Coronavirus eats into Singapore’s already struggling hawker trade

With dining on site banned, food outlets set up online groups, adopt home-delivery services in bid to survive.

Workers wait for takeaway customers and delivery riders at a Singapore food court. While hawker food is an integral part of Singaporean culture, the industry was already struggling before coronavirus and the outbreak has created new challenges [Wallace Woon/EPA]

Singapore – 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. 

‘Dabao’ service

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.

Singapore hawker Melvin Chew, 42, with his mum Lim Bee Hong. They have taken their Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck And Kway Chap stall online to keep the business going during the city-state’s coronavirus lockdown [Supplied/Al Jazeera]

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.

Rising 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.

While many hawkers have turned to food delivery services, the fees eat into their already squeezed-incomes so some have gone online to connect directly with customers [Wallace Woon/EPA]

Chee predicts that after the lockdown is lifted the existing 25,000 licences issued to hawker stalls and food kiosks could fall by between 5,000 and 7,000. Restaurants have about 10,000 licences. 

At the normally bustling Newton Food Centre, which was featured in the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians, only 10 or so stalls out of nearly 100 have remained open during the pandemic, Esther Foo of Hai Yan BBQ Seafood told Al Jazeera.

Foo, 31, a third-generation hawker, said on an average day her stall might have taken in up to 1,800 Singapore dollars ($1,273) a day in sales. Now that sum has been halved and is supported largely by home-delivery orders. Government subsidies for food stall rentals are a help, she added. 

“The number of people coming here has decreased significantly. It’s not as good as how it was before,” she said.

Henry Ong and Lucy Chng, who are in their 60s and run a Hokkien mee stall, a noodle dish, were among the lucky ones; their son who worked in the wellness industry was helping them reach out through social media to stay in business.

Lucy Chng said once the partial lockdown took effect, walk-in business was down to about 20 percent of its normal level. But since they got on social media to advertise their home-delivery service, business was up by up to 50 percent. 

“During this period, it’s OK,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Going online definitely helps them during this period,” Jordan said. “As less people are out and about, traditional hawkers that solely depend on walk-in sales are finding it hard to survive.”

Kueh Ho Jiak, a multi-generation family business that sells local desserts called Nonya kueh made the shift from a makeshift food cart to a storefront a while ago. Run by a mother-duo team the store saw a drop to 40 percent of its regular sales when the lockdown began, until online promotions and home delivery brought up sales by 150 to 200 percent, the daughter Elizabeth Chan told Al Jazeera.

“People still come to my store to self-collect, but the flow of people is not like the past,” Chan said.

Community hub

Stallholders at hawker centres can apply for a one-time 500 Singapore dollar ($353.66) grant to help with the costs of signing up to delivery platforms. 

Chew’s stall in a hawker centre in Singapore’s Chinatown is famous for its braised duck [Supplied/Al Jazeera]

But patrons complain that despite the convenience of home-delivery orders they miss Singapore’s hawker centres. 

They are a lifeline for local neighbourhoods as they act as de facto community centres. And for many elderly Singaporeans and those who live on their own, they ease social isolation. 

A recent video that went viral showed an elderly woman eating a plate of food at a cordoned-off table in a hawker centre. 

The woman, who appeared to be in her 70s and was not wearing a mask, could be seen arguing with enforcement officers. “My back hurts…” she told them in Hokkien, a Chinese language that is widely spoken in Singapore. “Have to walk very slowly … Never mind, I’m not scared.”

“If I had the virus, I would’ve died by now,” she added, refusing to budge. 

In the end, the elderly woman was fined 300 Singapore dollars ($212). 

Follow Tom Benner on Twitter @tgbenner

Source: Al Jazeera