Newly published book, Not For Sale, documents the real-life stories of hawker “aunties” and “uncles” who have built up Singapore’s food heritage.
Singaporeans routinely bemoan the demise of their favorite hawker stalls when they close down, posting pictures of “last suppers” there on social media. Three Singaporeans took this sentiment a step further and spent three years documenting Singapore’s remaining street food vendors in a commemorative black-and-white photo book, Not For Sale. It is a work that cements the icon of the Singapore hawker as the true purveyor of Singapore’s local food heritage.
Not For Sale has struck such a chord with Singaporeans that even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a photo and an impressed comment on his Facebook page, lauding the work of the authors.
The book is partially funded by the National Heritage Board, and its launch was aptly a part of this year’s Singapore HeritageFest, an annual outreach program celebrating Singapore’s culture.
Considered to be “the most ambitious project to document and archive our remaining heritage street food vendors,” Not For Sale tells the stories of the the 300 remaining heritage street food vendors in Singapore whose craft form a large part of every day life as the average Singaporean knows it.
The book took 900 days to complete. “It is a tribute to a generation of hawkers who have served us and gave their lives to a craft now facing a real threat of extinction,” explains Sinma DaShow, who co-authored the book with Jernnine Pang (they are both partners in the Californian Sushi Academy) and photographer Jim Orca. The three of them chalked up thousands of hours of interviews, recordings and transcriptions as they combed through all 105 food centers in Singapore.
The book opens with a sombre commentary on hawkers who would be retiring without an heir apparent, and the looming extinction that faces the trade. Among the now-elderly hawkers, for whom going into the business was a matter of post-war survival, is 92-year-old Mdm. Chua Chay Cheng, who still wakes up at 3am to prepare teo chew kue, just as she has done for the past few decades.
The book also tells the stories of the “guardians,” children of hawkers who willingly choose to take over the family trade and craft. “Our hawker scene is at its crossroads with many old-time hawkers retiring, and there are few from the next generation who are willing to take over. Thus, it’s heartening to find these guardian angels who are willing to step up and preserve our street food heritage,” says DaShow. Most of these second generation hawkers are the eldest child in their families.
There is a compounded sense of urgency considering that many hawker centers are giving way to new, modern food courts and newly refurbished food centers, adding to the value of putting together an official archive of “the fading memories of the places and the faithful vendors.”
Orca, a veteran photographer who is program director for the Advanced Diploma in Professional Photography at the School of Design and Entrepreneurship, says, “My personal takeaway from this three-year project is the resilience and sacrificial spirit of the hawkers. They would do anything to survive and provide for their loved ones. I learned that in all we do, we must put our heart, mind and soul into it. Just like Mdm. Chua, who single-handedly brought up eight children, in everything we do, we must ‘watch, stand fast in our faith, be brave, be strong and let all that we do be done with love.’”
Not For Sale retails at S$88 from www.notforsale.sg from now till Aug. 31.