Thursday 9 January 2014

Why hawkers are a dying breed.

Two stories about hawkers were in the news recently.

The first was a story about "Robo-cook". This machine could be programmed to fry Hokkien Mee, and many other recipes. However, most of the comments were that a machine could never replace a hawker with experience, intuition, and passion for food-craft. And then comments veered into laments about how the hawker trade is dying out and there must be some way to keep these skills and traditions alive.

The second was a story about NEA asking for not-for-profit or social enterprises to run 4 hawker centres. The intention was that social enterprise or not-for-profit organisations managing these hawker centres could mean lower prices for customers and a better deal for the hawkers (lower rent).

Both these desires - keeping the hawker tradition alive, and creating a conducive environment for hawkers to ply their business fail to consider the key issue or criteria: who wants to be a hawker?

Hawkers. Be your own BOSS! Must be capable of cooking EXCELLENT food at affordable prices. Willing to work up to 18 hours a day. Minimal rest days (maybe twice a month). No promotion prospects. No career advancement. (But hey, you're already your own boss!) No CPF! (You can decide how much to put in yourself!) Successful candidates should have:
  • Good memory for faces and orders
  • Able to do simple math on the fly (make change without calculator). 
  • Diverse language skills (Mandarin/Malay and English at least, dialects an advantage).  
  • Logistics and management skills an asset - no training provided except on-the-job learning by trial and error. 
  • HR experience also an asset. The successful hawker may have to hire stall assistants, deal with MOM if they are foreign workers. Deal with CPF and IRAS regarding their wages. Prepare and manage their work schedules.
Challenging work environment (likely no air con, slaving over a hot stove, risk of rat and other pest infestation if stall not properly maintained and clean - ENV officers will be checking on your stall's cleanliness;  possible unreasonable customers with "special" requests (e.g. Mee Siam mai hum), possible disputes/disagreements with neighbouring hawkers, town councils, MPs, new media.) 

So, who wants to be a hawker?

The veteran hawkers today, may have entered the trade by happenstance, or because of the lack of other options or opportunities.

Without an education, or other marketable skills, or any other opportunities, they may have found their way into the hawker trade with varying degrees of reluctance or passion. Many may have simply invested in a small pushcart, loaded it with a charcoal stove, some cooking utensils and serving bowls and taken to the streets to try to make a living. For everyone who started out that way before ending up in a hawker centre or coffee shop, there were many others who dropped out of the trade for lack of talent, lack of resolve, and perhaps because other opportunities opened up.

Opportunities. That was the key. Hawkers raised families like anyone else, and while they may be good at their trade, and while it may have put food on the table, money in their pockets, and education in their children, most hawkers do not wish their trade on their children.

Yes, some do take pride in their work, and their accomplishments, but few would actually wish it on their children. They may like the idea of their children taking over their trade, but the reality and their experience and love for their children would still their tongue.

How could they wish their hard struggle on their children?

As the next generation got more educated, and more qualified, the world opened up to them. They could be doctors, lawyers, engineers, technicians, managers, executives, administrators, etc., with status, a nice office, or at least an air-conditioned work environment, fixed hours, 42 hours per week, with overtime pay if they work longer than that, CPF contribution from their employers, and within 2 - 3 years of work, they should have enough for the Singapore Dream: buying a HDB flat.

Or be a hawker. (See "Want ad"  above.)

The dilemma of the Hawker in the future of Singapore landscape is very simply stated: Everybody wants to continue to enjoy good, cheap, hawker food. Almost nobody wants to be a hawker (with the insane working conditions), or would want their children to be hawkers.

The solution? Not so simple.

The practical reality? Get used to the idea of soul-less food court run by big corporations trying to recapture the essence of hawkers. And failing. And at higher prices.


Update:  Low take-up for Hawker Apprenticeship Programme

This story does not exactly or directly support my theory above, but is provided for reference. It also does not invalidate my observations.

Update II: Fishball Story

The story of a Young Hawker struggling to survive with $3.50 fishball noodles.

Update III (1 Sept 2016): Cost of Running a Hawker Stall
Not necessarily representative, as it takes just ONE example. So hard to generalise from a sample of one.

But there are now some hard (and not-so-hard) figures:

Stall set-up (excludes 2 months rental deposit):                                           $10,000

Monthly Expenses/costs (Includes rent, utilities, supplies, maintenance:    $11,000 - $15,000

Average Daily takings (revenue):                                  $1,000
Per month (22 working days):                                                                       $22,000

Estimated average takings a month:                                                                $9,000
(to be shared by the two partners).

However, the average working hours is 13 hrs per day. Which is why they open for only 22 full days a month. If they open 5 days a week, that is still 65 hrs per week. Even 4 days would mean 52 hrs per week. More than the 42 hours under the Employment Act.

Update IV (Dec 2016):

I know the stall in Update III. I have tried their Char Siu noodles, and found it pricey. But as I believe that hawker food is underpriced, I was willing to support them. However, when I went to look for the stall again in Dec 2016, it had been replaced with another hawker. I guess it didn't work out for them.

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