This is how the people of Singapore eat.
Singapore is a center-of-the-world kind of place. It sits at the gate of the Strait of Malacca, a layover point where ancient mariners and traders would wait for the monsoons to shift. The place has always been a crossroads of Asia, having the myriad cultures, beliefs, and foods of the continent injected into its urban matrix. All three of these elements are still readily visible and alive in the city-state today, but it is the food, and the way that it is commonly eaten, that shows this cultural menagerie perhaps better than anything else.
To see this cultural admixture is easy: just go to a hawker center.
Hawker centers are essentially open air food courts. They often consist of a ring of stalls that surround a central dining area where the culinary menagerie of Singapore is often available in one place. Indian food is sold right next to Chinese food, Arab food is cook across the way from Malay food, and many booths sell a syncretic mix that is simply known as Singaporean cuisine. You can walk into a hawker center, order food from multiple booths, and within a few moments have a meal sitting in front of you that represents all corners of Asia.
Though the food isn’t the only thing that’s culturally diverse here. Within any given hawker center you’re going to see tables of robe wearing Muslims eating next to Chinese businessmen; trendy Indians munching food near old Cantonese ladies; Malaysian students dining across the table from old European women drinking mugs of beer. In all my travels I don’t think I’ve ever come upon a singular social sphere which provides such a show of cultural diversity. I suppose it could be said that this mix is just Singapore.
Though, like the country of Singapore itself, hawker centers are a somewhat recent phenomenon. They began appearing in the 1950s and 1960s to provide cheap food for the city’s less than affluent residents. They are essentially the product of the government’s effort to assemble and regulate the sale of street food. In their earliest conceptions they were basically just places where unlicensed street food vendors were corralled and permitted to do business. Even today this hasn’t changed much: hawker center food is basically street food.
As I walked through Singapore I was surprised at how many hawker centers there were as well as how many people seemed to be eating at them. They were almost everywhere: beneath skyscrapers in the central business district as well as in residential areas on the outskirts of town, on the corners of local shopping streets as well as in the heart of the most vibrant commercial zones. This is just a typical way that food is eaten here: outside, in the public sphere.
Though what I found to be of essence about these places wasn’t just the mix of food and cultures but the social space that they provide. Hawker centers are hang outs — little social zones that anchor neighborhoods. You sit in these places and you see friends chatting over frothy mugs of Tiger beer, old men playing cards, business people talking numbers, and young people laughing and typing on their phones. These are places that people go to each day to have an afternoon coffee, a beer after work, or to grab dinner before heading home. It is in the hawker centers that Singapore’s daily story is told.
And it’s a story that is easy to hear.
I’d walk into a hawker center, order a beer, take a seat in a plastic chair, and just start talking with someone. These places almost made my job too easy. Whenever I found myself lacking for a conversation or someone to throttle with questions about life and culture in Singapore, I’d just go to a hawker center, order a mug of Tiger, and say hello.
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