Being a hawker in Singapore
When it comes to hawker fare, it’s practically in our blood to love it; and for good reason. For many years, the humble kopitiam has gifted us with lots of options that are delicious and affordable, all rolled into a single location. This makes it well worth braving long queues and the lack of air conditioning.
In fact, it’s even a date location of choice for many people, including myself. So when I was offered the opportunity to work at a hawker stall for a short stint, I jumped at the chance. This is what I, as a clueless Gen Z, learned after 3 days of manning a hawker stall.
4am morning routine to prep for the day
As someone who lives the life of a night owl, waking up at 4am to do anything is a big ask, let alone having to go to work at that hour. So, having to call it a night at 9pm before my first day was new to me.
Sleeping early wasn’t the only first for me when undertaking this task. When I made my way to Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market & Food Centre, I realised that I was catching the first train service of the day, something I had never done before.
Once I arrived, I met up with 31-year-old Elizabeth and her mother Sandy, the mother-daughter team that runs a multi-generational family business called Kueh Ho Jiak. They told me that I would be helping them sell their homemade kuehs which come in a variety of different flavours and designs.
And while I – like many other Singaporeans – have had my fair share of part-time work in the F&B industry, I didn’t expect to witness first-hand how difficult it is for business owners to attract a steady stream of customers throughout the day.
Serving the breakfast crowd
9.30am: The breakfast crowd was relatively mild and wasn’t very intimidating.
Right off the bat, I noticed that most patrons who came for breakfast already knew which stall they were going to, which means they were not likely to change their minds along the way. Many also seemed to be rushing, which meant that they didn’t have a lot of time to consider options other than their usual go-tos.
That was when I realised that attracting new customers isn’t as easy as lelong-ing your goods. A lot of it is really a waiting game. The only time hawker patrons would pop by for some kueh was when they were done with breakfast and needed some pre-lunch snacks.
This contributed to a slow but steady trickle of customers who’d buy small handfuls of kueh over the first 2 mornings. And since the pace was manageable, I was able to carry out my tasks, which was to pack the kuehs for customers and collect cash, without much issues.
Crunch time during the crowd’s munch time
12pm: The menacing lunch crowd was starting to come in droves.
Lunch time, however, was crunch time. Within the first 10 minutes of experiencing the lunch crowd, I realised that it’s every bit as difficult as I thought it would be. Having to take multiple orders at once and speedily pack the food was already tough enough. Coupled with the queue building faster than I could clear it, I could barely keep up with the pace even as the days went by.
Image adapted from: Brendan Yee
On the 3rd day, I was thrown a curveball when a large delivery order of 47 boxes of kueh wiped out most of our stock before 11am.
NGL, this massive order sent all of us at the stall into a frenzy to get everything ready on time. And once the order was handed over to the delivery rider, we had to rush to restock the stall with kuehs from their other outlet for the impending lunch crowd.
Experiencing the hustle as a hawker
I was sure that this would be the biggest challenge throughout this hawker stint, and had to mentally prepare myself accordingly. The unrelenting wave of hungry people rolling into the hawker centre meant that I would have to be sharp and efficient when it came to packing the orders and counting change.
Since my maths left a lot to be desired, there were several instances where I had to sneakily use a calculator to confirm that I had given out the correct amount of change. This was something that the hawkers we know and love – who seem to all be mental sum whizzes – don’t seem to really struggle with, and it was something that I admired greatly.
Digital payment systems like DBS PayLah! and PayNow allow hawkers to focus on handling food and serving without disruptions.
And if it wasn’t for the digital payment system that Elizabeth had employed, I would’ve taken forever to count cash for every last order, or even run the risk of issuing the wrong amount of change.
The use of such technology among hawkers can be attributed to community initiatives such as the digital and financial literacy workshops run by DBS Foundation. The training, specifically designed for hawkers, not only gives them a competitive edge in business but also reduces the likelihood of mistakes, making day-to-day operations smoother.
