I’ll admit that I was at first skeptical of hawker centers, wondering what the government’s underlying agenda was in a country that seems to have everything in perfect order; organizing street food was yet another step in striving for an idyllic country but at the sacrifice of losing out on the life on the street usually surrounding such vendors. After a few days in Singapore I realized that, while this may be true, what is lacking on the streets is more than made up for inside. Here is what I understand hawker centers to be.
Hawker centers are easy to find; with over 100 throughout the city there is sure to be at least one in almost every neighborhood.
Singapore is an expensive city; order a domestic beer at happy hour price at any bar and pay $7 US minimum, more than you might find in New York. The government subsidizes rent of about half of hawker center stalls, allowing the vendors to provide affordable food for tourists and locals alike. We spent no more than $4-10 US for two of us on any given meal.
Hawker centers are all indoors, providing shelter from the rain and the sun. With the perpetual warm climate of the country, cool temperatures outside aren't an issue so the centers are open-air.
The city has worked hard at improving hygiene of both its businesses and its residents. For example, the courtyard of the apartment building we stayed in had statues representing actions of a healthy lifestyle including washing hands and keeping toilets clean.
Hygiene of hawker center vendors are managed by the National Environment Agency, which, among other forms of regulation, requires food vendors to register with them by taking a "Basic Food Hygiene" course, provides numerous food safety resources, posts a visible hygiene rating at each vendor's stall and asks customers for assistance by reporting vendors who don't use rubber gloves, for example.
Service fees are subsidized by the government to ensure there is paid staff to maintain cleanliness of the public areas. The hawker centers we ate at even had restrooms and washing stations for personal hygiene and comfort.
Delicious and Fresh, with Variety
Vendors arrive in the early morning hours to start preparing food for that day, following the many guidelines that the NEA makes public on their website. Hawker centers provide numerous options of local cuisine, pulling influence from Malaysia, Thailand, India and China; all the food we had was flavorful. The variety allows everyone in your group to order their preference and come together to eat at one of the communal tables. We especially enjoyed Hainanese chicken rice, laksa, char kway teow, fish ball noodle soup and chee cheong fun.
Along with early opening and late closing hours and the open communal seating, each of the above attributes makes hawker centers accessible and attractive to people from all walks of life and all ages. We saw families, students, singles, couples, locals, tourists, elderly people, business people and groups of friends enjoying food and drink at all times of the day.