Impact of COVID-19 on Hawker Culture in Singapore by Lynne Chia

by Lynne Chia (Feeding City Team Alumni)

On November 17, 2020, Singaporeans celebrated the news that local hawker food culture was one step closer to being inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.i This year, however,  has not been easy for this treasured facet of Singaporean society. Hawker food refers to cheap and delicious local foods sold at open-air centres across Singapore.

It has a rich history that spans across a century of complex developments between a country and its people. Singapore’s status as a port-city in the twentieth century brought about an influx of immigration mainly from China (southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong), India (Tamil Nadu) and the Malay Archipelago, to work and live in the ports, mines, plantations and emergent villages and towns.ii 

Quick and affordable meal options became a necessity for the average immigrant worker. This gave rise to street hawkers who took up food trades to earn a livelihood. They set up makeshift stalls along roads and places around the growing urban areas of Singapore. Over time, this hawker food culture developed a unique identity of its own; informed by a multi-cultural palette of flavours and heritage, and became tied intrinsically to the lives of ordinary Singaporeans till this day.  

The unprecedented consequences of COVID-19 have left a significant mark on hawker culture in Singapore. Over the past decade, hawkers have been struggling with rising prices of fresh produce and stall rental costs. The outbreak of COVID-19 has only served to place more intense pressure on the Singaporean hawker trade. The introduction of the government-coined “circuit-breaker” measures on 7th April 2020 was Singapore’s cordon sanitaire implemented due to the burgeoning COVID-19 cases from clusters at foreign worker dormitories.

With these measures in place, hawker centres, traditionally the centre of community life for many, became off-limits except for takeaways and deliveries. The familiar lunch-time office crowds and late-night supper groups were reduced to a trickle in most places, as residents were strongly urged to stay home–barring exercise and shopping for essential items.

A group of people standing in front of a restaurant

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(A typical lunchtime crowd at the popular Maxwell Hawker Food Centre in Singapore, before COVID-19. Picture by The Straits Times.) 

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(A completely empty Maxwell Food Centre at peak lunch hour, pictured on 13th April, shortly after the commencement of the circuit breaker which banned dine-ins. The few seated individuals are stall owners, not patrons. Picture courtesy of Lynne’s father, Allan.) 

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(A sign plastered to a table at the Redhill Hawker Food Centre. Picture by: Daniel Lee) 

Subsequently, many businesses reported severe drops in stall revenue, with some earning only a third of what they used to make a day. Even with government subsidies put in place, such as stall rental waivers awarded to around 14,000 hawker stalls for the months of April-July, high running costs of cleaning, utilities and food ingredients weighed heavily on hawkers’ minds.iii 

This period has also seen an increase in excess food wastage, with many hawkers being unable to sell what they have prepared and cooked for the day, and by sanitation laws, are required to dispose of their unsold food. In an interview with the Today Newspaper, Mr Lee Kim Saik, 58, owner of Hong Wan Food Stall that sells rice with dishes at the Hong Lim Food Centre, shared the costs that go into running a hawker business. Apart from stall rental fees, which is estimated to be about S$1,200 (CAD$1164) a month, Mr Lee pays another S$1,300 (CAD$1260) on gas, utilities and miscellaneous fees.iv 

On top of the current strain that COVID-19 has placed on the hawker food ecosystem, maintaining food security and regulating the affordability of food imports continuously pose a great challenge to Singapore. According to Lionel Chee, Singapore’s Ambassador to the World Food Travel Association, the price of ingredients available to hawkers has risen by as much as 20 to 30 percent since 2008.v A small bag of red onions that used to cost 3.80 Singapore dollars (CAD$3.69) now costs between 6 Singapore dollars and 7 Singapore dollars (CAD$5.82 – CAD$6.79), caused in part by India’s ban on red onion exports, while a tray of 30 AA grade eggs has gone from 5 Singapore dollars (CAD$4.85) to as much as 10 Singapore dollars (CAD$9.71). vi 

Rising food costs in the midst of the pandemic, have made disruptions to Singapore’s food supply even more complicated, since restrictive measures have affected the labour needed for agricultural processes, shipping and packaging, which disrupts the supply chain.vii Despite active government intervention to alleviate these problems, such concerns directly impact the longevity of hawker businesses in Singapore and for hawkers such as Mr Lee Kim Saik, the prospects for the unforeseeable future appear bleak.   

