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  • Cheong Chee Foong

Giving life to a dying industry

A few weeks ago, I came across a Facebook post from Can Eat! Hawker Food.

It was a sombre situation all around, and the post's impassioned call to action was rather touching. In order to chip in and show some support, I decided to pay Uncle Lim’s stall a visit.

The hawker centre hosting his stall was in a fairly secluded area of Toa Payoh‒ one likely reason for the slow customer traffic. Regardless, I went ahead and placed my order. A combined meal of carrot cake, fried kuay teow, and hokkien mee turned out to be just 11 dollars, where every single item was delectable to boot. What a steal!

Yet, few bothered taking such a good deal; there were barely any customers present. All thanks to one little pandemic.

While COVID-19 has impacted everyone, few industries have been hit harder than the F&B industry. For those who've been battered by one closure after the other, the light at the end of the tunnel remains dim and distant.

Most restaurants and cafes have, quite fortunately, made the easy switch to online platforms for advertisements, and delivery services are perfect for the current climate of remote work.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for hawkers.

How Hawkers are struggling more than ever

The first major roadblock for hawkers is how some are unable to promote their stalls. Facebook? Instagram? It’s all Greek to a generation that didn’t grow up with such convoluted marketing. To them, pandas only eat, not deliver food, and grab is a verb, not a noun. There is little way for them to compete against other food establishments with a full PR team.

The second problem is far more troublesome ‒ many hawkers are unable to turn mobile. For some of them, the cost of delivery services is fairly steep or straight up unaffordable. This is not even considering the extra logistics and time required.

Worse, few older hawkers even know their way around a smartphone, much less the workings of delivery apps. Such new technology is a foreign, even frightening concept for many of them. In that case, how can they make the shift to incorporate food delivery services when they don't understand it? What happens if there's yet another Circuit Breaker, and hawkers don't have delivery services enabled? The answers to those questions aren't promising.

Finally, we must also consider the current COVID-19 restrictions, where only a maximum of 2 per group are allowed to eat at hawker centres. Not only does this reduce dine-in customers, it also discourages takeaway: why travel all the way to a hawker centre for takeaway, when I can just order the delivery of something fancier? Where I can eat in the comfort of my home, with my entire friend or family group?

Regardless, the fact is that many hawkers are trapped in an unprecedented situation without the proper tools or knowledge to keep up. They don’t understand Instagram promoting; they can barely read Facebook or Grab delivery requests.

They might not be even able to read.

The inability to navigate online waters, dwindling customers who jump ship to ‘fancier’ alternatives, and a deadly virus keeping majority in their homes ‒ all these factors have taken its toll on these honest folks trying to make a decent living.

A very real issue

One bittersweet example that encapsulates their struggle was from Madam Noorhani Ali, a nasi padang stall owner working at Geylang Serai Market. On video, she revealed how she’d received little to no customers even during dinner time‒ a situation she’d faced for three days consecutively. The rows of unsold food beside her were simply salt in the wound as she broke down in tears.

Thankfully, that video sharing her plight quickly went viral and Netizens supported her in full force. Orders for her dishes arrived in waves, with many ordering in bulk and donating it to others for free. In an hour, her food was completely sold out.

From comforting words to new loyal customers, Madam Ali’s burden was relieved thanks to the power of social media.

Yet not everyone is fortunate enough to get such happy endings. Often, cases like Uncle Lim are the reality that many hawkers face. Dozens, likely even hundreds of hawkers are still out there, struggling to get by.

So maybe we can do something about it.

How we can help

Many are doing their utmost to raise awareness: @wheretodapao is an Instagram page showcasing various needy hawkers who require our assistance; on Telegram, the @SaveTheHawkersBot pairs customers who want to purchase meals from a specific hawker centre with people traveling to that exact location.

Others have stepped in too. The government has given grants which act as lifebuoys, keeping hawkers afloat through this difficult time. The Grab app allows not just delivery, but mixing of orders from different stores, just like a traditional hawker experience. More importantly, this allows us to support not one, but multiple stalls at once ‒ an invaluable boon for hawkers during these trying times.

There have also been ‘celebrate local heroes’ initiatives which encourages the masses to support hawkers and get free delivery.

From individuals to the government itself, there are a multitude of resources at our fingertips to support hawkers. The only issue remaining, is whether we decide to or not.

The future

Some may argue the loss of hawker culture is nothing but an inevitability. Yet, it doesn’t have to be. Not unless we want it to. And we shouldn’t ‒ they’re cheap, plentiful, and above all, delicious. Personally, 'Atas' food has nothing on it.

Not only is hawker culture so ingrained in our little red dot, it's also what we're known for internationally. We travel across oceans to see the Eiffel Tower, while Gordon Ramsay went to Maxwell Food Centre for chicken rice. Hawker culture is even included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Hawkers are such a large part of our national identity ‒ it would be a true shame if we let them fizzle out with a whimper.

So the next time we’re on our lunch or dinner breaks, perhaps consider delivery options from hawkers, or walking across the street for a takeaway or sit down. Let us all support these hawkers with our wallets.

It may be chump change to us, but accumulated? It could mean the world to them.

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