As Singapore identity shifts, its food culture becomes key touchstone

Eating is one of Singapore's most beloved national pastimes. But demographic changes have foodies rushing to preserve the country's culinary traditions.

Patrons eat at a hawker center in Singapore's Little India in 2014.

About seven years ago, Leslie Tay, a Singaporean food blogger, began to notice that the city's older food vendors were retiring – and with them were disappearing some of his favorite dishes.

A perfect char kway teow, a stir-fried noodle dish, was becoming difficult to find at Singapore's famous open-air food courts. So too was handmade muah chee, the steamed rice-flour dumplings coated in peanuts and sugar originally from southern China.

A younger, more educated generation appeared uninterested in slaving over hot stoves. And newer cooks, some of them foreign, were simply not as good.

"You can get these dishes in fancy restaurants, but it's not the same," said Mr. Tay. "There's a skill that comes from making one dish for 30 years."

Singaporeans such as Tay have grown increasingly concerned about preserving their country's celebrated food culture, including the food courts known as hawker centers. Hawker food is the focus of blogs, articles, festivals, and even an advertising campaign by the popular local Tiger Beer. The national government went as far as to set up a panel on the issue in January.

"We're looking into how we can save this heritage," said Tay, a panel member. "Hawker food embodies the essence of being Singaporean."

Cuisine is just one aspect of national identity that Singaporeans are trying to hold on to in the face of rising immigration and generational shifts. Despite the country's long fixation on progress and modernity, a wave of new museum exhibitions, heritage festivals, and even archaeological digs points to a growing desire to figure out what it means to be Singaporean.

"Singaporeans are seeing a lot of new faces, foreign faces," says Terence Chong, a researcher at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "That's making them more introspective."

Embracing the past

The recent turn to the past comes at an important moment in Singapore's history. Last year, the island nation celebrated 50 years of independence, and its founder, Lee Kuan Yew, died.

Amid the celebrating and mourning, Singapore held its largest heritage festival in May, opened the Indian Heritage Center and Chinese Cultural Center, and launched the Singapore Memory Project. The project, an online repository for citizens to share their memories of people and places, has a "memory corps" of volunteers to interview elderly Singaporeans. The National Archives has also put more material online in the past year.

Kwa Chong Huan, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, says it's natural for the younger generation to reappraise history. With young people taking Singapore's sovereignty and prosperity for granted, he argues in a recent editorial, the focus of the national narrative is shifting from political independence and economic progress to "the local and social dimensions of our past."

Increased immigration has also played a major role. The non-resident population of Singapore doubled between 2000 and 2010 and is set to expand even further to fill labor shortages. The country is expected to grow from 5.3 million people now to 6 million people by 2020.

In 2009, the government set up the National Integration Council to promote interaction between newcomers and resentful locals. Authorities see heritage initiatives as a way to promote social cohesion and multiracial harmony.

But heritage movements can romanticize the past, warns Mr. Chong.

"Nostalgia is a powerful narcotic," he says. "Singapore was never perfect. It has always been a multicultural society with tensions."

Singapore's food culture reflects those tensions. Only citizens and permanent residents are allowed to run hawker stalls, despite the fact that immigrants introduced the country's most beloved dishes.

Fifty years ago, food stalls lined the streets of Singapore. They provided employment to poor migrants from Malaysia, China, and India, and cheap, familiar meals to their countrymen. Authorities cleaned up the streets in the 1970s, corralling vendors into more sanitary hawker centers. By the early 1980s, most street vendors had relocated to one of more than 100 such centers. These remain hugely popular today because they offer a variety of ethnic food at low prices – and retain something of a grimy, old-world atmosphere in a thoroughly sanitized city.

A new generation of cooks

There's certainly no grime at the new hawker center in Hougang, the first of 40 new food courts the government plans to establish after a 30-year gap. But the experience of young hawkers here reflects some of the challenges of preserving the old with the new.

Set in a neighborhood of schools and with offerings that include pasta and cappuccino, the center attracts many young customers. It's airy and cheerful with new facilities including automatic payment machines.

The atmosphere is partly what attracted Derrick Lee, one of 20 young stall owners brought in under an entrepreneurship program that pairs new cooks with more experienced ones. Mr. Lee, who's 30 years old, runs a Hainanese chicken rice stall. He learned to make the dish from a 65-year-old hawker who was born in China and cooked chicken rice for 30 years.

"They have a special way of cooking the chicken," Lee said. "This food has history."

Lee, a college graduate who used to work in an office, says he would not have liked to work in the older hawker centers. But he jumped at the opportunity to enter the food industry when he saw the advertisement for apprentice hawkers last June. The transition hasn't been easy; the hours are long and the work laborious.

"My friends said to me, 'You used to wear long sleeves and type at the computer, now you clear your own rubbish,' " Lee says.

In the long run, he hopes to expand. He'd like to move into an upscale food court in one of Singapore's ubiquitous shopping malls or open a stand-alone restaurant.

The aim of the new hawker centers is to sustain cheap, traditional food, which means vendors must sell at least two dishes for under $2. The price cap could limit the ambitions of new hawkers like Lee. But Tay, the food blogger, says Singaporeans will have to eventually pay more for hawker food.

"If they want to save this heritage, they must be willing to pay the price," he says.

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