Singapore Special Director’s Commentary: Oh Yong Hwee talks Ten Sticks and One Rice, hawkers and social history

Published On February 6, 2013 | By Zainab | Comics

Continuing with a look at Singaporean comic creators and their work, today we have a director’s commentary from Oh Yong Hwee on his and Koh Hong Teng’s book Ten Sticks and One Rice:

We started talking about doing a story on Singapore’s hawkers 6 years ago, as we felt that there are many touching stories about their lives.

Both of our parents were hawkers, and we helped out at their stalls since we were kids. This may sound like child labour, but it was common back in the 70s and 80s. These experiences also gave us some unique life perspectives.

In the 1960s, the government cleaned up street hawking and moved them to food stalls in hawker centers for hygiene reasons. Designed like a low end food court, the hawker center and it’s cousin the coffeeshop, gave Singaporeans an affordable, tasty and convenient avenue for meals. It was  why many Singaporeans eat out on a daily basis rather than cook.

In my opinion, hawkers, together with HDB1 and NS2, forms part of the Singaporean identity – a typical male Singaporean lives in an HDB flat, served NS and eats daily in hawker centers and coffeeshops.

But I think Singaporeans, especially of my generation, are particularly bonded by hawkers not only because we love the food. Many Singaporeans actually grew up with the “hawker industry”. Ask a Singaporean of 35-45 years old, and don’t be surprised to hear that his or her family was a hawker. They would have helped in a hawker stall after school, at their parent’s stall, or at an uncle’s, an aunt’s, or a grandparent’s stall. Maybe their families made the noodles or fish balls – back then a rather manual process. If you have drank kopi in a plastic bag with red strings, those strings where inserted and tied by mothers late at night after work, to earn that extra 1-2 cents per bag, while kids part played and part helped.

There are about 30,000 licensed hawkers in Singapore today, including the wet market stalls and non-cooked food, located in 106 hawker centers and hundreds more coffeeshops. With a population of 3.2 million citizens, if you didn’t grew up in the “hawker industry”, a relative, close friend or your wife probably did.

It may be a ambitious claim, but I think hawkers is an institution, stablising food prices and leveling social status. Today, we still have chicken rice at S$4 (and an award winning one), even as property prices are sky high and Singapore is ranked as one of the world’s most expensive city to live in. This high availability of S$4 chicken rice everywhere sets the price pressure on other food outlets, from air conditioned food courts to cafes. And whether you came in a Mercedes S class, or took the train, you queue like everyone else and possibly have to share the same table under the heat.

Hawkers have come a long way in Singapore. Just this weekend, an article in the Straits Times featured ten of the most famous chefs from the top restaurants in Singapore, both Singaporeans and foreigners. They were asked what they would eat when not cooking; what their favourite food are. Hawker stalls and award-winning restaurants were both mentioned. They would have breakfast in a coffeeshop, lunch at a high end restaurant, and then dinner at a hawker center. It wasn’t surprising. Celebrities, and even the President and the Prime Minister of Singapore, regularly eat out at hawker centers too.

The satay seller

Coincidentally, Hong Teng’s uncle and my parents sold satay, a version of grilled skewed meat that is common in Southeast Asia. While the dish has a Malay / Javanese origin, it was typical of Singapore to interpret it by another culture. In our case, it was the Chinese version of the satay.

What’s fascinating was the grill “machine” that was designed by my father. Built in 1987, it was possibly the only one in Singapore. While most satay sellers can grill 20-30 sticks each time, this grill can handle up to 80 sticks. The design had 3 glass panels by the side, sucked smoke from the top, and gave customers a view of the grilling at close range without hurting their eyes.

Unfortunately, this “machine” became less useful as society progresses. As told through the story, less and less sticks were ordered as family units get smaller and less dependent on each other.

A traditional hawker stall and the modern equivalent: hawker food courts

The triads

Much to my surprise and slight disappointment though, readers were fascinated by details about triads and their rituals than the hawker life. Looking back, I think it sort of affirms the familiarity of Singaporeans with hawkers.

We were intrigued with the down to earth reason of triads’ existence, why many joined the triads, rather than the gory details of gang fights. Back in the 50s and 60s, many in kampongs would join these triads simply as a form of support structure, like a cooperative. We weren’t trying to justify the triads’ existence, as it was illegal and people got killed. However, many also looked to the triads to help settle disputes, for protection and as a means of living.  

The strong bond cemented amongst the gang members during their youths continued till today. Often when I have beer with my parents’ friends at coffeeshops, they would catch up with an old uncle or aunty passing by. I would find out later that this uncle or aunty used to be in a triad, and even from an opposing gang. You won’t be able to tell, for there was no tattoo, a fierce demeanor, or any appearance to suggest this person’s past.

I have even heard of retired CID becoming acquaintance with old triad members, and attending funerals of each other’s family. While one may be catching the other in the 70s and 80s, they are now retired and just old friends.

There is a rich body of hawker stories in Singapore. We hope to continue telling stories like Ten Sticks And One Rice.

1 Acronym for the Housing Development Board, the government body responsible for building public housing where 80% of Singaporeans live in.

2 Acronym for National Service, a two-year full time compulsory conscription for all abled young men in Singapore. This is followed by 15-25 years of yearly In-Camp Training (ICT for short) of typically 2 weeks per year.

You can view an 8 page preview of Ten Sticks and One Rice here, with a review to follow tomorrow.

Many thanks to Oh Yong Hwee for taking the time to write the director’s commentary.

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About The Author

Zainab Akhtar is a qualified librarian with a specialisation in building comics collections. She currently writes for Forbidden Planet and The Beat, and is a committee member for the British Comics Awards.'

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