2018-09-02 05:00:00 2018-09-03 04:59:00 SPH 2 Beer and coffee are enjoyed across the globe, but the outsized role they play in two nations played a key role in their Unesco bids.

Beer and coffee are enjoyed across the globe, but the outsized role they play in two nations played a key role in their Unesco bids.

Take beer. When it comes to cold, frothy brews, Belgium stands out as a cultural heavy-hitter.

Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) has placed the country on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, noting that its beer tradition has fostered a unified identity in a country divided along linguistic lines. It also recognised Belgium for the 1,500 types of beer produced there.

Meanwhile, Turkey was acknowledged for its coffee-brewing techniques, the way the beverage is served in small cups in coffee-houses and the practice of reading fortunes from remnant grounds.

The experiences of both countries resonate here in the light of Singapore's attempt to register its hawker culture with Unesco, said Mr Yeo Kirk Siang, director of heritage and research assessment at the National Heritage Board (NHB).

Mr Yeo, who has studied the Unesco convention heavily to prepare for the bid, said the list is not intended to define the origins and ownership of cultural practices.


In Singapore, dining at a hawker centre is still relatively affordable and everyone is welcome.


In fact, an item's listing does not imply it belongs, originates from or exists only in the submitting country.

He noted that the list is also not meant to prove which form of intangible cultural heritage is better.

Mr Yeo said: "The list is about sharing and celebrating how the intangible cultural heritage is practised in the context of a particular country, why it is important to its people and to demonstrate a commitment to keep these practices alive."

His comments come in the wake of criticism from across the border after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's Aug 19 announcement on Singapore's upcoming nomination.

Some Malaysians claimed that their country is a street-food paradise and that Singapore's hawker version is not that special. They also argued that other South-east Asian countries have more vibrant and authentic hawker cultures.

It is one of the few classless places in Singapore where people from all walks of life can gather without any inhibition.


The organisations driving the nomination here - the NHB, the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore - said different countries will have their own take on what hawker culture means to them.

They said in a statement: "For us, the history of our hawker culture is one that is poignant as it is a story of how early generations of Singaporeans toiled to etch a livelihood for themselves and their families through street hawking and how this has evolved over the years into accessible and affordable community dining rooms for Singaporeans from all walks of life."

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien understands some of the criticism.

He said in the true sense of the word, hawkers are defined as people who travel about selling goods in pushcarts and Singapore's hawkers no longer operate like that.

Nonetheless, Dr Lai said Singapore's hawker culture differs historically from its counterparts in South-east Asia and also in terms of how eating spaces are designed and set up .

Singapore's hawkers started out as migrants who peddled their food on streets and footpaths.

An 1865 account by author John Cameron describes hawkers as a "motley crowd of itinerant vendors of wares, fruit, cakes and vegetables".

The often disorderly trade resulted in public-health issues and the colonial authorities began to chase hawkers off the streets.

Cultural geographer Lily Kong said some hawkers rallied together to build their own markets and shelters. In 1954, an entrepreneur even built a market in Serangoon Road to rent to hawkers.

In the 1960s, the authorities ramped up efforts to legalise the trade. From 1968 to 1986, the Government licensed and resettled street hawkers into purpose-built centres and markets designed for food preparation and consumption.

Dr Lai noted: "They came with metered electricity and water, exhaust vents, grease traps, sewage or drainage systems and toilets, among other things. They were designed to house 40 to 100 stalls under one roof."

Entrepreneur Elim Chew, head of the Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel in 2011, said the hawker-centre experience here usually comprises three components - a wet market, the stalls and the sundry shops.

Eateries in Malaysia tend to take on different formats. These include coffee shops and standalone dining outlets. Malaysia is also known for its open-air food areas such as Gurney Drive in Penang.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong has its cha chaan teng, or tea restaurants, and Thailand is celebrated for its street food and lively night markets.

Singapore University of Technology and Design assistant professor Yeo Kang Shua, an architectural conservation specialist, said other special features of hawker centres here include how a large range of multicultural cuisine is prepared and cooked in a single facility.

"This reflects a great tolerance and understanding of different religious beliefs and food-preparation practices, which distinguishes us from other types of hawker culture around the world," he added.

Prof Yeo noted that hawker centres are a great moderator of inflation and a social leveller: "In other countries, if you eat out, you might have to fork out a lot of money.

"In Singapore, dining at a hawker centre is still relatively affordable and everyone is welcome."

Sociologist Terence Chong agreed: "It is one of the few classless places in Singapore where people from all walks of life can gather without any inhibition."