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(Social distancing measures cordoning off seating areas in a heartland hawker centre.  Picture by: Lynne) 

The role of hawker centres are an integral component of the Singaporean foodscape, facilitating social exchanges and community-bonding for Singaporeans. However, what lies ahead for the future of hawker food culture? Currently, hawker centres managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) feature a new seating arrangement, with seats and tables marked out for dining groups of different sizes, as Singapore entered Phase 2 of its reopening after the COVID-19 “circuit breaker” in late-June. viii 

Under the new measures implemented by the government, social gatherings both indoors and outdoors are limited to no more than five people at any time. People are also expected to keep face-coverings on at all times, while seated at hawker centres, until the moment they begin their meal.ix This is often monitored by NEA enforcement officers, who will first give warnings and subsequently issue fines if faced with non-compliance.  

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(A screenshot of various tweets by Singaporeans about hawker centres affected by COVID-19 measures.) 

The experience of dining at a hawker centre, has dramatically transformed. On various social media platforms, throughout the “circuit breaker” period, Singaporean users have expressed disappointment at the inability to—not just eat hawker food—but to be able to physically have meals, and conversations with friends and family at hawker centres (Figure 4.) One Twitter user even stated “I miss going to kopitiam (hawker food shop)… I think if I use coffee shop/cafe, the vibe is not the same as kopitiam. [L]ocal coffee shops have their own unique vibe that I missed so much.”x 

This sentiment echoes across the board, with many wondering if COVID-19 will permanently change the way hawker food culture exists in Singapore.  

Sources:

Benner, Tom. “Coronavirus Eats into Singapore’s Already Struggling Hawker Trade.” Al Jazeera, May 5, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/coronavirus-eats-singapores-struggling-hawker-trade-200504090429208.html

Jiminchun. Twitter Post. June 1, 2020, 8.57am. Accessed from: https://twitter.com/jiminchum/status/1267259053106839553  

Loke, Lena, and Nabilah Awang. “’We’d Try to Endure’: Hawkers See Businesses Plunge By Up To 50% Due to Covid-19 Oubreak.” Today. February 22, 2020. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/wed-try-endure-hawkers-see-business-plunge-50-due-covid-19-outbreak

Singapore Consumer Price Index 2019. Department of Statistics Singapore. (2019). https://www.singstat.gov.sg/-/media/files/news/cpimar2019.pdf.  

Tan, Audrey. “Safeguarding Singapore’s Food Security at the National and Household Levels during Coronavirus Pandemic,” The Straits Times, April 8, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/safeguarding-food-security-at-the-national-and-households-levels

Tan, Cheryl. “Additional Two Months of Rental Waivers for Stallholders at NEA-Managed Hawker Centres.” The Straits Times, May 30, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/additional-two-months-of-rental-waivers-for-stallholders-at-nea-managed-hawker-centres.  

Tan, Sue-Ann. “Seating Arrangements at Hawker Centres to Change to Align with Phase 2 Dine-in Measures.” The Straits Times, June 16, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/seating-arrangements-at-hawker-centres-to-change-to-align-with-phase-2-dine-in

Turnbull, C. M. A History of Modern Singapore 1819-2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2020). 

Yong, Clement. “Global panel recommends Singapore’s hawker culture be added to Unesco list.” The Straits Times (Singapore), November 17, 2020. Accessed November 17, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/global-panel-recommends-singapores-hawker-culture-to-be-added-to-unesco-list?utm_medium=Social&utm_campaign=STFB&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR108FURxJQr4JIbZn0hfGpCSmsEmUqA9VvOV4k-dSRXNGBi9ufb68h50DA#Echobox=1605580867  

Media Highlight: Toronto-wide Socially Distanced Food Drive: December 5

On December 5ᵗʰ at 10am, residents of Toronto are invited to leave a non-perishable food item on their doorstep (clearly marked for Toronto Miracle). They will first need to register (takes 20 seconds) at: https://www.torontomiracle.org/donate.

