Hawker Stalls: Let’s Talk About Food

“We ask that you please bear with the changes and enjoy the new environment when the renovations are completed…[T]hree markets/food centres will be built into one centre, to be named “Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre” – date of completion is May 2005.” (Duruz & Gaik, 2014).

Above: Today’s hawker stalls shown from (left) Behind the Food Carts and (right) FUNG BROS’ “FUNG BROS FOOD: The Hawker Stall! (Singapore)”

Since the release of Malaysia’s control, food has become an integral part of Singapore’s identity. Much so that it has developed into a tourist attraction next to the famous Merlions. As “the influx of large numbers of new immigrants into the city-state set to continue”, the country cannot avoid the cultural development from several nationalities including Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese (Yeoh & Lin, 2012). This gradual change has affected food in kopitiams, hawker stalls and boutique coffee shops, allowing the country to expand into a multicultural cooking network. As the cuisines have clashed, fused and transformed into new flavours, the variety of eateries have amplified for both locals and tourists alike.

As a second generation Australian born Malaysian-Chinese, Singaporean food crosses similarities with what I have eaten in the past. In saying this, food has evolved from ingredients to the taste, signifying the subtle changes that can differ a specific dish from Singapore and other countries. With a Malay influence, Singaporean food contains elements that indicates a unifying cultural thread. To preserve these traditional dishes, ethnic districts have reconstructed food courts that correspond to the relevant cuisine. From the exert ‘Foundational Narratives: The Village Boy Makes Good’, Singapore is “caught in the vortex of developmentalism’s imperatives…competing with desperate attempts to preserve (and indeed, redevelop) a remembered heritage,” describing the inevitable nature of modern change (Duruz & Khoo, 2014).

The relationship between the old and new has redefined the nation’s identity however the two aspects struggle to cohabit. With renovation, hawker stalls have lost primary characteristics – mobile carts, outdoor atmosphere, stools have been replaced by an air conditioned all purpose shopping complex as they are “built into one centre” (Duruz & Khoo, 2014). This was to maintain regulations to “ensure hygienic food preparation and consumption” as they were known for being a public nuisance and a health issue. Thus, Auntys and Uncles were in need of a legal permit to serve what was considered clean by the Hawkers Department’s Special Squad due to exclusion off the streets. The relocation lead to “sentimental and practical” objections as Duruz & Khoo (2014) states “The category of ‘sentimental’…hawkers who feared a loss of place and community; the ‘practical’…concerned with questions of maintaining a customer base and storage facilities,” depicting the opposing opinions of what may result in an obscured heritage. Therefore, the introduction of hawker centres “posed interesting challenges for redrawing culinary landscapes and structures of belonging” (Duruz & Khoo, 2014), damaging the cultural imagery of hawker stalls.

On the other hand, history is withheld in the establishment through memory and remembrance. Although there was urban development among these stalls, these alterations have become a fundamental detail of the contemporary design. They are now a functional construction that is preserved to a certain extent in which Singapore’s diversity in food remains present.


Jean Duruz and Gaik Cheng Khoo, ‘Spreading the Toast of Memory: From Hainanese Kopitiams to Boutique Coffee Shops in Singapore’ (Chap 2); ‘Growing Up Transnational: Travelling through Singapore’s Hawker Centres’ (Chap 4); ‘Dumplings at Changi: Singapore’s Urban Villages as Spaces of Exchange and Reinvention’ (Chap 5) in Jean Duruz and Gaik Cheng Khoo, Eating Together: Food, Space and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Maryland, 2014.

Brenda Yeoh & Weiqiang Lin, 2012, Rapid growth in Singapore’s immigrant population brings policy challenges, MPI, viewed 16 January 2017, <http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/rapid-growth-singapores-immigrant-population-brings-policy-challenges&gt>

FUNG BROS 2015, FUNG BROS FOOD: The Hawker Stall! (Singapore), videorecording, YouTube, viewed 22 January 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJEynhvMUYg&t=394s&gt;

Kim & Phil, 2015, Hawker stalls: Singapore, Tumblr, viewed 22 January 2017, <http://behindthefoodcarts.com/post/111918755924/hawker-stalls-singapore&gt;


Illegal Maids: Foreign Domestic Workers

Written by Joanne Lee

From Chilli Mud Crabs to ending sentences in lah, Singapore has a rooted history of what makes the country liberated from Malaysia, Britain and Japan. Since its independence, the country has constantly remained as a potential working ground for labourers, resulting in a “large influx of immigrants from all over Asia” including China, India and Malay Archipelago (Leyl, 2015). This presented a new socio-cultural environment and perhaps acceptance of multiple backgrounds and religions. Although Singapore is viewed rich in culture, language and tradition, foreign domestic workers face possible repatriation due to several laws that dictate their ability to work in the country. This is particularly applied to low-skilled foreign workers due to the fear of resource scarcity, excessive permanent residence and extreme poverty.