Elizabeth also explained that being on multiple online platforms helped to increase visibility for the business. Resources like food delivery apps, a dedicated Kueh Ho Jiak website and the DBS Adopt-A-Hawker programme help to counter the lull in sales during slower periods.
Not only has such a programme boosted the online presence of hawkers but it has also funded group buys to various beneficiaries which helped struggling businesses during Covid-19 restrictions.
She went on to elaborate how, despite initial doubts, she and her mother have learnt not to shy away from experimenting with new resources that could benefit their business. By incorporating technology, she was able to not only reach out to younger folks but understand her customers better as well, developing products based on what they like.
Since setting up their digital domains, the business has branched out from traditional kueh and introduced trendy additions like the Lotus Biscoff kueh, and even offer custom-made kuehs for folks who like their old-school treats to be fancier.
Wrapping up for the day
1.30pm: The lunch crowd had been fed and were heading back to their offices, full and happy.
As the lunch crowd began to recede, things began to slow down and us Kueh Ho Jiak crew had a chance to sit down and talk over a late lunch of our own.
Elizabeth shared that the whole reason she got into the business was to help her mother, who was suffering some physical ailments that came with the job. Over time, she understood what made their kueh business special and wanted to preserve it.
Image credit: Kueh Ho Jiak
Although Elizabeth struggles with sore legs, dehydration, and fatigue in a job that’s undoubtedly less glamorous than what her peers might typically be doing, she’s driven to expand her business and loves the fact that she gets to meet sincere people from different walks of life.
This level of devotion was interesting to me, since I’ve met people who point-blank refuse to eat at a place without air conditioning, free iced water, and a porcelain plate – let alone a hot, noisy hawker centre.
On the other hand, I’ve also met people, who like myself, love hawker centres and swear that no cafe or restaurant will trump a good hawker in terms of value for money and taste. So being a hawker as a Gen Z isn’t too outrageous at the end of the day, as long as you have the passion to fuel your work.
When lunch was over, we set about packing up the store, doing the accounts for the day and washing up. I was tasked to pack the remaining kueh into a box and help clean the surfaces of the stall, which is something that I personally enjoyed doing since cleaning is therapeutic for me.
It didn’t take too long for us to square everything away but by the time I pulled the shutters down at 3pm, I was exhausted and ready to head home for a nice shower followed by a long nap.
You wouldn’t believe how grateful I was for the fact that the stall closed after lunch hour. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to work a stall that opens just as early, but closes late at night; the exhaustion would probably be tenfold, and almost unfathomable.
The life of a Gen Z hawker
Although I only experienced the life of a hawker for 3 days, it was just as tough as I expected it to be. And with challenges like long hours and uncomfortable working conditions, it’s not surprising that being a hawker isn’t exactly the top choice of profession for Gen Zs.
Yet, despite the many hardships, a handful of Gen Zs are still venturing into the hawker trade. And with digital tools helping to ease some of the burden and even open up business opportunities, I’m optimistic about the future of hawkers in Singapore.
In order to achieve that, support and training are required to ensure no one is left behind in this digital age. DBS Foundation and IMDA, for example, have teamed up to ensure different segments across the community, such as the elderly, those with special needs, and even traditional businesses like hawkers have access to relevant training.
This means that hawkers can learn how to enhance and future-proof their business with digital tools. And they, like Kueh Ho Jiak, can make use of technology like cashless payments, social media and delivery apps to increase their customer base and likelihood of making solid profits.
Having spent time at a hawker stall that has undergone such programmes and adopted digital practices, I can say with confidence that these initiatives do make a big difference.
Not only have the stall owners experienced greater conveniences, these traditional businesses have managed to increase their longevity through reinvention and skills upgrading to adapt to new challenges.
The life of a hawker isn’t a bed of roses, so any resources or programmes that can give them an edge are more than welcomed. Like Elizabeth says, “Hawker isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.”
This post was brought to you by DBS.
Photography by Afiqah Amir.
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