Volunteers will collect these donations from those addresses and redistribute to those in need in the community. Its goal is to collect 250,000 non-perishable food items in one day.

The goal is to bring together all 140 Toronto neighbourhoods to raise 250,000 non-perishable food items in one day. Toronto Miracle was inspired bysimilar events held in Windsor, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec. Between 10:00am and 4:00pm, volunteers will be collecting non-perishable food items left on doorsteps. 

https://www.torontomiracle.org/faq

Media Highlight: Community Gardening during the Pandemic

For Maryama Ahmed, being a community gardener is more than just having access to fresh produce.

https://www.toronto.com/news-story/9967883-community-gardens-in-north-york-grow-in-popularity-amid-covid-19-crisis/

Stay posted for our forthcoming blogposts on Black Creek Community Farm and the Culinaria-Feeding City webinar with Indigenous and Black food sovereignty voices.

Also from our blog:

 https://feedingcity.org/2020/08/09/gallery-malvern-community-gardens/

https://feedingcity.org/2020/08/09/sociocultural-barriers-to-urban-growing-and-solutions-to-overcome-them-a-case-study-of-malvern-community-gardens-by-angela-gong/

ONLINE EVENT – Feeding the City, Pandemic and Beyond: Women Farmers on COVID-19 and Food Sovereignty

Wed. Dec. 9, 2020 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. EST (UTC -5:00) | REGISTRATION REQUIRED via EventBrite 

How have farmers responded to unprecedented challenges and opportunities throughout the pandemic? How has COVID-19 highlighted long-term changes that are needed in agriculture and food distribution in Canada? Join us for an interactive roundtable featuring three women ecological farmers: 

Sarah Bakker – Sarah is a livestock farmer and co-owner of Field Sparrow Farms, located near Bobcaygeon, Ontario. They deliver pasture-raised meats to the local community of Kawartha Lakes and to Toronto. Sarah is also the General Manager of the National Farmers Union—Ontario, an organization at the forefront of local struggles for food system change. 

Liz Beesley – Liz is the co-owner of Joyfully Organic Farm, which offers organic vegetables to communities in the Greater Toronto Area through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and through farmers markets. She and her partner have overcome the significant challenges that young farmers face, such as land access, in order to grow a successful business.  

Jenn Pfenning – Jenn is the co-owner of Pfenning’s Organic Farm, a company that grows, packs, and distributes organic produce from their farm near Waterloo, Ontario. Jenn has been a vocal advocate for the rights of migrant agricultural workers, as workers in this program have contributed significantly to the labour that her family performs on their farm.  

Jointly moderated by: Jayeeta (Jo) Sharma, Associate Professor of History and Food Studies at the Culinaria Research Centre of the University of Toronto, and Project Lead for Feeding the City; Sarah Elton, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University and the award-winning author of several popular books on food systems; and Bryan Dale, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, University of Toronto Scarborough and Project Manager for Feeding the City.

Supported by the Culinaria Research Centre, University of Toronto Scarborough. 

www.FeedingCity.org | Register here

Article Highlight: No Papers, No Jobs: The New Street Vendors of Queens by New York Times

The New York Times has released a powerful piece recording the lives of undocumented immigrants of Queens, New York, who have turned to street vending to make ends meet in the midst of uncertainty exacerbated by COVID-19. The piece demonstrates the struggles street vendors face as well as the resiliency and ingenuity they have relied on to make it through hard times.

Read the piece here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/15/nyregion/nyc-street-vendors-undocumented-immigrants-covid.html

Similar article by Feeding The City : Organization Highlight: The Street Vendor Project by Hannah Klemmensen

Organization Highlight: Seva Food Bank “This Diwali: Let’s share our light with others and help feed those who need it!” By Yusra Khalid

Author: Yusra Khalid, RA, Feeding City Project, 15 November 2020.

Seva Food Bank, a Canadian South Asian community non-profit organization working toward food security in Canada.

This Diwali: Let’s share our light with others and help feed those who need it!