From 101 East’s video Maid in Singapore, female foreign domestic workers (FDW), especially from Myanmar, are often exploited. Baited by recruitment agencies and guaranteed high income, these workers are employed illegally and may experience an abusive environment – sexually and physically.

screen-shot-2017-01-21-at-11-45-00-pmScreenshot from video “101 East – Maid in Singapore”

Born in a country with no large opportunity to discover well paid work, women are persuaded by the rumoured high income. In saying this, they are given a chance to work in Singapore in return with a large salary that may benefit their family’s finances. Although there is evidence of respectable employers, many are lead to unfortunate circumstances. For example, an agent promised a fifteen year old girl a job as a domestic worker. However, it was under Singaporean law that foreign domestic workers must be at least at the age of twenty-four. Despite this, the agency provided false passports for underaged girls and an intensive house job that would affect their mental state as they would become prone to homesickness due to their immaturity as Mary, recruitment agent states “…even if they can work, they can’t stand the pressure and get homesick” (Al Jazeera English 2016).

As mentioned above, employee treatment scaled from respect to contempt. Experience as a foreign domestic worker has escalated from threats to sexual abuse as a result of under-protection by both Burmese and Singaporean governments. They were beaten, sexually assaulted and kept in captivity as one former worker confesses, “I had to touch him down there…whatever I was doing, I had to go to him whenever he called. If I refused, he would slap me” (Al Jazeera English 2016). Due to their adolescence, their vulnerability becomes transparent to their employer. The agency blackmails to prevent these girls from running away or seeking assistance. As the worker admits, “The agent said if I ran away during those eight months, they would ask my parents to pay”, the agency refused release until their debt had been paid. Therefore, the debt compels the workers to remain obedient as their family may be harassed.

With the mediocre skills and little knowledge, workers are perceived with “common problems…lacking issues and a lack of efficiency in housekeeping and cooking,” stated one agent recruitment. This affected their potential to grow in life skills, thus this agent declared training to build a foundation for the freshly scouted females as she says “That’s why I’m doing this” (Al Jazeera English 2016).

Screenshot from video “101 East – Maid in Singapore”

While the laws of mutual countries are set to prevent exploitation and protect FDWs, there is a clear loophole in the work-permit system as there is little to no action in providing safeguards for these young employees. As Jolovan Wham (2016) states “It’s an issue with both sources and destination countries have to have the political will to do something about it…there has to be a lot more bilateral operation to ensure that this kind of exploitation by recruitment agents don’t happen,” exposing the corruption behind the working conditions of foreign domestic workers.


Al Jazeera English 2016, 101 East – maid in Singapore, videorecording, YouTube, viewed 16 January 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQbd2XZGyXg&gt;

Brenda Yeoh & Weiqiang Lin, 2012, Rapid growth in Singapore’s immigrant population brings policy challenges, MPI, viewed 16 January 2017, <http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/rapid-growth-singapores-immigrant-population-brings-policy-challenges&gt;

Sharanjit Leyl, 2015, Singapore at 50, BBC, viewed 16 January 2017, <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31626174>

Michael Malay, 2014, Singapore needs to address its treatment of migrant workers, theguardian, viewed 17 January 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2014/apr/21/singapore-address-treatment-migrant-workers&gt;

Ministry of Manpower, 2017, Employment rules for foreign domestic workers, Singapore government, viewed 17 January 2017, <http://www.mom.gov.sg/passes-and-permits/work-permit-for-foreign-domestic-worker/employers-guide/employment-rules>



The Past and Present: Marina Bay and Shophouses

Written by Joanne Lee

Singapore embodies a paradigm shift that comprises of both traditional and contemporary design and culture. With fifty years of independence, the visual design of culture resides in every corner – traditional kopitiams, shophouses and multiracial neighbourhoods – in which ultimately creates the country’s identity. Architecture and visual communication remained respondent to the issue of social connectivity, cultural and historical conservation. While design is a multifaceted field, Singapore embraces integration of the modern and historical fabric to incorporate what existed in the past to the present and future. The changing nature of its construction and development is therefore justified by the historical context of the country – independence, post-war period and economic shifts. As a result, Singapore’s infrastructure transformed and “entered a phase of maturity, excitedly readying itself to experience its own prime” (Anderson & Choo, 2015).