Dr Lai pointed out that Singapore's hawker culture has other distinguishing qualities. For instance, the NEA imposes hygiene ratings on stalls.

Political and public campaigns are also conducted at these venues.

Singapore's hawker centres - there are 110 and counting - have evolved to have their own identities. East Coast Lagoon Food Village features a tropical theme, for example, while the Tiong Bahru market reflects the Art Deco estate it is located in.

Singapore's dossier for Unesco will have to showcase some of these features and must include evidence of strong community support for the nomination.

It must also demonstrate that there are sufficient measures in place to sustain the practice.

Almost 18,800 people have already pledged their support at www.oursgheritage.sg.

Mr Shankar Rajan, 69, principal of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, who was engaged by NHB earlier this year for his thoughts on the bid, said he went into the board's focus-group session prepared to recommend music and other cultural items.

"But we all ended up talking about our hawker culture," he said.

"The act of eating together at hawker centres can be such a joyous, communal affair.

"These centres allow for the mixing of our population so much so that the inequality in our society is stripped away."

What getting a listing means

Unesco has cast its net far and wide since its quest to list the world's most compelling heritage traditions began in 2008.

About 400 customs have already been enshrined in its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to show the diversity of world heritage and ensure their protection.

A listing often means cultural branding and bragging rights while also stimulating economies and boosting tourism.

If Singapore's bid succeeds, hawker culture could join the likes of Malaysia's Mak Yong theatre, Indonesia's batik and India's yoga on the world stage.

Other candidates hoping to make the cut include a high-profile attempt by Paris to list its sidewalk bistros and cafes, where locals and tourists alike gather for French comfort food at moderate prices.

The Unesco programme also allows more than one country to nominate a shared heritage.

A Unesco report noted that countries that applied for such a listing took unprecedented steps to safeguard traditions and usually secured official assistance.

They noted that bids were invariably accompanied by a media blitz, which raised the profiles of these traditions.

Cultural geographer Lily Kong said that if Singapore's hawker listing is successful, an enhanced sense of pride and ownership in the country's cultural heritage will be forged.

Dr Kong noted that the process itself is important as it brings Singaporeans together to articulate what it is that matters to the nation as it matures.

"It is important first and foremost to recognise and valorise aspects of our lives that have come to define and bind us as a people," she added.

Dr Kelvin Low, deputy head of the National University of Singapore's sociology department, noted that food and the practices related to its production and consumption "are powerful symbols that represent a nation".

Architectural conservation specialist and Singapore University of Technology and Design assistant professor Yeo Kang Shua said the nomination process can bring attention to the hawker culture and the challenges it faces, including rising operational costs.

He added that the best way to show support is to patronise hawker s.

Hawkers interviewed said the nomination can give due recognition to the labour-intensive trade.

Mr Daniel Chia, founding president of Slow Food Singapore, added: "Hawkers can feel proud that they are a part of Singapore's intangible cultural heritage and find added meaning to what they are doing."

Highlights from last year's list

Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has listed 400 entries since its inception in 2008.

Last year, 34 cultural treasures from more than 30 countries were inscribed on the list when the United Nations cultural body's World Heritage Committee met on the South Korean island of Jeju.

Here are some highlights from the list, which aims to demonstrate the diversity of world heritage and ensure their protection.

1 Zaouli is a vibrant and colourful music and dance practised by the Guro communities in the Republic of Cote d'Ivoire, a West African country with three entries on the Unesco list. It is performed in homage to female beauty and features masks, costumes, music and dance. According to Unesco, Zaouli conveys cultural identity and promotes integration and social cohesion.

2 The art of pizzaiuolo, a culinary practice which originated in the southern Italian city of Naples, involves hurling dough into the air. The listing was supported by two million people who signed a petition in favour of the application. The entry is Italy's eighth listing with Unesco.

3 The Netherlands' sole entry on the list is its dwindling craft of operating and maintaining windmills and watermills. The listing notes that there are measures in place to transmit and safeguard the culture.

4 The tradition of making and sharing dolma - meat, onion, rice, peas and spices wrapped in fresh or pre-cooked leaves or stuffed in fruit and vegetables - is practised across Azerbaijan. Unesco noted that the "element enjoys great visibility" within the society. It is the country's 11th element on the Unesco list.

5 Vietnam's 12th cultural practice to be listed with Unesco is a form of folk entertainment known as bai choi. The entertainment, which originated almost 400 years ago, is based on a card game and combines music, poetry, acting, painting and literature.

• Source: Unesco