Diwali is a very special time for South Asian families, in Canada, and beyond. The festival gets its name from the row of clay lamps that they light outside their homes to signify triumph of good over evil. Over the many other festivals and holidays that occurred over 2020, people from different sects and religions expressed their unity in celebrations by making generous donations to community organizations helping toward food security for vulnerable groups, especially with culturally appropriate and nutritious foods. One such organizations is Seva Food Bank. Each month, it provides approximately 40,000 pounds of food and a variety of support services to more than 600 families. 

https://scontent.fybz1-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/75486098_3286459794729178_899894875141439488_o.jpg?_nc_cat=103&ccb=2&_nc_sid=cdbe9c&_nc_ohc=GBCGGmvFWvkAX_z2FiC&_nc_ht=scontent.fybz1-1.fna&oh=4e4d059072dce740040b55de0e18dcaa&oe=5FD4445C
Fig.1: Source Link

During April 2020, Rasheeda Qureshi, Executive Director at Seva Food Bank, made active efforts and encouraged communities during the Baisakhi festival to make generous donations to fight food insecurity. According to her, for Baisakhi, the organization “posted online, on social media the most highly needed items in the food banks so that people would know what exactly was needed… also, we conducted a food drive…there was a lot of generous individuals giving food… people would drive and drop off the food.”They hope that people will do the same during Diwali, as the need has only increased. Diwali, like all celebrations, is being conducted differently this year. Seva Food Bank calls on people to make this Diwali one where they can change the lives of vulnerable communities with gifts to help feel them!

https://www.sevafoodbank.com: has more information on Seva Food Bank and how Canadians can help.

https://www.facebook.com/sevafoodbank1/

https://www.instagram.com/sevafoodbank/

Event Highlight: Bringing Treaties for Life By Toronto Urban Growers (November 17 2:30 -4:00 PM EST)

What does it mean to be a treaty person when you do land-based work? Join us for a webinar exploring covenants relevant to Tkaronto/Toronto

About this Event

What do treaties teach us about our relationship and responsibilities to land, water and all living things?

We will hear from:

Donna Powless, Cayuga nation, Director of Taiaiako’n Historical Preservation Society

Dr. Eva Jewell, Anishinaabekwe from Deshkan Ziibiing (Chippewas of the Thames First Nation), Ma’iingan Dodem. Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ryerson University, Associate Fellow at the Yellowhead Institute.

Rick Hill, Beaver Clan of the Tuscarora Nation of the Haudenosaunee at Grand River, Indigenous Innovations Specialist, Mohawk College

Event is free.

Registrants will be sent a link for a Zoom meeting, plus some suggested articles and videos for background information to look at beforehand – if you wish!

Presented with Greenest City and Ryerson University’s Centre for Studies in Food Security.

Thanks to funding from the Trillium Foundation and City of Toronto.

Event Highlight: National Farmer Union Convention 2020

Vision 20/20 Vision - 51st National Convention - 51e Convention Nationale

November 3-28, 2020

About Convention 2020

What a year 2020 has been! Throughout, the National Farmers Union has continued to work diligently on behalf of family and cooperative farmers and progressive eaters and thinkers across Canada …

  • calling for measures to support family and cooperative farms
  • fighting for farmers and farmers markets to be recognized as essential services
  • highlighting the importance of localized food systems
  • speaking for the health of all workers in the food system including farmers, migrant workers, inspectors and processors

In addition, the NFU has created a Vision of a post-COVID Food System that we look forward to sharing, enhancing and advancing.

We will delve into all of this and more at our annual National Convention. This year, to keep everyone safe, it will be hosted on-line.

We would like you to be part of it.

Free workshops, talks, interactive programming and chances to connect will be offered starting November 3. The key aspects of the Convention including the NFU’s lively elections, debates on resolutions, national and regional reports will be held November 25 – 28.

This year’s convention includes:

Click here to register for the Full Convention, Keynote event or free webinars only. The Full Convention option includes everything.

If you are interested in sponsoring any part of the convention, please click here to explore the many opportunities for promotion, support and connection.

Check here for speaker bios and here for detailed program information and please note – all event times are in Pacific Time – adjust for your own time zone.

Virtual Book Table!  Buy your books from Saskatoon’s independent bookseller Turning the Tide! They normally table at our Saskatoon conventions. This year they have curated a special selection for us at their online bookstore . Use the promo code NFU2020  at the checkout to get 50% off shipping on orders over $50 or free shipping on orders over $75.

