Running in the Family

Singapore's hawker stall families balance tradition, innovation to maintain food heritage

Written by Aza Wee Sile | Video by Roxanne Lim
People having dinner at Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore's oldest hawker food centers.
Gonzalo Azumendi | Getty Images

Imagine watching your parents do back-breaking work, for long hours, in extreme heat, then signing up to join the family business. Crazy, right?

Yet that's what many young Singaporeans have done, because they believe so strongly in keeping their families' hawker stalls - the small, independently run food outlets that famously dot the city-state, churning out delicious traditional dishes around the clock at rock-bottom prices - open, even in an increasingly rich and cosmopolitan country.

But these new generation hawkers are also continually reinventing the way their stalls operate, taking their cues from a range of influences, from cutting-edge Japanese food technology to the whims of social media.

The cornerstone of gastronomic culture

Street-food peddlers selling authentic, affordable local dishes thrived in Singapore after the World War II, so much so that by the 1960s the number of peddlers, known as "hawkers," had grown to the point that they were obstructing traffic and threatening public health through the refuse they created, according to a report by the National Library Board (NLB).

As a result, the Singaporean government began moving street hawkers into purpose-build food centers where they could be more easily monitored. Hawker stalls continue to operate in those same centers, and some new ones, today, selling local favorites from before dawn until late at night.

According to the National Environment Agency, there are 107 markets and hawker centers across Singapore, housing 6,258 "cooked food" stalls, about half of which pay a subsidized rent for their space of between $160 and $320 a month.

"It is one of the places that is highly representative of the Singapore culture and lifestyle," the NLB's report explains. "It is also an important place for social interaction and family bonding. With a reputation for eating as a national past-time, it is a common sight to see Singaporeans queuing at their favorite hawker stalls across the island."

But long hours over hot dishes in un-airconditioned centers means that stall operators struggle to find workers among Singapore's highly educated and wealthy young populace. Couple this with a modern turn against "unhealthy" food - hawker meals often involve white rice or fried meats or vegetables - and the future has sometimes looked cloudy for the hawker tradition.

As high profile local chef Ignatius Chan told the Guardian as early as 2014, "Hawker food is a national treasure, but an endangered one, as the well-educated kids of the uncles and aunties who cook these dishes rarely wish to carry on the tradition – there's just so much hard work involved."

Rainbow noodles the future?

Siblings Jonathan Cho and Ai Min Cho, 28 and 30 respectively, are the third-generation owners of Cho Kee Noodles, a hawker business that specializes in noodles served with wonton (Chinese-style dumplings).

They remember watching their parents labor long hours at their stall at Old Airport Road, so the hard work was no surprise.

"Going to the stall was one of the ways we spent time as a family," Ai Min recalls, adding that the children would help their parents at the stall on school holidays.

Fresh from university with a major in marketing, Jonathan dove straight into the family business, while his elder sister Ai Min gave up her job in banking operations to be a full-time hawker.

The brother and sister have a vision for the business, which involves rebranding the image of Cho Kee and expanding into business-to-business operations, while manning their own individual hawker stalls in two locations: Singapore Polytechnic and at the ITE Central.

Cho siblings take on family hawker business

Cho Kee runs a central kitchen where they manufacture their own raw egg noodles and a vegetable-based noodle line.

Jonathan has invested a lot of time in crafting the Cho Kee brand, from designing a logo to maintaining an active social media presence with a growing following on Facebook.

Inspired by the rainbow foods trend, the Chos also recently introduced rainbow wanton noodles (made from a variety of vegetable-based noodles), knowing it would appeal to a younger, trendier crowd.

The Cho siblings want to turn Cho Kee into a global brand that people associate with Singapore and its food traditions.

"As the children of hawker parents, we find it tremendously meaningful to be the third-generation of Cho Kee," Ai Min says.

Gordon Ramsey's seal of approval

Chicken rice - a simple but fragrant dish of steamed rice topped with slices of chicken - is usually called Singapore's national dish, and counts celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey as a fan.

