The Men and Women Who Feed a Nation

By Steven Yee

When most Singaporeans are asleep, an army of their compatriots are already up, many as early as 3.30am. They’ve fired up their woks, pots and pans. Within the hour, the delicious aroma of peppery soups, curries, nasi lemak, freshly baked bread and brewed coffee fill the air all over the island. These men and women work mostly in humble surroundings, without air-conditioning, to prepare meals for their first customers who usually arrive at 5am.

This has been the routine for over two centuries. They are an indispensable part of Singapore life and feed a nation before the start of a working day, while it is toiling away and when the sun sets and it’s time to go to bed again.

Food hawkers are the unsung heroes of Singapore, where it is common for men and women in every household to pursue their careers. Often, there is hardly time left in a day to cook meals for their families and they are highly dependent on inexpensive quality meals that are easily available all over the island nation. Food hawkers serve an entire gamut of local cuisine. Singaporeans have come to view these food vendors as their birthright because without them, the nation will likely ground to a halt.

They have become an institution and their work has not gone unrecognised. Acknowledging they are important in the daily lives of Singaporeans, the government is constantly building new centres to bring them closer to every residential area in the country. Today, they are within walking distance to every home. These photos tell their story.