The Coalition For Healthy School Food #NourishKidsNow

https://www.healthyschoolfood.ca/nourishkidsnow

TAKE ACTION FOR HEALTHY FOOD WITH A SINGLE CLICK: The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that school food is an essential public good, just like K-12 education and healthcare. Everyone needs access to good food to be healthy, particularly children and youth, and we need strong and resilient food systems to keep us safe.

Building on the Coalition’s advocacy for a National School Food Program and the government’s commitment in Budget 2019, the Coalition for Healthy School Food has sent this letter to the Prime Minister asking the federal government to create a dedicated School Food Fund to support the health and wellbeing of children, families and communities, stimulating the Canadian economy during the COVID-19 recovery.

Tell your local Member of Parliament (MP), Prime Minister Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Freeland, that school food is important, and dedicated funding is needed now.

Standing Strong in the Face of Adversity: How Coalition Members Continue to Adapt in the Face of Covid-19 by Lindsay Goodridge

By: Lindsay Goodridge, MPH (’21) 

Image Credit: Cantine Pour Tous

Covid-19 has presented a formidable challenge for school food programs looking to serve healthy food this fall. Nevertheless, members of the Coalition for Healthy School Food have shown resilience, commitment to their communities, and creativity when adapting their programs for Covid. Many members are continuing to provide healthy home cooked snacks and meals to schools, while others are developing creative ways to get food to children, youth and their families who would have participated in school food programs last year.  

Below are 6 Covid pivot themes shared by members on a recent call.  

1. Continuing to Deliver Lunches and Snacks to Schools 

Cantine Pour Tous allows schools to choose whether to receive meals packed or in bulk and producers must meet new health standards for meal production and delivery. 

Brown Bagging for Calgary Kids (BB4CK) was able to resume their school meal delivery programs for many schools because they deliver their meals as prepackaged single serve items.

2. Continuing to Prepare and Serve Healthy Meals in Schools

Équiterre offers salad bars with local produce in 14 schools through Farm to School: Canada Digs In! Initiative. 

The Screaming Avocado Café at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School met with their public health unit to find solutions to continue their student run café offering meals for $3-4 (or discreetly free) with the adaptations of pre-ordered meals and classroom delivery. 

3. Reallocating Funds to Provide Food Boxes 

Perth-Andover Middle School used part of their funding to support community food banks to prepare food boxes that included hunted meat, fish, and produce. 

Natoaganeg School partnered with their food center to distribute food boxes and garden packages from their school garden which included ingredients to make specific recipes.   


Sudbury-Manitoulin Better Beginnings Better Futures (SMBBBF) distributed good food boxes to their communities using their student nutrition van and mobile market trailer. 

BB4CK had an abundance of fresh food in their kitchens when schools shut down, so they prepared and sent it home with students who were collecting their belongings at schools. 

4. Providing Vouchers & Gift Cards

SMBBBF sent vouchers to families to redeem for fruit and vegetables from their mobile market as well as $50 cash cards per student several times throughout the summer.  

BB4CK mailed $30 grocery cards per student every 2 weeks to families who applied when schools shut down. They continue to provide grocery cards through teachers at schools who can’t yet participate in their lunch program. 

5. Conducting Workshops

Boîte à Lunch continues to offer in-person and online workshops with reduced numbers of participants. 

Ateliers Cinq Épices continued to provide cooking workshops during summer camps in Quebec and Alberta. 

6. Creating Resources  

Ateliers Cinq Épices developed a Covid-norms guide to help other programs adapt to the safety guidelines.

Boîte à Lunch created a webinar about the potential of online culinary workshops for children. 

BB4CK re-launched their Food Finder YYC website and texting service which provides a list of where lunches are available in Calgary.

Équiterre launched a practical tool to facilitate the procurement of local food in institutions. 

Despite challenges, some programs identified Covid pivots that they would like to continue:  Summerlunch+ created a virtual learning program and BB4CK wants to continue the direct engagement with families that they’ve been able to cultivate.  

The resilience, determination, and commitment to student meals that these programs have shown in the face of Covid-19 demonstrate that not only can a National School Food Program be safe to implement, but that with the proper funding and support, schools are up to the challenge.