Ihave a favourite roti prata stall – it’s a two-minute walk from my home, and the third-generation hawkers are a pair of brothers who make the dough for the crispy Asian-style pancakes fresh daily.
It’s a rare find here, where factory-made prata is increasingly the norm. In fact, I’ve found the easiest way to bond with a local CEO is over discoveries of almost-lost hawker fare – such as gai fan (“street rice” in Cantonese) with ingredients like char siew mixed with rice that’s boiled with chicken bones over eight hours, with no MSG added (read: you’ll find this at D’s Joint by chef Damien D’Silva at Timbre+).
So, when The Peak Selections: Gourmet & Travel embarked on a mission to find 12 young hawkers passionate about preserving and updating our local heritage, I was excited. The plan was to dress them in sharp suits and fancy outfits for a compelling visual; I went in ready to hear their stories on how physically taxing their jobs were.
I got more than I bargained for. The young hawkers all shared an initial resistance and apprehension towards dressing up for the photo shoot, and it wasn’t because they were too busy in the kitchen.
One young woman, in particular, stood out. “Must I do it at my stall? Because the older hawkers here are already very unhappy with the (media) attention I have been getting,” she said. “If they see me dressed up, they will definitely gossip and talk badly about me again to their customers.”
Behind the scenes of the shoot
We ended up not doing the shoot with her to avoid further conflicts for the 23-year-old.
This missed opportunity made me realise: Hawker politics exists, and perhaps the biggest challenge these young hawkers face is not the physical labour, but resistance from the very same veterans whom we trust to pass down well-guarded traditional recipes needed to keep our food culture alive.
I faced a similar situation at my favourite prata stall. I was told by older hawkers and patrons alike that I didn’t understand what I was doing. One gentleman told me I was wasting my time on “these two young guys” and that he would introduce me to a friend of his who has been making soon kueh (a Teochew dumpling snack) for many years. I appreciated the lead, but not the attitude.
These young hawkers work as hard, from the wee hours till night, never mind that they hold good degrees and have sacrificed their social lives. Why should they be denied the chance to shine on the world map? That the Michelin guide recently recognised 17 hawker stalls for Bib Gourmand awards and bestowed a coveted star to two indicates that out there, people are watching and want to know more.
Our cuisine is ripe for the global stage, but only if the gatekeepers of these age-old traditions can put aside their pride and resistance to the next generation who can put us there.