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Our Hawker Centres- A UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Icon

Our Hawker Centres- A UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Icon
By KF Seetoh

A blessed and delicious 2012 to all of you and I think, now, more so than ever, is a good time to digest this fodder for thought. Think about this, all the prerequisites are there, and within our community, it is a cultural icon that touches our fuzzy and warm hearts. To those who love their local chow and poetry, you can joke that it also warms the cockles of your heart. So why should we not place our distinct local food culture as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural icon.

To begin, it’s inspirational and not replaceable. It’s a culture that came from and belong to the people of the world, because of our migrant culture, and is a living heritage. It’s a heritage we inherited from the past, is living with today and will pass on to the next generation, (unless we let it fester away). We have been actively seeking ways to protect and preserve this cultural force in so many ways. These are the key factors when UNESCO considers any application. Sure, we as usual, may get a chest thumping lashing from our passionate northern neighbours as we share common heritage if we proceed. But there is one distinct difference in our approach- we have a glue called hawker centres that binds it all. It a physical structure that holds this force together. If food is a religion, this is its temple, church or mosque. Our hawker centres have a jolly tripartite relationship- built by the government, for the people and offers business opportunities for the industry. Professor Tan Wee Cheng,
an advocate for conservation and heritage lists six things he likes to see gazetted an UNESCO World Heritage Cultural icon in Singapore, three of them are about food- Yue Sheng raw fish salad, the yum-seng toast ritual and local makan. He runs a facebook page called UNESCO
World Heritage Site for Singapore.

The naysayers will cock their heads in cynicism and question how a frivolous thing like laksa can be part of a world heritage icon, well, I suppose they’ll feel it’s as ridiculous as oil wrestling in Turkey, the scissors dance in Peru or even the annual bell ringers pageant carnival in Croatia. All three, btw, are protected and gazetted under the UNESCO World Heritage Organisation. They declared that the Bell Ringer’s Pageant with it’s “wanton  destruction” potential, “ is a way to strengthen bonds within the community”. The only thing
I associate with bell ringing is recess time and the best wanton I know, goes with noodles. The only scissors dance I fancy is my groove and wiggle of joy as I devour a plate of smooth and spicy scissor cut curry rice. And when had with pals or even strangers, it bonds us and make us ponder about the next better meal. And if they are still thinking how can a simple thing like pang Susie (Eurasian minced meat roti) be of any heritage potential, then also question why the French brie and baguette is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural treasure.

The original story as to why hawkers centres were built is as common knowledge to you and me as MRT breakdowns or how violent actresses who torment taxi drivers can justify it because she was some tortured Roman woman in her past loose life. But to a world of concerned and caring governance, it was about giving continued opportunities to a displaced community seeking noble self employment work. This fed a nation, cheaply, and with abundant variety. It got a nation to endear itself to its culture and no one, today, sees our food with racially coloured eyes. A good pot of fresh red snapper fish head curry, is just that. It is not Indian to any food lover.

Think even about the old Hainanese man why wanted to plant his flag of existence on our land almost a centrury ago- he went from street to backlane around Beach Road touting his first Singapore style Hainanese chicken rice on a shoulder food cart. That humble dish of rice and poached chicken, is now legend and history among us, even the Singapore Tourism Board uses it as an icon to lure travellers this way with impressive results. Well, if this food for thought provoked or invoked something in you, go to Prof Tan’s open site and state your