Travelling hawkers

Singapore Infopedia


Travelling hawkers or itinerant hawkers were a common sight in Singapore during the 19th century to mid-20th century. They were frequently found along busy streets and intersections, peddling food, drinks, vegetables, poultry and sundries. Street hawking was a popular occupation for many new immigrants to Singapore as it gave the unemployed and the unskilled a way to make a living with little costs. Though there were many issues associated with street hawking, such as traffic obstruction and hygiene, street hawkers played an important role in providing the working classes with easy access to affordable meals.1

As early as the mid-19th century, there were already many itinerant hawkers eking out a living on the streets of Singapore. Street hawking was a popular occupation among the unemployed and the unskilled because it required little capital to start. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, artisans and coolies (unskilled labourers) who had lost their jobs turned to hawking. Even children were part of the hawking trade, selling items such as cigarettes, cakes, kacang goreng (roasted peanuts), goreng pisang (banana fritters) and apom berkuah (pancakes made from rice flour) to supplement meagre household incomes.2

Among the many types of hawkers, food hawkers formed the largest group. As there were insufficient eating houses in the city, these roadside vendors performed an important function of providing quick and cheap meals to the coolies labouring at the docks and godowns, and the local clerks and messengers working in offices. They also served the large population of city dwellers who did not cook in their quarters. Another class of hawkers were small local producers of vegetables, fruit, eggs and poultry. They generally sold their crops at the markets but would peddle their unsold stocks of the day. Yet another class of hawkers were street vendors commissioned by wholesalers to market their merchandise. Importers of perishable goods like vegetables and fruit, and Chinese sauce manufacturers were some wholesalers who relied heavily on hawkers to sell and distribute their goods. Lastly, there were street hawkers who peddled sundries such as sandals, brooms, towels, tea cups and needles, or those who peddled services such as street barbers, cobblers, lock menders and tin workers.3

In the suburbs, hawkers plied food and other necessities to residents, bringing convenience to the doorsteps of many households. These travelling hawkers typically followed established routines and routes with which regular customers were familiar. They would also sometimes alert customers to their presence by playing sound implements such as bamboo sticks or bells.4

Hawkers transported their goods in different ways. Some walked the streets in search of customers, carrying their goods around in baskets attached to a shoulder yoke, or in trays balanced on heads. Others used barrows, bicycles, tricycles or carts fitted with cooking equipment to move around. Soup noodle carts were typically customised with a glass cupboard that displayed the ingredients and a boiling cauldron that had separate compartments for the soup and boiling water. From time to time, the hawkers would also station themselves at busy thoroughfares to solicit business.5

Types of hawkers
In the 1930s, there were about 6,000 licensed itinerant hawkers and an estimated 4,000 unlicensed hawkers on the streets, comprising Chinese, Malay and Indian vendors. The Hokkiens were the largest in numbers and were found throughout the city, especially Chinatown. They typically sold coffee and cooked food, though some also sold vegetables that they had cultivated in the outlying districts. Teochews formed a quarter of the Chinese hawkers. They peddled cooked food, fresh fish and pork, but their niche was in the sale of fruits and vegetables. Operating as a collective of wholesalers and peddlers, the Teochews dominated the trade of fruits and vegetables between China and Singapore, and had their own association which was headquartered near Ellenborough Market.6

Cantonese hawkers congregated around the areas of People’s Park, Kreta Ayer and Jalan Besar and sold a variety of products such as food stuffs, vegetables, apparel, toys and cigarettes. They also controlled the supply of vegetables from the farms in Balestier, and durian and mangosteen from Malaya. The Hockchias and Hockchius mostly operated night stalls in Queen Street and Johore Road where scores of rickshaw pullers lived. They were well-organised and had their own association known as the Hockchia Coffee Stall Keepers Guild that regulated the trade. The Shanghainese were largely nomadic traders who purchased silk from China ports and sold them to markets in Singapore, Indonesia and India.7

Malay and Javanese hawkers generally clustered around the lanes and by-ways around Middle Road and sold satay (skewered grilled meat), curios and cloth. Indian food hawkers gathered at street corners, schools, football grounds and toddy shops during mid-day and tiffin hours. They sold food and drinks such as Indian rojak (fried fritters), mee goreng (fried yellow noodles), vadai (a fried snack made from flour and lentils), muruku (a savoury and crispy snack made from urad dal flour), kachang puteh (assorted nuts), goats’ milk and yoghurt. North Indian Muslim hawkers were known for their tea, ginger water and buns that were transported in high tin cans. The ice-water man, who sold syrup-coated ice balls, was especially popular with school children.8

