Whether you’ve eaten at Singapore’s hawker centers during your travels or drooled over the dishes served at these open-air food courts during episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show, you know the city-state’s multicultural street food is delicious, affordable, and in some cases even Michelin-starred. Now it is also UNESCO recognized.
On Wednesday, December 16, 2020, the United Nations’ cultural agency officially announced the addition of “hawker culture” to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Unlike the UNESCO World Heritage list of cultural and natural landmarks, the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage instead celebrates traditions or living expressions, such as performing arts, festive events, social practices, rituals, and the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. The aim of the list is to safeguard these specific forms of cultural heritage and ensure that they are passed down to future generations.
Some of the oldest hawkers—as the people who prepare this food are called—started their practice back in the 1960s when the government began regulating street food vendors and opened these open-air hawker centers. Today, you’ll find more than 100 of these centers throughout Singapore serving Chinese, Malay, Indian, and other cuisines alongside each other.
These centers serve as “community dining rooms where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner,” the UNESCO inscription reads.
But it’s not just about the food.
“It’s about food culture,” KF Seetoh, the founder of Singapore’s Makansutra food guides and tours who also served as an advisor on the UNESCO nomination, told AFAR’s Jennifer Flowers in 2019. “It’s a culinary umbilical cord that connects them to their fathers’, their mothers’, their grandparents’ food, which relates back to the story of Singapore. Migrants came to Singapore, no hope, no job, no tomorrow, no money. And they said, ‘I gotta sell food to my people.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic limited hawker stalls to takeaway and delivery only for part of this year, Singapore’s hawker culture was in danger. (Hawker centers welcomed back in-person dining in June as part of Singapore’s Phase 2 reopening.)
“For every 2 young hawkers who open, 10 are saying bye-bye. Everybody has a degree, everybody is looking to be the next big dot com or app thing,” Seetoh said.
While the UNESCO inscription brings much-needed publicity to hawker culture, it is ultimately up to locals and travelers (once tourism returns to Singapore) alike to support the hawkers themselves, “to ensure that our community dining rooms remain popular and vibrant dining destinations,” Grace Fu, Singapore’s minister for Sustainability and the Environment, said in a statement.
To celebrate being added to the UNESCO list, Singapore is hosting the SG HawkerFest across three weekends between December 26, 2020, and January 11, 2021, as it moves into Phase 3 of reopening. Although Singapore’s borders remain closed to most countries currently, the festival hopes to bring back locals to rediscover their favorite hawker stalls and also share ideas on what they’d like to see in hawker centers of the future.
This is Singapore’s first inscription on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, which features more than 460 other traditions from around the world, including toquilla weaving from Ecuador, tango from Argentina and Uruguay, and Chinese shadow puppetry.