The Big Read: Floundering in digital wave, old hawkers could call it quits - taking a piece of Singapore with them

Published date29 May 2021
Publication titleMalay Mail Online

Some 40 years after weathering the ups and downs of the hawker trade, an elderly couple selling wanton noodles at Tekka Market in Little India told TODAY they are facing their toughest crisis yet after new Covid-19 curbs kicked in two weeks ago.

By now, Mr Goh, 69, and Mrs Goh, 68, of Chin Seng Cooked Food - who declined to give their full names - felt like they had done everything they could to change their fate.

They had showed up to work at 7am daily. They had ventured into the unfamiliar world of online food deliveries by becoming listed on the WhyQ platform during the April to June circuit breaker last year. And they had simply hung on when the crowds never returned for the rest of the year.

And when things are back to square one on May 16, as the month-long Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) that bans dine-in at food and beverage (F and B) establishments and allows only takeaways, among other things, kicked in to stem a worrying rise in the number of Covid-19 clusters and unlinked cases in the community, Mrs Goh was left blaming themselves for not having done enough.

Their business has nosedived to a point where they could foresee drawing a combined salary of only S$500 (RM1,562) for this month.

'We don't know how to use the internet. Anything also don't know. We don't have Grab. Anything also don't have,' she said, pointing to the unusually quiet scene at the iconic food centre on a Monday morning, where there were more idling hawkers than hungry customers.

Like the Gohs, older hawkers who are neither IT-literate (some are illiterate to begin with) nor social media-savvy have found themselves to be at a greater disadvantage this time round, given that the other segments of the food and beverage industry are better prepared to exploit the various digital platforms to keep the latest disruption to their businesses to a minimum.

In fact, many hawkers have reported even poorer business compared to last year's circuit breaker, although the current curbs are relatively more relaxed.

As well-known food critic and consultant K F Seetoh noted: 'Last year, people were desperate. The authorities were clueless on what this virus was going to do to us, where it was going to take us. The first thing people went for was food, water and toilet paper, so people went out to buy.

'This time round, after one year, people are more cool-headed as they know that there are many delivery models, they know there are (vaccine) jabs going around, so all they do is they sit back and order online.'

When that happens, the 'shinier hawkers, the glossier ones' get the business, as delivery platforms will naturally promote the popular bigger ticket items - the S$40 to S$50 sets, for instance - to earn more commission.

'Can't blame them. It's their business model. But in the course of doing so, they overlook these humble and quiet hawkers, young or old,' Mr Seetoh said.

Islandwide Impact

The latest round of restrictions on dining-in have seen hawkers operating in the once-bustling areas in the city centre or city fringes - which are heavily dependent on the working or shopping crowds - being among the worst hit.

These days, the popular Zhao Ji Claypot Rice at Chinatown Complex Food Centre - where people usually had to queue up to an hour to get their fix - is seeing only 5 per cent of its usual crowd, said its 58-year-old owner, Ms Deng Shu Ling, who mans the stall alone.

There is 'completely no business' between 2pm and 4pm on Saturdays, she added.

Madam Noorhani Ali, a 57-year-old nasi padang hawker at an eating house near Geylang Serai Market, was reduced to tears on May 18 as she sat before what looks like six full trays of unsold food, having sold almost nothing near dinnertime for the third day in a row.

The scene was captured on Facebook Live by entertainer Roslan Shah, who operates a rojak stand next to hers, and wanted to rally support for Mdm Noorhani.

The former cook at the staff canteen at Ngee Ann City's Takashimaya Departmental Store told TODAY that her stall, Snan's Corner, which opened on May 1, marked the fulfillment of her dream to have a nasi padang stall.

But when takings amounted to only S$200 in the first week of the period of heightened alert, she contemplated giving up the stall and returning to work as a cook - never mind the S$5,000 in savings that she had invested to get the business going.

Mdm Noorhani said: 'I was telling my husband In about a week's time, if we really can't make money, we will have to tell the (eating house) owner that we want to stop the business.'

'(Mr Roslan) is smart using all this technology (to improve business). For me, I don't know how,' added Mdm Noorhani, who stopped schooling after Primary Four.

In some other parts of Singapore's heartlands, while the impact is not as bad as the Central Business District, hawkers who rely solely on footfall have also seen a dip in their business, presumably because many of their regular customers are now turning to online deliveries.

Madam Sim Chee Moey, who is in her 60s, the lady boss of Xing Ji Rou Cuo Mian, one of the minced meat noodle stalls that were previously known for their long queues at Bedok's 85 Fengshan Food Centre, said the lines that normally form in the evenings are gone.

Her neighbouring hawker Goh Peng Huan, 61, said his stall selling fried oyster omelette, carrot cake, bak chor mee and handmade ngoh hiang is now making a...

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