Friday, March 11, 2011

This is the way we eat (Part 1) by Peter Chan

Since Chun See kicked-off the blog on street hawkers, I thought it interesting if I look back and follow Singapore’s progress from street hawkers to air-conditioned food courts. Thanks to my old university Economics term paper submitted to a lecturer (with a PhD as a salutation to his name and also a P.A.P MP then) I am able to pluck information from therein. By the way this lecturer never made us male undergraduates happy; he graded most of us with a B minus.

Photo 1: Ngo Hiang street hawker operates in front of a “5-foot-way”. Little glass cups in the foreground contain chilly and sweet sauces. You pick the skewed food items from the plates and dip into the sauce and dispose the skewer on the road. Just remember you are never the only one doing it (c 1970).

Singapore cultural and food streetscape used to be a myriad of hawker stalls that filled the wet markets and alleys. Living in the city you just took up space along the “5-foot way” shop-houses and in the rural area you built a tent, perhaps under a tree. There were few barriers to entry to begin with; small capital, simple cooking skills and cheap family-supplied labour. Hawking licence? Not really necessary - those that needed one operated in government-built wet markets or pasar malams. Although there were licensed street stalls, unlicensed hawkers out-numbered the former by 8:1 at the time of separation from Malaysia.


There were different types of hawkers, generally categorised as cooked food, cold drinks, fruits & vegetables, sundry goods, and fresh meats. Even the neighbourhood Cold Storage and Walls Ice Cream seller was included but under a slightly different definition. The Chinese were more open to the idea of street hawking as a form of employment than other races. Hence large concentration of street hawkers was found in Kreta Ayer, Teluk Ayer Street, Queen Street, North Canal Road, and Tanjong Pagar.

Photo 2: Feeling thirsty? Try this push-cart for coconut-water. 10 cents one glass (c 1967).

During the British colonial rule, the hawker management came under the purview of the City Council and the Ministry of Health. Prosecution was seldom practised and this could be attributed to rampant corruption or because hawker inspectors were frequently assaulted. If the arm of the law works, confiscated perishables were forcibly removed by hawker inspectors and foodstuff s donated to charitable institutions.

This is a 1967 photo of a shop selling roast meat in downtown Singapore. Russ Wickson remembers seeing hordes of flies take off as he walked by.

19 comments:

Philip said...

The Ngo Hiang street hawker in the first picture reminded me of a friend who operated a kind of franchise in Ngo Hian business. All a street hawker needed was to set up a stall and he would supply all the Ngo Hiang, tua kua, hey piah, kuan chiang etc plus chilly sauce and a pink coloured sauce. He operated illegaly from a hut in Geylang. He was also a bookie and died at his desk when hearing the race result. Apparently he died shock.

Philip said...

A minor correction here. During the British colonial rule, the hawker management in the City came under the purview of City Health Department in City Council. Outside the City it came under the Rural Board.

Icemoon said...

Actually how is a Ngo Hiang hawker different from a Lok Lok hawker? I think there is some overlap in what they sell.

Andy Young* said...

There are no flies now Wickson. My wife and I just had char siew and wonton noodles at a 60s coffee shop before the corner of East Coast Road and Stangee Place junction. Three dollars for a large plate each.

60s living still here in Singapore if you know where to go. And the food is good!

yg said...

icemoon, lok lok is more like steamboat but you do not drink the soup. ngoh hiang is all dry stuff.

yg said...

peter, your econs lecturer was the mp for whampoa?

peter said...

yg, ya that one. I forgot his name

Lok Lok = satay celop?

Zen said...

Food arrangement at the first stall looked rather neat, better than some of those in our present food centres and coffee-shops. Furthermore, the stall owner and his assistant wore clean white singlets with sleeves, giving an impression that he cared for the hygiene of his food.

Lam Chun See said...

Augustine Tan?

Gerry N said...

Although the Chinese were predominantly the hawkers there were pockets where some ethnicities revelled. For example, Waterloo Street was famous for the Indian Rojak.

Regards
Gerry N

Philip said...

Table 1 licensed hawkers
1964 1972
4343 30800
Table 2 fines/summons
6537 15288

Chun See, according to table 1 & 2 above there was a sudden surge of licensed hawkers and fines/summons compared 1964 to 1972. Do you know the reason?

Lam Chun See said...

I don't know about the sudden surge in summons/fines; but I am reminded of Chun Chew's story of how the ENV ministry's officers chased the unlicensed hawkers of Tian Lye Street.

peter said...

the other econs lecturer involved in politics was dr. ow chin hock

peter said...

Philip:

Environemntal health was one of the top "changes" envisaged when PAP became the government. If you recall there were many many campaigns in the 1960s like "Keep Singapore Clean" in 1968 or "Build A Rugged Society" in 1967 when P.E. was introduced into schools (we were exercing/dancing to some music if you recall).

By 1972, many departments which were once part of Ministry of health or the National Development were absorbed into Environment Ministry. With that the government also introduced legislations in Parliament - waste discharge into lonkangs, food hygiene, sale of food act, etc. The arm of the law meant > legalised hawkers and penalties. I believe Court # 26 of Subordinate Court was very hot then with people paying fines. I too paid one time so I remember surely for littering.

Thimbuktu said...

I know of a famous Hokien "ngoh hiang" roadside stall at Hokien Street many decade ago. Thus have I heard that the original "ngoh hiang" cooking "sifu" with the secret recipes and taught a stall assistant. After several years of training and the "ngoh hiang" secret recipes, the stall assistant and decided to set up his own stall directly opposite Sifu's stall at Hokien Street with competition of the same business. That is the history of the "Hokien Street Ngoh Hiang" saga in Chinatown over sixty years ago.

peter said...

All statistics provided for the 2 tables include under the management of ENV/govt agencies - JTC;PSA;Others/Private.

peter said...

What is the Hokkien name given for the pink sauce?

On re: tables , included also was HDB. Philip can you enlighten us whether JTC/HDB/PSA can issue their own summons and bring hawkers to court?

Thimbuktu said...

Peter, the Hokien term for the pink sauce can ask for "tee chiew" meaning sweet sauce for the "ngoh hiang" which goes with "hiam chieo" (chillie) for the various fried and crispy items. Shiok!

Selatke said...

What I find missing today in many of the ngo hiang stalls is the cuttlefish. I mean real cuttlefish and not what many people use the term to call squid. Called Bak Tao by Hokkien and Teochew, it has a much fuller body.