One of the most staple soundscape of Singapore is the rush hour during lunch or dinner time at the hawker center or foodcourts. Other than being a glamorous shopping center and majestic skyscrapers, hawkers or foodcourts are still the reality of modern Singapore. You can find them at every corner of the city.
The history of these food hawkers in Singapore actually dates back to the 1850s as written in the note of various explorers. Take the famous British Naturalist Alfren Russel Wallace for example, he stated the existence of these food hawkers on the street of Singapore, as he wrote in ‘Singapore: A Sketch of The Town and Island as Seen during Several Visits from 1854 to 1862’ in ‘The Malay Archipelago’:
All about the streets are seller of water, vegetables, fruit, soup, agar-agar (a jelly made of seaweed), who have many cries as unintelligible as those of London. Others carry a portable cooking-apparatus on a pole balanced by table at the other end, and serve up a meal of shell fish, rice, and vegetables for two or three halfpence; while coolies and boatmen waiting to be hired are everywhere to be met with.
When Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s prime minister he started bringing order and relocating the hawkers from the streets and sporadic locations to hawker centers located all around Singapore. The Program started around the 60s to the 80s. Lee Kuan Yew policies also included permit for the hawkers which also functioned to overcome the existence of illegal street hawkers. Lee Kuan Yew’s strict program had tremendous impact and the system was passed down in Singapore to this day. Quoting a data from the www.ourheritage.sg site, in 2018 at least more than 110 hawker center was scattered in all of Singapore.
Now there are no more the atmosphere that Wallace had described. He wrote dramatically the cries of the street hawkers at the time (between 1854-1862) with a phrase: Who have many cries as unintelligible as of those of London. During my stay here and also from several of my previous experiences of visits, I didn’t hear any cry from the hawkers on the street. This phenomenon of course was very different compare to the soundscape of street hawkers from other South East Asian countries, like Thailand where you could easily find this phenomenon, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia for instances. In Singapore, the sounds of the streets were ‘centered’. On the contrary, not to deny the existence of food courts in other South East Asian Countries, this situation felt very Singapore.
During my stay I has visited many hawker centers like the ones in Chinatown, Lau Pa Sat, Lavender, Bugis, Kent Ridge, etc. During lunch or dinner hours, office employee, school children, students, civilians, or tourists alike crowded the hawker center area. The sounds there were very identic. The sounds of people ordering food, hectic sounds of people conversing while enjoying their food, the bustle sounds of food stalls kitchen while cooking and preparing food or drink, the sound of fire bursting from the gas stove, the clacking sounds of spatula touching the pan, the sound of glass and plates being cleaned out of the tables, and many more. The size of the hawker centers which were generally large created its own sound landscape which of course would be different than a recording in a small restaurant, because the sound would come from various distances.
In the late afternoon, the atmosphere was usually not so hectic if compared to lunch hour. Sometimes If I was not in the mood for any hustle, I chose to eat in the late afternoon. The intensity and work pace of the food hawkers also settled down a bit. The atmosphere will be boisterous again during dinner hours. These periods were like a cleansing in an opera show! These sounds are still recorded in my memory. The hustle and bustle in hawker centers is one of Singapore’s staple culture!