The Hawker Center

Many Americans got their first big glimpse into Singaporean culture via the 2018 rom-com Crazy Rich Asians, which is set in the small Southeast Asian country often associated with finance and food. The film primarily focuses on the gilded world of Singapore’s super-rich, but also highlights one of the most democratizing urban places on the planet and a unique cultural and urban planning product of the region: the hawker center.

Hawker center staff on patrol for tables to clear at the Chinatown Hawker Centre, Singapore. Photo credit: Doug Bright.

On their first night in Singapore, Rachel and Nick (the “rom” in the rom-com) join friends at a hawker center, a semi-open-air bazaar of dozens of food stalls serving the broad spectrum of food one can expect in a country whose unique culinary culture is a mosaic of Chinese, Malay, and Indian foodways. As Nick puts it in the movie, “Each of these hawker stalls sells pretty much one dish and they’ve been perfecting it for generations.” The Crazy Rich crew fills up on fresh sugar cane juice, laksa, satay, chili crab and more all while sitting among a crowd whose diversity is enabled by the affordable prices of hawker fare.

Browsing chicken rice options at the Chinatown Hawker Centre, Singapore. Photo credit: Doug Bright.

In the region, street (hawker) food has been a cultural fixture for decades. In Singapore, the institution of the hawker center has explicit roots in planning. In 1950, the Hawkers Inquiry Commission began investigating problems arising in the hawker industry: poor hygiene, disorder caused by the unorganized use of the public right-of-way, and resulting law enforcement issues. The first wave of hawker centers was built as a solution between 1971 and 1986. The island’s 100+ hawker centers (with more on the way), as well as hawker registration operations, are currently under the purview of Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA). According to the NEA, individual hawkers rent stalls out with prices varying by size and location (median of $1234/month, accounting for about 12% of costs), with additional fees for service and maintenance, varying from $240 to $930.

Dessert beckons at the Chinatown Hawker Centre, Singapore. Photo credit: Doug Bright.

Parallel models in Hong Kong (cooked food centers) and Malaysia (hawker centers, kopitiams) reflect similar accessibility and diversity. Generally, customers first find a seat, reserving it with a pack of tissues (or another personal item) before browsing options. At busy times, it is common to share tables. Customers order at individual stalls plastered with the menu – photos, prices, and all. Self-serve stalls require the customer to bus their own order, but many will deliver to the table, identified either with a quick point or the number of the table (as noted by a label). A nearby beverage hawker is available – and will often stop by the table – to take a drink order. Teas, coffees, and juices are popular all day, while beers come out in the evening. A diverse offering of highly specialized stalls means that many options are quite affordable, especially the wide variety of noodle and rice dishes, without sacrificing quality.

A busy morning at Chong Choon kopitiam, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo credit: Doug Bright.

The spaces themselves are utilitarian: fairly stark and unadorned, but functional and durable. Seating and tables are simple, sturdy, and easy-to-clean, just like the tile floors. The cups and plates are similarly long-lasting hard plastic, labeled on the bottom allowing staff to return them to the proper stalls. Bussing and dishwashing is centralized, with some centers asking patrons to help by delivering their dishes to a collection station. Napkins are the responsibility of the customer, so elderly salespeople often can be found roaming centers selling packs of tissues. Patrons can also sometimes find tissues being sold by the bathroom attendant, where payment is also collected for using the toilet. Bathroom design also prioritizes ease of cleaning, most being completely tiled. The common design of these spaces is low-maintenance and centralizes some costs that otherwise might make restaurant entrepreneurship challenging.

The white, washable walls of Woon Lam kopitiam, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo credit: Doug Bright.

While using these spaces does cost money, their affordable cost (a cup of coffee for less than $1.50 in Singapore and less than 50 cents in Malaysia) for a quality product allows for a diverse clientele, even in a wealthy place like Singapore. They can be found in nearly every neighborhood, allowing for many types of people to access them. They are a ubiquitous and quotidian experience: about 60% of Singaporeans eat one of their daily three meals at a hawker center. In combination, these factors make for a satisfying restaurant experience in a cultural touchstone that closely resembles a vibrant public space. It’s this atmosphere that makes hawker centers (and their counterparts in the region) the best places to eat, drink, people-watch, and absorb culture in Southeast Asia.

A local pharmacist’s supplies at a kopitiam in Pulau Ketam, Selangor, Malaysia. Photo credit: Doug Bright.
The best advertising at Kafe Kheng Pin, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. Photo credit: Doug Bright.

About the Author: Doug Bright is a first-year master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in transportation. He’s a proud Chicagoan, enjoys taking the streets by two wheels, and indulges in improvisational cooking. He likes thinking and talking about education, design, and sustainability. He also likes jokes. Doug received his undergraduate degree in Social Studies from Harvard College.