Marina Bay is the work of reclaimed land in which developed into “one of Asia’s model public spaces” (Anderson & Choo, 2015). As Singapore has an expansion of design and architecture, buildings have been refurbished for “adaptive reuse” and “to endow Marina Bay with landmarks that communicate national history”(Anderson & Choo, 2015). This was to symbolise the once booming trades of the British colonial-era where Marina Bay served as trading grounds for India and China. These remaining Neo-Classical structures functioned as British government offices that surrounded the port and have been restored for commercial use such as hotels and shopping centres. During the 1930s, it was an access point for both ferried goods, visitors and labourers.


Above: An illustration of the Singapore River in the 1800s, the trading centre of the British colonial port. Courtesy of Anderson, C. & Choo, I. 2015, Evolution of a civic downtown : DP architects on Marina Bay, Oro Editions.

However, the purpose of the river changed with complimentary skyscrapers and areas for entertainment. Although the image of the national gateway was renewed, the port has re-established itself as the “nation’s front door” (Anderson & Choo, 2015). This was due to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and their objective to create an “international and recreational hub, the new centre for business in Asia” (Anderson & Choo, 2015) and is now “the signature image of Singapore” (Loong, 2005).


Courtesy of Anderson, C. & Choo, I. 2015, Evolution of a civic downtown : DP architects on Marina Bay, Oro Editions.

Although Singapore encompasses a modern cityscape, historic buildings within the urban districts remained intact since the arrival of early immigrants. Blueprints were carried from China to construct vernacular shophouses that consisted of two or three stories – the ground level for a merchant’s business and secondary floors for residential accommodation. Further characteristics included strict sizings i.e. narrow space to secure a compact block of the same buildings, similar to terraced houses. These local shophouses are now conserved for multifunctional use such as a food and beverage outlet, community space or a service provider. As there are many different forms of shophouses, they are categorised into five styles according to their visual features and structure (Lee 2015). From the early to modern stages of handiwork, there are key elements that expose the differentiation of each style. For example, the Transitional style first explored vibrant colours and ornamental surface pieces called jian nian, a carved mosaic of floral and fauna patterns and imagery. Every element determines individual character as a shophouse and describes the narrative behind the cultural heritage. As for the late urban development, “a mix of elaborate ‘Late’, ‘Art Deco’ and ‘Modern’ shophouse architectural styles” were introduced to new towns, distinct from older districts (Urban Redevelopment Authority 2016). During the post-war period, these shophouses reformed with a geometric aesthetic and additional functional features such as air vents and glass windows. This allowed a visible evolution of residential housing where the historic buildings were conserved and successfully adapted for modern living.


Above: A depiction of the modern styled shophouse with accented geometrical features.
Courtesy of Joshua Lee from mothership.sg

In combination of public and private spaces, Singapore has adjusted to the relationship between the rising skyline and urban living, both in which has conducted a harmony of old and new, in an effort to sustain the history in regards to design in a cultural context.


Anderson, C. & Choo, I. 2015, Evolution of a civic downtown : DP architects on Marina Bay, Oro Editions.

Joshua Lee, 2015,  5 types of shophouses in s’pore that you definitely didn’t know of, Mothership.sg, viewed 10 January 2017, <http://mothership.sg/2015/02/5-types-of-shophouses-in-spore-that-you-definitely-didnt-know-of/>

Sharanjit Leyl, 2015, Singapore at 50, BBC, viewed 10 January 2017, <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31626174>

Urban Redevelopment Authority, 2016, Conservation, viewed 10 January 2017, <https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/conservation/vision-and-principles/Conservation-Districts.aspx>

Angloinfo, 2017, Singaporean cultural norms and traditions, viewed 10 January 2017, <https://www.angloinfo.com/how-to/singapore/moving/country-file/culture>