The satays sizzling on grill, the heady aroma of spices, fragrance of curries, stews and broths. Welcome to a nearly 200-year old potpourri — Singapore’s hawker culture. In the early 1800s, as people of Chinese, Indian and Malayan descent made their home in the city, cooks from these communities found their livelihood in this confluence of cultures. But in the early 20th century, the colonial government felt that these hawkers had become a nuisance. In the 1920s, the city’s Health Officer even wanted them removed. But the proposal failed to get traction, and in 10 years, the government had to recognise that they were an essential part of the city. They served a diverse clientele — office-goers, blue-collar workers and the coolies who worked at the wharves and ports. Cut to March this year, the Singapore government submitted a nomination for Singapore hawker culture to be inscribed on Unesco’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. On Thursday, the UN body recognised this claim.
Most cities have such dins of happy eaters. But there are many who still regard such food havens as a nuisance. In most Indian cities, for example, hawkers become targets of “beautification” drives, which camouflage the fact that municipal bodies are blinkered to the social role of the roadside kitchens. For a nation with an acute shortage of public spaces, the kababchi, the choley bhature, dosa or paratha seller, the gol-gappa or chaat vendor, the men and women who hawk fruits, even peanuts, are mediators of conversations between friends, family and lovers.
At Singapore’s hawker centres, seniors gather to read their papers while having their daily cuppa while youngsters strum their guitars in the evenings. Chaiwallahs and several other street-food sellers in India have similar patrons. They deserve the support their counterparts in Singapore have received.
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