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Old ways, new faces

Photo by Fishball Story

Douglas Ng, 25, is a rare fresh-faced "hawkerpreneur" at 73A Ayer Rajar Crescent, a hawker center in Singapore.

The chef-owner of Fishball Story, Ng arrives to work during the dark hours of the morning to prep for the day.

He kneads fishball dough, prepares sambal-spiked chilli paste and fries condiments like lard and shallots.

Ng's fishballs are unique and legitimately old-school.

They're prepped exclusively with yellowtail fish and seasonings, without the addition of flour, the way most fishballs are made nowadays.

After one-and-a-half years working this space with many 12-hour days, Ng takes home just about $712 (S$1,000) each month.

When he recently increased fishball prices from S$3 to S$3.50, he was met with a 40% plunge in business.

Singapore's hawker foods: Vanishing tradition?

Photo by Wild Rocket

Singapore's aging hawker trade is increasingly facing a dire future.

Stalls are stymied by a host of issues that are endangering this once-prized commodity.

"Our hawker heritage differentiates us from other countries," says Willin Low, the chef-owner of local restaurants Wild Rocket, Wild Oats and Relish, and the man widely regarded as the godfather of modern Singaporean cuisine.

"It unites Singaporeans from different ethnic backgrounds, but it looks like the heritage is thinning."

One reason is lack of ownership succession.

"The hawker trade is not something that the young generation fancies," says Ng. "It's a tough and unglamorous job."

"It does not pay well and there isn't much work-life balance. Rentals are high, labor is hard to find and the cost of ingredients is increasing."

A growing local resistance to paying what hawkers say is a fair price for street food doesn't help.

"We'd better eat soon kueh now before it's too late," says Low, referring to the local handcrafted dumplings traditionally made with turnip and bamboo shoots.

Making the beloved street snack, he says, is becoming a lost art.

New crop of 'hawkerpreneurs'

Photo by One Kueh At A Time

There is hope on the streets.

Even as hawker culture faces difficulty, a new band of innovative "hawkerpreneurs" has emerged.

If they're rare, their motives at least seem pure.

"Many people wonder why a young man like me came into this industry," says Ng. "I am here to preserve the hawker heritage, to find a way to make money and, most importantly, be happy.

"I believe my perseverance will pay off one day and I will be successful and prove to young people that they can do it too."

Nick Soon started One kueh at a time in early 2015, selling teochew kueh (a glutinous rice-based snack with sweet or savory fillings) at Jalan Berseh Food Centre.

His stall sells four types of artisan kueh – all for S$1 apiece – including steamed-to-order ku chye kueh (chive kueh) and soon kueh (with turnip but not traditional bamboo shoots).

The 40-something former insurance executive, who makes all of his food entirely by hand, sees his mission as part of a family legacy.

Soon's mother had been taking orders and making kueh from home since 1983.

Now that she's in her eighties and retired, Soon wants to continue her tradition.

Filial duty

Photo by Jin Ji Kway Chap

At Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap stall in Smith Street Food Centre, 37-year-old Melvin Chew is helming the hawker stall that his parents founded when he was just five.

After his father passed away last year, Chew left his job as a garage technician to run the business full-time.

He says he wakes up at 5 a.m. to reach his stall by 7 a.m. and doesn't leave until about 8 p.m.

Apart from selling traditional teochew-style kway chap (flat rice noodles in meat broth served with a selection of pig offal, braised duck and condiments), Chew has introduced a bento set to reach out to a younger generation of eaters.

The set bundles the stall's traditional offerings with newly introduced soft-centred eggs and a choice of yam rice bowl or kway chap.

"We've more than a 30-year history selling kway chap," says Chew.

"Even though being a hawker is hard work - just think of all the pig intestines and stomachs I have to wash daily - and involves long hours, I want my parents' legacy to live on."

Creativity meets tradition

Photo by Candlenut

The move to preserve Singapore street food has also moved into more traditional restaurants, whose chefs have giddily given the city's classic plates an update.

At the decade-old Wild Rocket, Low serves contemporary Singapore cuisine adapted from the city's favourite cheap eats.

Laksa, a popular Peranakan noodle dish with spicy broth flavored with coconut milk, is reinvented as a pesto sauce and paired with pasta.

On Low's newly introduced "omakase" menu, bak chor mee (minced pork noodles) steals the spotlight.

Low's version is made with glass noodles cooked in Iberico pork fat topped with torched mixed tuna and scallions.

At three-year-old Candlenut, Malcolm Lee recreates Singapore's ubiquitous ayam buah keluak (chicken with Indonesian black nut) as a rich paste blanketed on sous-vide wagyu beef short ribs.

Lee introduced an "ahmakase" menu - the name is a play on "ah ma" (grandma) and omakase (a Japanese meal with dishes selected by the chef) - with creations like a thick broth of buak keluak with beef cheek, shallots and aromatics.

At Restaurant Labyrinth, chef-owner Han Liguang does a new take on chilli crab.

The former banker has remade Singapore's de facto national street dish with deep-fried soft shell crab flanked by a dollop of piquant chilli crab ice cream with man tou (Chinese steamed bun).

It's another effort to save, or at least evolve, the country's legacy dishes.

"Neo-Singapore cuisine is an expression of myself growing up in the modern age whilst being exposed to traditional flavors, some of which are being lost through time," says Han.

"Singapore celebrated its 50th birthday this year (2015), I want my cuisine to celebrate modern Singapore while also remembering our roots."

Candlenut, Block 17A, Dempsey Road, Singapore 249676

Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap, Blk 335, Smith Street 02-156, Singapore 005335

One kueh at a time, 02-61 Berseh Food Centre, 166 Jalan Besar, Singapore 208877

Restaurant Labyrinth, 8 Raffles Ave., 02-23 Esplanade Mall, Singapore 039802

Wild Rocket, 10A Upper Wilkie Road, Singapore 228119