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How has COVID-19 changed Singaporean Street Food?

From a vibrant melting pot of food and culture to an empty tabled space. How have Singapore's renowned Hawker Centres suffered during the pandemic?

August 2019. I am walking through a hawker centre in Singapore, part of a multicultural crowd— Asians, Europeans, Australians, Americans— in an immersion of senses. The warmth from the frying pans. The amber curries are stirred in deep metal pots. The smell of oily fish being fried on the grills, spitting its marinade of spices amongst the echo of bubbling conversation and the clatter of food being served. 

Hawker centres are where the popularised concept of street food was birthed; permanent stalls are set up in a food court, allowing people to have access to fresh, authentic meals in a hygienic space for cheap prices. This quick and easy way of accessing food is the basis of Southeast Asian food culture, providing countless jobs for food vendors and even employs people to maintain the cleanliness of the centre. 

Fast forward a year and the strict lockdowns which were put in place in early 2020 across Southeast Asia in reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak has changed the way people consume food. This is particularly apparent within street food markets. In April, Singapore passed The COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020 which imposed restrictions on unessential movement, banned mass gatherings and dining out. In response, the Hawker centres were closed and the tables sealed off.

Melvin Chew, a food vendor in Singapore, speaks about the effects of the pandemic on his business: “Many of the hawkers suffered income losses from about 70 to 90 per cent.” 

The major loss of revenue has led Chew to set up a website allowing other Hawker food market vendors to sell their food for takeout and delivery. The Hawker centres, however, continue to suffer financially. Even now, with lockdowns being lifted, people have become more aware of hygiene and increasingly concerned about being in a crowded place than ever before. Tourists were frequent visitors to the Hawker centres, however, Singapore is currently facing a huge drop in tourism as countries around the world impose travel restrictions to the country. 

The pandemic has significantly altered Singaporean food culture. Consumers, who depended on quick and cheap meals, are having to find alternative means of eating. Food vendors, like Chew, will have to establish new ways of running their businesses in a post-pandemic world.