Sunday, 4 November 2007

Hawker Centres and the Five Foot Way

Food Courts are the very heart of Singapore culture, representing their love of food, entrepreneurship and community cohesion. The history is a little more mundane. In the early days of Singapore, traders and hawkers routinely set up their stalls along the edge of the road in front of shops. Unregulated, the pavements were becoming clogged with stalls, stock, customers and traders. Sir Stamford Raffles mandated a minimum of 5 feet of clear space in front of shops, creating a "five foot way". The cries of complaint (riots) from hawkers who were pushed off their pavement space was met with the creation of "hawker centres", areas typically on street corners where traders could legally setup and operate. Thus the modern, covered hawker centre is a fixture of the Singapore street scene.

Hawker centres have a complex culture of their own and are not easily described. There are folk stories of hawker millionaires driving around in Rolls Royces collecting rents, and there is the rub. Sure, if you own 20 hawker centers, you can be a millionaire, but the average stall is rented for a few thousand dollars a month and run by people working 12+ hours a day for, say, 1 - 2 thousand a month take home.

Usually, there is an anchor tenant for the center who then sub-lets the individual stalls, arranges the common facilities (table cleaners, washers, trash) and does the advertising and promotions. They usually take the best stall, say the drinks concession in the corner but still, they are bearing much financial risk. They have to keep it popular, clean, safe and manage the sub-lets which turnover regularly, partly because the margins are so low. Even if they do this well, they are at the mercy of the weather (rain discourages walking out), local companies especially manufacturing with cyclical hiring and firing and even local parking or roadworks.

The curious facet for Westerns used to shopping malls with their carefully arranged McDonalds and Burger Kings is that stall owners work much more cooperatively with little overt competitive marketing. The dynamic here is that it is better for the whole center to succeed than for one stall to gain a slight advantage over their neighbours. An 'all ships rise on the tide' mentality.

Promotions can be flyers, new shop signs or even running a free bus around the local area to pick people up from companies during lunchtime. Fridays are probably the quietest days, with the busy hour between 11:45 - 1:15.

Life in a food court starts early with the breakfast crowd then stall owners preparing food for the lunchtime rush. This could be cutting up a bucket of chillies (why don't you just use a Moullinex blender?), making won-tons or cooking fish heads. It's all in the open - the granny cutting chillies will just use the nearest customer table.

One presumes that the signs over the shops are there for marketing purposes but their effectiveness is an open question, viz:

  • 6006 Claypot Delights
  • Feng Sheng Economic Rice
  • Wonder Cooking Home Kitchen
  • Soon Lee Pork Porridge / Macaroni

No matter, every Singapore has their favourite stalls and they will happily regale you with recommendations. Really famous stalls are sometimes notable for their bolshy owners who, for example, will only serve people sat at the few tables nearest their stall. I think this primadonna attitude is secretly admired and aspired to by Singaporeans.

I find myself entirely at home in food courts now but to Western visitors they are a daunting prospect. The shop signs are a rough guide only (remarkably, even if you read Chinese), you wander off and order your own food and usually it's "Self Service" meaning you pay at the stall and carry back to your table. Drinks are bought from another stall although there is usually a wandering drinks waiter, especially if they can sell a beer (good markup). You need to bring your own tissues as napkins and when you're done, just walk away and the table cleaner will collect, wash and sort the cutlery for return to the right stall (they all use different colour plastic bowls and trays). This habit of just walking away is pervasive and they look at you funny if you clear your own table in McDonalds. Plus making a complete pig sty of the table with chicken bones or anything else just discarded on the table is Okay in Chinese culture. It honours the Table God apparently. Yah.