At Hai Kee Soy Sauce Chicken at Eunos Crescent, owner Jack Wang follows a traditional recipe of braised chicken marinated in soy sauce. He learned the hawker ropes from his father, who sold chicken rice from a bullock cart in Singapore's Chinatown in the late 1950s.

Wang's father had travelled by sea from Hainan, China, to Southeast Asia and eventually settled in Singapore, but did not forget his journey: Hai Kee is Hokkien Chinese for "remember the sea."

Wang took over from his father in his twenties and continues to work a tough schedule, with a strict policy on waste that means he often keeps his stall open until the last chicken is gone, selling 300 to 400 plates of chicken rice every day.

After years of being a hawker, Wang has plenty of stories about ruthless competitors - including a "soy sauce chicken rice war" in which his hawker rivals tried to lure his loyal customers away by hiring more female workers - as well as the blow of having to shutter his business during Singapore's bird flu epidemic in 2008.

Now, Wang has help from two strapping sons, Joseph and James, who have their own ideas about reinventing the business.

Joseph joined his father when he was just 21 and fresh out of Singapore's compulsory military service. While he did consider working elsewhere, he says he always knew he would take on the hawker life, as his father did.

The fast and furious business of chicken rice hawkers

"I see the business as a way to keep the family together, instead of everyone moving in their own separate directions," Joseph says.

His younger brother James, 25, serves in the Singaporean navy, which he says he chose as a more stable means of income, but helps out at the stall on weekends.

One of the challenges of being a hawker, say the Wang brothers, is finding suitable assistants because the job is just too demanding. Joseph, 26, typically starts the day at dawn, and only has one day off every two weeks.

Despite that hurdle, James and Joseph want to hire younger employees who could give Hai Kee a new lease of life, as well as hiring a branding specialist to modernize the company's image.

Once he's a full-time hawker, meanwhile, James wants to put in place the efficient kitchen processes and technology-driven systems he learned while working at a Japanese fast food restaurant in his teens.

"While I think it's important to run the business efficiently, it has to be done in a way that does not impersonal and the quality of food must never be compromised," he says.

What's in a name? Everything

Many Singaporeans remember their favorite food stalls by location rather than by name, which led Lee Chee Wee to name his business after the street name where his father operated as a hawker as early as 1928.

Lee has been running Beach Road Prawn Noodle Eating House, which has actually been on East Coast Road for the past 30 years, as its third-generation owner. And as Singapore has grown more affluent, he has changed his offerings to match.

Lee, 52, tells CNBC that he offers more premium ingredients such as large ocean prawns and pork ribs, now that Singaporeans can afford to pay for them, whereas in the past, he would use shrimp and offal such as intestines or liver.

The business, famous for its concentrated prawn broth with an unami flavor, is open only until mid-afternoon but sells between 700 and 900 bowls of noodles every day - a level of popularity that made its vicinity a favorite for the traffic police to issue parking fines, Lee says.

Delicious noodles in under 30 secs? It can be done

Since he took the reins from his father in 1991, Lee has taken a very different approach to the business - an approach he admits his parents did not approve of - that involves six people putting together one bowl of noodles much like a "conveyor belt." Lee says this helps him churn out one bowl of prawn noodles in under 30 seconds.

When Lee first proposed the conveyor belt-style system, his parents could not accept it, he says.

"My father and his own father, they did not believe in team work or want any outsiders working in the family business," he says, explaining that his father had seven siblings so there was plenty of help available.

"Traditional hawkers usually work individually but I don't believe in a one-man show and this is our advantage," he added. Lee has more than 20 employees, which he says helps the business run more efficiently.

Despite having workers to assist him, though, Lee makes sure he's at the stall almost every day from 6 a.m. to ensure the food preparation goes smoothly and quality remains consistent.

"I think it goes without saying, the hawker life requires a lot of sacrifice," he says.

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