Hawker centres were unheard of in Singapore in the past - the norm was to eat by the roadside using rather unhygienic utensils amid filthy conditions.
Street hawkers started quite soon after 1819 and by mid-1800s, the street hawkers would ply the streets selling an array of food offerings. Back then, street hawkers took up the trade to earn a livelihood. It was a popular occupation amongst many early settlers as it required little capital and minimal skill. They were found along busy streets and intersections - peddling food, drinks, fruits, vegetables and other sundries - giving rise to traffic obstruction and hygiene issues.
By 1903, the number of street hawkers has grown to a point that the British colonial government deemed a nuisance and had to be controlled. The licensing of street hawkers started in 1915. Plan by the Municipal Health Officer to eradicate street hawkers in 1924 was met with widespread opposition and was subsequently dropped. By 1932, the Government acknowledged that street hawkers served an important function in the city - providing quick and cheap meals to the coolies and local clerks working in offices. Hawker shelters were built and number of licenses capped.
Up till the 1970s, street food stalls could still be seen in areas such as Chinatown, Bugis and Orchard Road. They were popular gathering spaces, offering affordable meals such as laksa and satay to customers from all walks of life. It was a vibrant scene no doubt. In the suburbs, street hawkers often brought their food to the doorsteps of residents.
From 1968 to 1986, the Government licensed and resettled street hawkers into purpose-built hawker centres and markets with proper sanitation and amenities. Hawker centres and the establishment of HDB estates thus ended street hawkers in Singapore.
Singapore put up Hawker Culture for nomination to Unesco List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019.
- Leong Kwok Peng, "when hawkers not in centres", Facebook album.