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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Food centres freshen up

To improve hygiene standards, more hawker centres are renovated and have better ventilation..
January 4, 2013
By: Rebecca Lynne Tan and Eunice Quek
| More
Food centres freshen up

Say goodbye to filthy hawker centres with grimy floors and poor ventilation.

So far, 101 out of 107 markets and hawker centres have been upgraded under the National Environment Agency's Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme, which began in 2001.

This year, eight hawker centres from Bedok South to Clementi were upgraded to the tune of $28.9 million.

The physical infrastructures are renovated to improve the cleanliness and hygiene standards, an NEA spokesman says.

The aim, he adds, is to provide "a more conducive dining and marketing environment for both stallholders and residents". Each centre is eligible to be upgraded only once.

These hawker centres now have better ventilation, better toilets, new floors and more seats and fans.

Other boons for hawkers include mechanised and centralised exhausts to reduce the amount of hot air circulating, as well as features such as skylights, raised roofs and extension canopies to prevent rain from splashing in.

Venues that were spruced up in the last quarter include the hawker centres at Block 353 Clementi Avenue 2, Block 75 Toa Payoh Lorong 5 and Block 16 Bedok South Road.

These had fairly extensive revamps and each were closed for between six to eight months, while Maxwell Food Centre underwent two months of repairs and redecoration which included repainting, replacing floor tiles as well as installing more tables and new toilets.

Centres to be upgraded next year include Block 112 Jalan Bukit Merah, Block 44 Holland Drive and Block 6 Tanjong Pagar Plaza. They are tentatively slated to reopen late next year or in the first quarter of 2014.

Most hawkers took the temporary closures as an opportunity to take a well-deserved break and some, such as the hawkers from Maxwell Food Centre, even organised a holiday to Penang and Phuket together.

With the recent openings of these food centres, SundayLife! went on a hunt to suss out cheap, good and some lesser-known eats from each of these four hawker centres.

We also stumbled upon some lost-and- found stalls including popular Western stall Tasty Barbecue and Special Shanghai Tim-Sum from the defunct food centre in Margaret Drive, both of which are now located at Maxwell Food Centre, as well as hidden gems offering everything from mee goreng and crispy roti prata to pork satay and bouncy homemade fishballs.

However, during the closures, to the disappointment of many diners, some hawkers retired and closed shop while others decided to change their offerings.

Gone is a curry chicken noodle stall from Maxwell Food Centre and a cuttlefish kangkong stall in Bedok South now sells Chinese pancakes instead.

Some, like 35-year-old administrative clerk Teo Yan Ling, fear that their favourite stalls may not reopen when the time comes for spiffed up hawker centres to welcome patrons.

Ms Teo says of her favourite stall at Fengshan Food Centre at Block 85 Bedok North Street 4: "I was very upset that the ah balling (glutinous rice balls in peanut soup) shop did not open at the temporary market at Block 85A. And if it does not reopen at Block 85, I will be heartbroken. The ah balling there is one of the best I have tasted."

Indeed, preserving the authenticity of Singapore's hawker food as well as the problem of enticing new blood into the trade has been a hot topic over the last couple of years, with many foodies worried about the continuity of Singapore's culinary identity.

Food consultant K.F. Seetoh, 50, founder of street food guide Makansutra, says: "A lot of hawkers are getting on in age and many will retire with no one to hand over the reins to. The sad truth is that we have not really addressed the problem of the continuity of this industry."

He adds that with the next generation of untrained hawkers, diners may need to adjust their expectations in terms of food quality if something is not done soon.

While sprucing up centres is a good thing, a deeper problem of who to fill new stalls still exists, he says.

Those problems aside, and on the matter of upgrading, most hawkers SundayLife! spoke to are happy because the centres are now cleaner and cooler, though many lament how the stalls are now smaller.

The aisles may be wider, but that came at the expense of down-sizing the stalls, hawkers say. For instance, in some cases, stalls were made slightly smaller to create space for walkways to cut across rows of stalls to facilitate ease of foot traffic.

At Block 75 Toa Payoh Lorong 5, Block 16 Bedok South Road and Block 353 Clementi Avenue 2, for example, stalls are about 30cm shorter in both depth and width, hawkers say.

Some even had to purchase brand new or secondhand displays and cabinets to fit the new stall because existing fixtures would leave too little space for cooking and food preparation. But they are resigned to it.

Toa Payoh Lorong 5's Mr Tan of Huat Heng Fried Hokkien Noodle, who declined to give his full name, says he had to spend about $6,000 on new fittings.

Speaking in Mandarin, Mr Chew Yong Chai, 70, who owns Shangri-la Curry Mixed Rice at the same hawker centre, says: "The space is smaller but we have no choice. It is less convenient for us to move around because it can get very cramped, but it is a matter of getting used to it."

Over at Block 353 Clementi Avenue 2, Mr Meeran Maideen, 55, owner of 15-year-old Mohamadia Indian Muslim food stall, adds: "Our cooking space has become more cramped, so we have to make do. The place is brighter and ventilation is better, so that's a good thing. But we hope the rent will not increase."

Hawkers say that business has been slower than before the revamp, but attribute it to a combination of factors, ranging from inclement weather to the holidays.

Perhaps it will take some time for diners to realise that their favourite hawker centres have reopened, but those SundayLife! spoke to are glad to see cleaner and cooler spaces.

Says administrative assistant Jennifer Seah, 45, who lives in the Clementi area, of Clementi Avenue 2's food centre: "It is brighter and feels more spacious, especially with the additional aisle for people to walk through.

I was hoping for more food options though, but I'm glad my favourite Muslim food stalls are still around."

Diners have one request though - now that more fans have been installed, please switch them on.

rltan@sph.com.sg

euniceq@sph.com.sg

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