From the streets to feeding a nation

By Steven Yee

The defining moment for me to work on a black and white photo essay came in April 2020 when the Circuit Breaker (Singapore’s version of lockdown) was imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. The audience, Singaporeans in general as they patronise hawker centres and potential tourists to Singapore who have been attracted by Singapore Tourism Board’s marketing campaigns on our hawker culture. Of all restrictions, the ban on dining-in at hawker centres stirred up the most emotive reactions. These huge public venues house scores of food vendors selling cheap quality food because eating out is a way of life in Singapore that dates to country’s founding as a British trading outpost in 1819.

I have already documented the lowest point of the hawker culture during the Covid19. My next work is to record its recovery. The challenges it faces are unprecedented as the majority of its key market, which is the entire Singapore population, struggles through recession and retrenchments. Hawker Culture is listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List on 17th Dec 2020. The interest in the culture will spike not only in Singapore, but internationally as well.

The Internet, especially social media, has made this reach across boundaries possible. They are indispensable tools for photo documentaries. The works that I have shot will also prove to be of historical archival value for many years to come. It will also pave the way for me to conduct workshops on this subject.

It is challenging to photograph in a hawker centre environment, where everyone is busy going about their daily lives, while taking a short break to have a meal here. It is also not an Asian habit to engage in conversations with people they do not know, much less to be photographed by a stranger.

In the coming months, I will be delving deeper into this documentary and explore more areas that can tell more of the hawker centre story to help Singaporeans fully appreciate their birth right.

Aims of the project

  • To document the timeless character of Singapore’s hawker food culture which dates back to 1819. The audience are Singaporeans, to key patrons of these vendors and tourists who are familiar with this culture. To draw attention to its importance to the country’s life.
  • To inspire people to preserve and treasure this institution and raise awareness about the fragility of life, in light of how a pandemic threatened its future.
  • Showcase how hawker centres serve as an important venue for the community to come together and interact.
  • Personal – documenting this culture I realise how easy it is for us to take for granted the people who are central to our lives. My numerous visits to hawker centres hit home the fact that these food vendors are our important partners. Without them we won’t be able to pursue fully our careers and have more valuable time with our families.
Click here to hear the sound in the Hawker Centre