Tuesday, August 11

How hawker centres saved the day for us all


IT is still the Lunar Chinese New Year – the auspicious eighth day today, and I’d like to wish all readers celebrating the most joyous, healthiest, wealthiest and most peaceful year ahead of us all – it’s the start of the Chinese zodiac, with the Rat heralding the New Year!

If you’re like me, we all have our morning routine when we wake up and greet each day.

I would normally wake up around 7am and go through the usual personal hygiene rituals; then go downstairs to the kitchen, prep my two-eggs-and-coffee breakfast and read The Borneo Post. I would also browse and update my handful of Facebook accounts and read my emails and WhatsApp messages – attending to the urgent ones.

I like to consider myself as semi-retired but still actively involved in selected projects and consultations; besides being busy with a bit of this and that (and once a while, totally involved in a full consult) – so life is rather a breeze these days.

On Wednesday, I had read with much interest an article in a Singapore newspaper which had caught my eye – its headline was ‘Hawker centres ‘saved Singapore’, says Tommy Koh’.

As many of you may know, Tommy Koh is the island nation’s ‘Ambassador-At-Large’ and has always been regarded as the ‘Voice of Singapore’s Conscience’.

I am a long-time admirer and a big fan.

Koh had made that statement at the launch of a book called ‘Fifty Secrets of Singapore’s Success’ – a collection of 50 essays compiled by him and written by leaders and experts from various fields in Singapore about how the small city state had succeeded so well as a model for the world.

The hawker stall, and hawker centres in general, have indeed not just saved Singapore, but all of us here as well as in all the Asian countries that today, depend on them (hawkers) thriving to support the rapidly growing populations with ever-changing tastes and enormous unceasing appetites!

The hawker is the one trader who is there all the time, be it at 5am for the early-risers, or at midnight for the shift-workers; he’s ever ready with a warm bowl of noodle, porridge, soup or a ‘roti canai’ and a cup of coffee or tea – at any time of the day or night – offering everyone a good meal at an affordable price.

Most of the time when going about our normal routines and being totally engrossed in the everyday rituals of life – sending kids to school, going to the office, breaking for lunch and tea, coming home, having dinner, going to the shops and entertaining ourselves at the malls, cinemas or football game – we tend to overlook the small things; the little stuff that is always there, that we have never taken a second glance, or even paused for a second to think: ‘Hmm … how did that get there?’.

Imagine for a minute what would be missing in our lives if there are no hawker stalls at all.

If you have a sudden yearning for a bowl of Sarawak laksa, you have to make it yourself!

You have to go to the market, buy the basic ingredients – that alone would take you to the fish market for the prawns, the wet market for the bean sprouts and chicken and Chinese parsley; the supermarket for the ‘laksa’ paste and the packet of coconut ‘santan’ and ‘beehoon’.

Then you have to peel the prawns and boil them; cook the chicken, peel the sprouts and prep the broth from the paste – in the process enhancing (as most of us do) with your own extra ingredients.

It’d take you probably anything between a minimum of two hours, and half-a-day to get all these done – just for a bowl of your craving, which is laksa!

However, within a few minutes’ drive and at your personal selection, you can pop over to your favourite hawker stall and have a bowl of fully prepared laksa, for between RM5 (regular) to RM7 (special).

Of course that’s average, but there are places selling it for more and also for less.

Similarly, if your craving is for ‘kolo mee’, ‘kampua’, porridge or chicken rice or ‘roti parata’!

Home-cooking tends to be tedious, troublesome and time-consuming and usually, you would prepare it in bulk.

As far as convenience, ease and time-efficiency are concerned, the hawkers supply us with all our needs.

Where we are right now, in Kuching, the history of the hawker stalls and indeed the hawker centre is brief – it might well have started only as recently as in the early 1950s.

I remember during my childhood in the 1950s, we still had vendors who would cycle to our house to hawk his wares – ice cream, satays hot off the grill, local ‘kuihs’, cakes and buns and even soupy dishes like noodles and ‘laksa’ (these were mainly confined to the main town areas and many carried on balancing poles and on foot).

The very early hawker stalls like Min Heng at Carpenter Street where Sarawak Laksa became famous were mainly one-stall coffee shops. It was only 20 years later in the 1970s that many coffee-shops took on more than one hawker stall within its walls – normally you’d find a ‘kolo mee’ stall next to one for laksa and perhaps a third fast food or chicken rice.

It was not uncommon too to find a stall selling pork dishes right next to a Malay halal hawker selling ‘roti canai’, curries or ‘mee goreng’.

There’s a famous and much patronised shop called Joo Seng at Jalan Rock, which serves a popular ‘kaya’ toast and a ‘kolo mee’ stall is right next to a Malay family hawker selling laksa, mee goreng and other goodies.

It’s always tough getting a seat there; customers almost always share tables and there’s nothing to stop you from enjoying your bowl of non-halal food right next to his roti canai and kopi-o.  C’est la vie!

My mentor and pastor from Singapore now on a five-year assignment in Sarawak gave me a very good piece of advice sometime back; he said he’d always after finishing his bowl of breakfast, lunch or dinner, and on his way out from the ‘kopitiam’, would drop by to the hawker who had served him just to say ‘thank you’ for the food – it was delicious!

We should all start doing that – small gestures make for big smiles especially for hardworking hawkers who have to wake up very early in the morning after going to bed late the previous night, just to ensure that we all have our nice, delicious, decent and affordable meals.

Thanks too Tommy Koh for the reminder. Praise be to God!