Singapore’s hawkers serve tasty, quick and inexpensive dishes which are a magnet for locals and tourists-in-the-know. But even before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, they were already struggling. And the partial lockdown has only made it worse.
Dining at all outlets from the fanciest restaurants to no-frills coffee shops has been banned since April 7 and is expected to continue until at least June 1.
Hawker centres, traditionally the centre of community life for many, are now off-limits except for takeaways and deliveries. Normal foot traffic has been reduced to a trickle in most places as residents are strongly urged to stay home – barring exercise and shopping for essential items.
Hawker Melvin Chew saw his business drop by two-thirds as a result of the lockdown. But Chew was matter-of-fact about it. “Government says you have to stick to your own neighbourhood, try not to go out,” he said.
While hawkers are highly regarded – there are even a few Michelin-starred food stalls – the pandemic arrived at a time when the industry was already economically vulnerable.
Street food hawkers are ageing – the average operator is 59, according to a government study – and the tradition is threatened by changing tastes and habits as incomes rise in the city-state. Few young Singaporeans aspire to a profession that requires them to work long hours in sweltering temperatures for relatively low pay.
So when the shutdown order came Chew decided to do something about it. He created a Facebook group called Hawkers United – Dabao 2020 – to help hawkers and customers connect to arrange takeaway food orders and home delivery. (“Dabao” is a colloquial term in the Cantonese language for takeaway).
Since its creation in early April, the group has grown to more than 250,000 members.
Chew started the online group because “a lot of hawkers and people in food and beverage won’t be able to survive. If you want to survive you have to accept the use of technology, you have to engage in social media and you have to do home delivery,” he told Al Jazeera.
The 42-year-old Chew serves up braised duck and pig offal at a food stall at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre along with his 63-year-old mother, Lim Bee Hong, who started the stall with her late husband.
Chew fears for older hawkers who cannot navigate the internet or get technical assistance.
Additional online portals have cropped up in recent weeks to connect customers with hawkers as well as restaurants.
But Daobao still faces additional hurdles: more Singaporeans are choosing to cook at home as the waiting times for online food services have increased. “After this lockdown we’ll have a lot of Michelin-starred chefs. Everyone is cooking at home,” Lionel Chee, who is Singapore’s ambassador to the World Food Travel Association, told Al Jazeera.
In addition, certain supplies have become difficult to source, leading to increased costs.
The price of ingredients has risen by as much as 20 to 30 percent, Chee said. A small bag of red onions that used to cost 3.80 Singapore dollars ($2.69) now costs between 6 Singapore dollars and 7 Singapore dollars ($4.24 – $4.95), thanks in part to India’s ban on exporting red onions. A tray of 30 AA grade eggs has gone from 5 Singapore dollars ($3.54) to as much as 10 Singapore dollars ($7.07). Coriander, once at 1 Singapore dollar ($0.70) a bunch, is now at least twice as much.
In addition, while hawker fare is known for its affordability – a plate of the popular chicken rice dish can go for as little as 3.50 Singapore dollars ($2.48) – costs imposed by home-delivery services can increase prices to customers by 35 percent and often set a minimum-purchase price. Takeaway boxes are also added to the final total.