians mingled with the indigenous Malay population to each embrace their fortunes in a land still under the rule of the British, what ensued was an increasing need for both food and employment opportunities, eked out very conveniently then by men among them who turned hawkers to satiate the appetite of the masses who in turn satiated the financial demands of them, setting in motion a complementary routine of life and livelihood that would come to define the Singaporean identity in the times to come. What ensued out of this medley of flavours that were up on offer however wasn’t just the receptiveness that the taste buds set out to work on but also a larger profusion of mingling, of identities, of interests and of communities that went on to shape the larger culture of the region. But the most prominent influence of course was acted upon on the ambits of the cuisine of Singapore, today so widely recognised in its many a classic dishes best plated by its legions of hawkers spread out across its 114 markets and hawker centers throughout the length and breadth of the country. With lip smacking preparations, both traditional and ethnic and contemporary and fusion like char kway teow, nasi lemak, fishball noodles, soya sauce chicken rice, laksa, roti prata accompanied with copious amounts of equally copious number of combinations of tea and/ or coffee on offer pretty much everywhere, from the unassuming stalls at residential areas to the ones more heritage in their presence and prominence, set in the center city, the food scene in Singapore indeed is a boisterous coming together of the obligatory passion of its generations of hawkers who have existed and since evolved with the slipping sands of time.

What indeed has helped this process in evolutionary standing that the whole of Singapore’s ubiquitous hawker culture have come to experience through the years but particularly since its independence in 1965 is the effort made by the government authorities to organise these sellers of food and moulders of heritage into one common existence that has been so vital to the Singaporean identity. The process of organization however predates its era of freedom, with the local municipal authorities setting up six temporary covered markets between 1922 and 1935 even as they continued also their way through the Second World War when the Japanese occupiers allowed the hawkers to sell out their fares from these centers. It also was after the war that rampant unemployment made even more people take to hawking as their means of livelihood, thus more definitely setting in motion the process of crafting the distinctive cultural heritage that continues to define the Singaporean experience today. Resting in the distinction thus of being home to the first ever as well as the cheapest Michelin starred hawker stall in the world, Singapore’s present day hawker heritage boasts more than 40 stalls residing in this distinction of food excellence.

The dedicated efforts that have helped the hawker culture spawn an expanse of worldwide popularity had involved also actions towards such ends that did not concern exclusively with the forays of just the food on the plate. As the hawking boom led to an associated shortage of space and the emergence of many a issues of hygiene and health, the authorities began licensing street hawkers and move them under the organised spaces of the hawker center for close to two decades from 1968 to 1986. However in the ensuing decades that followed, right upto the 2010s, there was an abrupt halt in this process of organisation. It was only in 2011 that a new plan to develop 10 new hawker centers was announced, once again bringing to life a harbinger of the cultural aspect so integral to Singapore but also spurring the beginning of a crisis that could veritably threaten the very existence of this continuing exercise since antiquity.

As it emerged that it was more the older masses who were likely to confine themselves to the extant of what can be very safely considered a trade passed down through the generations, there accompanied the realisation of the possible obscurity in which the hawker culture would gradually lead itself to. Quite surprisingly, despite the heritage connotations that have existed even before its inscription into the UNESCO list, the occupation of hawking itself was deemed as lowly and therefore not something one would pursue as one’s passion, leaving it vulnerable to losing its essence and importance in the prejudice of the modern times. Parallelly however, what’s encouraging is the spurt of another related phenomenon that can be a new way of envisaging life for the heritage hawkers. With a savvy younger population more determined than ever in expanding the scope of all things they set out to explore, there has arisen the avenue of furthering the entrepreneurial spirit so innate to the new generation that it has in fact diversified the very avenues of the same. With hawkerpreneurship on the rise, a modern, profit driven visage of transforming the heritage status of what is an iconic cultural embodier of the Singaporean lifestyle can sure work wonders in bringing more diversity upon a realm of something as essential as the dual basics of work and food. Other means that have been floated to ensure the continuance of this legacy steeped in the traditions of a couple of centuries range from the concerns of the administrative like doling out provisions of subsidized rent to the managerial like announcing apprenticeship programs for young hands to take over the mantle of hawking. The offsets indeed are many, from the hardships of it that require working long, continuous hours in heated conditions to the low paying disincentives or the unrelated but still impactful enough factor of charting out other, more ‘challenging’ courses of profession. But the recent UNESCO recognition and the pride it has helped in instilling among generations of Singaporeans who sure have taken to viewing the richness of their cultural legacy in a more celebratory, and most importantly more fascinating light, will hopefully hold this famed hawker culture in a stead better than what it has already encountered in its years and years of distinctive but not so heralded thriving.


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