Singapore’s next generation of hawkers could be doing away with old traditions to cater to a digital age. Just look at Walter Tay, a second-generation hawker who’s been nicknamed ‘hunky hawker’ for his buff physique.
Hawker culture has become synonymous with Singapore in its short history as an independent nation. Today, the city is almost as famous for its sensational street food offering as it is for its skyscrapers. But, now that the older generation is starting to lay down their woks, who is taking over? Hive Life sat down with Walter Tay, a young hawker making a name for himself as he tries to preserve Singapore’s street food culture in the digital age.
A core feature of city life that dates as far back as 1819, life as a hawker – or a street food seller – is part of the fabric of Singaporean society. Traditionally seen as a low-income career choice, however, it is not a path that attracts many young people today. Yet, 30-year-old Singaporean ‘hawkerpreneur’ Walter Tay bucks that trend. Having started his first stall, Father and Son, with his parents selling traditional Singaporean treats such as carrot cake and kway teow from their cramped but homely stall in the bustling Bukit Panjang Hawker & Market in 2015, he is now flying the flag for a new generation of street food entrepreneurs, not least thanks to his transformation into local celebrity as ‘The Hunky Hawker.’ “It’s oily, it’s hot and you don’t earn much,” he laughs of life in the kitchen. But, motivated by a desire to preserve his – and his country’s – heritage, he is determined to reframe his profession. “What I’m doing now might not seem valuable, but in 20 years’ time, it might be. I don’t think this profession will just survive; it will thrive. We are creating a whole new image for hawkers.”
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Growing up, Walter never envisioned a life as a hawker. “Even though my parents were hawkers, what they teach you is that you’re going to be a cleaner or a hawker if you don’t work hard. So, like many young people, I just wanted to make it big – and fast. For a while, I had cars, material things, and a good life.” Those efforts, however, met with disaster, leading him to lose everything. “I pulled all my connections and invested my own money for a job doing investment portfolios, but it turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. My pursuit of external happiness was a miserable way of living.” Humiliated and in debt, he went back to the drawing board, joining his hawker parents in a new venture steeped in Singaporean tradition with the opening of Father & Son in 2015.
Five years on, Walter has hardly looked back, relishing in his simpler lifestyle, and bringing a whole new slant to life as a street food seller – along with countless magazine articles and television appearances documenting his endeavours. “I’m very fortunate to be running the stall with my family. My dad and I are good partners. He doesn’t understand social media, so he focuses on the day-to-day while I do marketing. On busy weekends, I will be up at 8 am and cook all the way until 2:30 pm, before having lunch, going to the gym and then cooking all the way until 8 pm again. I get home by 9:30 pm.” Since the launch of their first shop Father & Son, Walter’s sister has joined the team and the family now operates a second stall, Mother & Daughter at the Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre, selling the same classic Singaporean delicacies. For now, Walter plans to leave expansion at that, choosing to focus instead on spreading awareness of his profession as a legitimate career choice for young people today via talks in schools and an intern scheme in his stalls. “I’m grateful for what I have, but I don’t find meaning in earning money and it isn’t my priority right now,” he says. “I’ll definitely be a hawker for the rest of my life, in some capacity.” And as for where that might take him, the options are out there for grabs. “I feel there are so many possibilities and doors are opening right now. I’m sure I can create quite interesting things. I have a good story to tell, and I want to create a positive brand image for Father and Son and see how far I can push hawker culture!”