Regulation of the hawking trade
Though hawkers were seen as a necessity, the colonial government was compelled to intervene and control the trade due to problems of food contamination, improper disposal of refuse, traffic obstruction and exploitations by secret societies. The licensing of hawkers was first proposed in 1903 but it was not until 1906 to 1907 that the first laws were passed and enforced. The legislation initially covered only night stall hawkers but was later expanded in 1915 (but brought into force only in 1919) to include itinerant and day hawkers. Through licensing, the government sought to limit the growth of hawkers as well as the hours and locales where they could operate.9

In 1927, the police were further empowered to impound goods for second offences. The government also attempted to re-locate some vendors from the streets to hawker shelters. However, hawker troubles persisted, leading to the appointment of two committees in 1931 and 1950 to investigate and address the problems, and the formation of a Markets and Hawkers Department in 1957 to oversee the trade. The hawking situation only saw major improvements in the 1960s through the ’80s when the government carried out an island-wide registration exercise, relocated hawkers from the main streets to the side or back lanes, stepped up enforcements against illegal hawking, and embarked on a programme to construct more markets and hawker centres.10


Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Iskandar Mydin, Pioneers of the Streets (Singapore: Art, Antiques and Antiquities, 1989), 14–15, 17 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ISK-[HIS]); W. Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report (Singapore: Printed at the Government Printing Office, 1932), 2–3, 5, 23. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 ISK)
2. Mydin, Pioneers of the Streets, 14–17; Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report, 17; Hawkers Inquiry Commission, Singapore, Report (Singapore: Printed at the Government Printing Office, 1950), 62–63. (Call no. RCLOS 331.798095957 SIN)
3. Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report, 3–4, 41, 89; “Our Street Hawkers,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 6 November 1905, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Hawkers Inquiry Commission, Singapore, Report, 11.
4. Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report, 3, 7, 33; B. H. Chua, “Taking the Street Out of Street Food,” in Food, Foodways and Foodscapes: Culture, Community and Consumption in Post-Colonial Singapore, ed. Lily Kong and Vineeta Sinha (Singapore: World Scientific, 2015), 24–27 (Call no. RSING 394.12095957 FOO); William Gwee Thian Hock, “The Tradesmen,” in A Nyona Mosaic: Memoirs of a Peranakan Childhood (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 132–49. (Call no. RSING 959.57030922 GWE-[HIS])
5. Lily Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres: People, Places, Food (Singapore: National Environment Agency, 2007), 21 (Call no. RSING 381.18095957 KON); Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report, 17, 72, 79, 82, 86, 89; Hawkers Inquiry Commission, Singapore, Report, 14, 155; Chua, “Taking the Street Out of Street Food,” 24–27.
6. Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report, 1–3; Gwee, “The Tradesmen,” 132–49.
7. Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report, 1–3; Gwee, “The Tradesmen,” 132–49.
8. Bartley and Committee Appointed to Investigate the Hawker Question in Singapore, Report, 1–3; Gwee, “The Tradesmen,” 132–49.
9. Hawkers Inquiry Commission, Singapore, Report, 5–8, 14, 35–43, 46–47; City Council. Markets and Hawkers Dept, Singapore, Annual Report 1957 (Singapore: The Council, 1957), 1; Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 19–31; Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 262–6. (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 YEO)
10. Hawkers Inquiry Commission, Singapore, Report, 5–8, 14, 35–43, 46–47; City Council. Markets and Hawkers Dept, Singapore, Annual Report 1957, 1; Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 19–31; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore, 262–6.

Further resources
Archives and Oral History Department, Singapore, Five-Foot-Way Traders (Singapore: Archives and Oral History Department, 1985), 37–76. (Call no. RSING 779.9658870095957 FIV)

Jean Duruz and Gaik Cheng Khoo, “Growing Up Transnational: Travelling Through Singapore’s Hawker Centres,” in Eating Together: Food, Space, and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 95–122. (Call no. RSING 394.1209595 DUR-[CUS])

Lim Tin Seng, “Hawkers: From Public Nuisance to National Icons,” BiblioAsia 9, no. 3 (Oct-Dec 2013)

T. G. McGee, Hawkers in Selected Asian Cities: A Report on a Visit to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bandung and Djakarta (Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong, 198–). (Call no. RSEA 381.1 MAC)

The information in this article is valid as of 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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