The unintentional effect of hawker centre renovations: Hawkers quit for good

SINGAPORE - Six days a week, from 6am to 9pm, hawker Lick Su, 74, is on his feet preparing and serving bowls of Teochew fish soup and porridge at Chin Chau Lou stall in Chinatown Complex food centre in Smith Street.

But when the food centre, Singapore's largest, closes on Friday (March 1) for a three-month renovation, he will hang up his apron for good.

"I'm too old to spend such long hours at this stall. I'm 99 per cent sure I won't come back when the centre reopens," said Mr Lick, whose culinary experience goes back to the 1970s.

The renovation of hawker centres is done every five to seven years. As these centres undergo a physical makeover, stallholders often use the months-long downtime to mull over their future in the business.

It is not uncommon for some to call it quits, resulting in the renovated centre having a new mix of food and stallholders.

At Chinatown Complex, for instance, stallholder Francesca Ung, 38, is looking at relocating her Penang Chiak Ho Liao stall. Set up last year, it offers the Penang version of popular food such as nasi lemak, rojak and mee goreng.

Though her business breaks even most months, she feels it ought to be better: "Tourists and young people who are more willing to try our flavours don't know about this hawker centre because it's not visible from the street. Though the renovations are necessary, I don't think it will improve footfall to our stall."

Ms Francesca Ung and her business partner Darrel Krishnan at their Penang Chiak Ho Liao stall. ST PHOTO: SAHIBA CHAWDHARY

At Block 84 Marine Parade Central, the hawker centre and market have already seen a couple of departures, with the completion of renovations delayed by three months.

One of them is Katong (Jago) Teochew Mee Pok Kway Teow Mee stall, which has relocated to a coffee shop in Block 80 Marine Parade Central. "The renovation would take too long to finish, and I needed a regular income," said owner Chang Lau Meng, 62, who moved to Block 80 last year.

Closed in March last year for the makeover, the centre's initial completion date was this month. But it has been extended to May.

A National Environment Agency (NEA) spokesman attributes the delay to "unforeseen underground services affecting the progress of sanitary and drainage works", as well as other renovation works. Underground services may include electrical, gas, water and telecom cables.

At Chinatown Complex, which is about 35 years old, two of the newer stalls packed up and left even before the place was closed for renovations.

Western food stall Silly's Western, which opened in June 2017, shut its doors at the end of last month while Japanese-Italian fusion stall Sutachi did so on Jan 19, just about a year after its opening in December 2017.


Sutachi's co-owner Gay Yu Ting, 32, said the stall was confronted with such problems as the rising cost of ingredients and the stagnant growth in customers.

"Three months without any income will be tough on us and (the renovation) really prompted us to think about the business more thoroughly," she said.

Some of the major works at Chinatown Complex include replacing the waste pipes, servicing and repairing the exhaust and fire protection systems, and upgrading the public toilets, said Jalan Besar Town Council.

Meanwhile, the Marine Parade centre is undergoing tiling and roofing works as well as getting new sewer and water pipes plus improved drainage, among other things, said the NEA.

Hawkers and stallholders at both centres do not pay rent during the renovation period, ST understands. But they also do not get any financial compensation and no temporary food centres are set up for them to make a living.

The NEA said the repairs and redecoration works will not lead to higher rents.

Still, the delay is frustrating for a 55-year-old Marine Parade stallholder, who wanted to be identified only as Mr Zheng.

The father of three, whose children are aged between 19 and 26, has been doing various part-time sales jobs at places such as pasar malams and flower stalls since the centre closed.

"There was more work during the Chinese New Year period but now, it's not so easy to find jobs. It's difficult to live day-to-day like this without any financial security," said Mr Zheng, who ran a ban mian, or Chinese noodle, stall at the Marine Parade centre for the past 15 years.

But Mr Lim Lee Chye, who sits on the committee of the Marine Parade Central market and runs a household goods store at the market, is sanguine about the delay.

"It's better to fix any issues now than to have problems crop up later," said the 73-year-old, who gets by on his savings.