Saturday 19 May 2012

New centre with govt funding to train future hawkers

Bids sought to provide formal hawker training
By Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 18 May 2012

A NEW generation of Singapore hawkers will get training under a formal programme that the Government is keen to co-fund.

The Workforce Development Agency (WDA) has called for bids to set up a new hawker training centre here, The Straits Times understands. If the proposals are feasible, it will shortlist candidates by July.

In a tender exercise that opened in March and closed earlier this month, WDA highlighted the need to 'build a pipeline of skilled hawkers in anticipation of the 10 new hawker centres to be built within the next decade'.

Under the proposed scheme, WDA could subsidise the cost of setting up the school and course fees, and also help market the programme to Singaporeans.

In return, the operator of the school is expected to set aside places for new and local entrants to the trade and help its graduates find and keep jobs within the food industry.

The WDA would not say how many bids were submitted but at least one social enterprise, Dignity Kitchen, has confirmed it has applied to be given the chance.

'Nobody is capturing the knowledge of hawkers now, and we should, because the hawker food here is something that is uniquely Singapore,' said Mr Koh Seng Choon, executive director of Project Dignity, which helps disadvantaged people, as well as those with disabilities.

The scheme to provide a complete course - and certification - for hawkers is a first and will be a boost to a sector facing the twin onslaught of air-conditioned food courts dishing out food cooked in centralised kitchens and ageing hawkers who are closing shop.

The agency's move is part of a larger effort to beef up the tourism and food and beverage workforce here, in anticipation of the opening of upcoming attractions like Gardens by the Bay and the International Cruise Terminal.

An expert panel set up by the Government last year to look into the new food centres had also called for a culinary institute to help experienced hawkers here pass on their skills.

Food experts are not short on ideas for the best recipe for success.

Food consultant K. F. Seetoh said it should equip aspiring hawkers here with kitchen skills such as chopping techniques and the basics of say, getting the amount of sambal and vinegar right in bak chor mee.

But the school should also aim to create the cream of the next street food hawkers, he added - 'the superstars'.

Project Dignity's Mr Koh said his proposal also includes a demonstration kitchen to simulate a hawker stall. This would help students understand what is required for a grade A under the National Environment Agency's guidelines for hawker stalls.

It would also set aside places for people with disabilities and other disadvantaged people, in keeping with the group's vision.

Not everyone is convinced a school will work.

'Good street food is very subjective. How do you determine whose recipe the school should teach?' said Mr Perry Ong, chief executive of NTUC Foodfare, a social enterprise here which operates a chain of foodcourts.

Food industry experts added that the school may have an uphill task getting brand-name hawkers to divulge their secrets.

Said Mr Seetoh: 'Some hawkers protect their recipes to their deaths, while some may not know how to teach. Other hawkers don't even know what it is about their recipes that gives them the edge.'

Mr Ong added:'The younger generation may also not be willing to become hawkers because it is a hard life, and not all hawkers are successful.'

Hawkers not keen to share recipes
10 interviewed reluctant, some citing effort needed
By Siau Ming En & Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times, 18 May 2012

WHILE the Government is mulling over a recommendation to teach culinary skills to aspiring hawkers, one challenge could come from finding teachers.

A Straits Times check with 10 famous hawkers found that most are not keen to pass on their recipes to outsiders.

They said they had reservations about the effectiveness of the proposal, which was among several submitted recently by the Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

Hawkers like Mr Choong Yee Hong, 56, who runs New Lucky Claypot Rice at Holland Drive Market and Food Centre, feel it takes more than just one class to learn how to whip up a winning dish.

'Whether it's effective or not depends on the type of dish you have. For claypot rice, it's quite complicated. You need to make sure the fire is of the right temperature and the rice is cooked just right,' said Mr Choong, who has run the stall for 33 years.

Some declare that it takes years of experience to hone skills. 'It takes trial and error and lots of experience. When you cook your first pot of rice, it's definitely not going to be as good as what you can produce years later,' said Mr Ng Hung Leng, 63, owner of Mattar Road Seafood Barbecue.

His stall is famous for charcoal grilled crabs.

Others pointed out that they barely have time to rest, much less teach. 'I can teach people how to cook satay at one session, free of charge. But if they need more classes, I may not have the time to do it,' said Mr Kunawan Baajoan, 56, son of the owner of Warong Sudi Mampir satay stall in Haig Road.

Veteran Wee Loong Teck said he simply does not have the energy to head to a centre to teach others.

'I'm so old already. Besides, people of my generation work differently. We run the hawker business through sheer hard work and long hours. The younger generation may not want to do business our way,' said the 61-year-old owner of You Yi Fish Porridge at Chomp Chomp Food Centre.

At least one hawker is worried about the possible competition from newbies who learn the ropes.

'After I share my recipe, they may set up another stall beside mine,' said Mr Vincent Wee, 30, who owns Marina South Delicious Food at Maxwell Road Food Centre.

However, Mr Steven Tham, 54, manager of Xin Mei Congee, acknowledges the value of passing on his recipe even though spending time to teach newcomers can be inconvenient.

'I have children but they all have their own jobs. It's a good thing if there are others who learn my recipe. Recipes shouldn't be lost,' said Mr Tham, whose stall is at Old Airport Road Food Centre.

But not many Singaporeans, it seems, want to be hawkers in the first place. Taxi driver Chong C.S. said he fully understands the challenges as he was once a hawker himself.

'I know the business is tough, it's not something you can manage after attending classes. The long hours, mundane tasks that need to be completed before daybreak, these are not things everyone can handle,' said the 50-year-old.

Others admit that while being their own boss is an alluring prospect, it comes with a price too, such as having to put in long hours. 'Our lifestyles have to change to be a hawker,' said Mr Yazid Jaffer, 48, a visa officer.

However, cabby Loo Chee Choy, 49, feels that the training could be a good platform for some to go on to earn a living.

'Some of those who are in their 40s to 50s have difficulties finding jobs and this could be a good opportunity for them.'

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