Man at His Best

The London Hawker Centre

The iconic Singapore hawker centre has inspired a London variation. But is this an example of the western capitalisation of Asian culture, or a celebration of what Singapore has to offer?

BY Fin Carew | Aug 17, 2016 | Food & Drink

“Anyone looking for Hawker House?” a young man with a blonde Green Arrow goatee and Hawker House T-shirt calls to no one in particular. Fumbling my way out of the Canada Water Underground Station into the grey, cloudy weather of London summertime, I raise my arm unenthusiastically. I have a longstanding prejudice against hipsters, and Guy Fawkes over here—with his helpful smile and confident demeanour—is endangering my positive first impression. I’m here for a food market. They’re common in London, and there are more than a few gentrified, trendy (hipster) themes to choose from, such as a market made entirely of shipping containers and another inspired by a petrol station. But Hawker House is London’s only hawker centre.

I’m welcomed at the entrance by Rory Foster, the market underboss for Street Feast—the organisation behind Hawker House and three other food markets in London. He offers me a Blue Point lager on entry; the first “Londonisation” of a hawker centre being that there is significantly more emphasis on alcohol. An energetic vibe surrounds us: the sort you get when crowds of foreigners are exploring something exotic to them, like a quinceañera or a beached whale. Food stalls dot the environment disjointedly, each selling its own specific cuisine with about three items on the menu. On one table, I notice a lady wearing paint-stained, torn dungarees and a fedora sharing a steak with a man in sunglasses stroking a 14in beard. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see any stalls offering Singaporean fare.

"It's basically a Singapore hawker centre on acid. It's giving it a load of steroids and just bulking it up: adding loads of lights, DJs, music and creating a vibe you wouldn't get in a normal hawker centre."

Foster spent over 14 years in Singapore, so he has plenty of experience with Singaporean hawker centres. “It’s basically a Singapore hawker centre on acid,” he tells me. “It’s giving it a load of steroids and just bulking it up: adding loads of lights, DJs, music and creating a vibe you wouldn’t get in a normal hawker centre.” It’s definitely not giving me a Singapore hawker vibe off the bat—the GBP3 entry fee after 7pm has seen to that (one Singaporean will later refer to the fee as “ludicrous”). Since it’s summertime, half of the food stalls have moved outside including a barbeque cooking ribs (SmokeStack), a van selling Chinese buns (Yum Bun) and tiki huts serving, among others, nitro ice cream (Chin Chin Labs). Another tiki hut sits in the centre pouring cocktails, emulating Thailand’s beach-party stalls. In fact, it’s difficult to see where the acid trip ends and the hawker centre begins.

But the longer I spend here, the more it twangs familiar. Remember those fire bins, usually used during the Hungry Ghost Festival? Well, they’re here, albeit repurposed as less culturally significant receptacles full of fire to warm and light the exterior. There’s a bustling ambience of everyone wanting a bite, but no one sure of what, and the small, plastic seating options are perfectly designed for awkwardly sharing a table with strangers—just like Singapore. On one of these tables, I find some awkward strangers, Aaron and Sing Jin, both from Singapore. They are chatting over a table filled with wrappers from Yum Bun and SmokeStack, and have noticed the Singapore influence too.

“It’s not that different from Singapore, but the food is,” Song Jin tells me. “They have a variety of food here, and you can just have a place to sit down, chat and relax. So it sort of reminds me of home. It’s casual, something that I’m more used to.” There’s a slightly sentimental tone to that statement.

“Street food markets in London tend to focus slightly more on the atmosphere,” Aaron cuts in, gesturing to the play areas for children, and one of the many speakers pumping out tunes all night long. “In Singapore, you don’t really have that. It’s more about eating there. It’s a lot more pragmatic.”

I wonder aloud if there is anything Singapore could learn from the UK adaptation of a hawker centre. Aaron suggests that Singapore could invite more variety. “Hawker centres [in Singapore] have more traditional, Singapore-style food, whereas [London] has more exotic and unique selections,” he opines.

So would a gentrified hawker centre be welcomed in Singapore by the masses? Aaron continues, “I suppose hawker centres play different roles in the two cities. For London, it’s more exotic, something people can try out for fun. In Singapore, it’s more of a bread-and-butter thing. While I think [Hawker House] is alright in London, I’m pretty sure people would find it objectionable in Singapore.” Song Jin nods in agreement with his pessimism.

"I loved the window shopping—going up to the individual store, seeing what they're making and just being spoilt for choice, feeling like a kid in a candy store."

The Londoners here look excited by the novelty of a food court. It’s hard to disagree, even if some of them are dressed like they fell through an awning canopy directly into a box of scissors. But I want to know if any of them recognise Singaporean culture, and if Singapore is being acknowledged as an inspiration, so I look for locals.

The next person whom I talk to is Crystal, also from Singapore, as apparently this place is teeming with East Coast expats (blasted foreign talent, amiright?). She has a different take on how a trendy hawker centre might fare in Singapore. “It would definitely work. Very well. I enjoy it so I’m sure everyone else will,” she says. Opinions are divided. But based on the evocative manner in which the Singaporean patrons talk about hawker centres, you could never completely replace them with something so lavish.

Jonathan Downey, co-founder of Street Feast, rushes between stalls, barely able to stop for a chat. Although he now runs things pretty much by himself, he set up Street Feast with his friend Dom Cools-Lartigue (#MostAwesomeNames). He’s been around: he’s lived in Hong Kong, been all over Asia and spent an extended period of time in Melbourne. Naturally, the first thing to ask is if he’s ever been to a Singapore hawker centre. “I have, yes,” he confirms. “I loved the window shopping—going up to the individual store, seeing what they’re making and just being spoilt for choice, feeling like a kid in a candy store. That was kind of the foundation of the whole thing and where the name came from.”

But the catalyst that made him take the hawker centre to London wasn’t missing his favourite Singapore fried noodles (y’know, that famous Singaporean dish), but more the creative potential it offered. “I liked the fact that it didn’t exist in the UK and we were doing something new,” he says. “Also, evolving the hawker concept to something more ‘London’. I think our interpretation of it is nothing like what exists anywhere in Southeast Asia. [Hawker House] has been described as a ‘food rave’ by a friend of mine. It’s just a big gathering of people for an evening centred on food rather than music.”

I finally find some Londoners, Michael and Maria, at the bar (obviously). They’ve never been to a hawker centre, but can still sense an exotic influence. “[The theme here] is very relaxed. You don’t feel like you’re in London. I wouldn’t say it feels Asian, but it’s definitely not London,” Michael says.

I wonder if Singapore—and Asia in general—being conspicuously uncredited might cause offence. I can see why someone might think Street Feast is simply trying to capitalise on Asian culture, like The Green Hornet or the bizarre invention of the fortune cookie (which China should be more offended by, if you think about it).

Sharliza Rahman is the president of the Singapore UK Association (SUKA), and her job is to help Singaporeans acclimatise and connect in the UK, both socially and professionally. She’s been in the UK for 14 years, but fondly remembers growing up in Bedok and misses eating decent mee goreng. She visited Hawker House recently, and I figure if anyone is going to call out cultural appropriation, it’ll be her.

Of course, when I speak to her, it is the first time that she makes the Singaporean connection. “It doesn’t feel particularly Asian to me. It’s not Singaporean. It seems obvious that a bunch of people went to Asia and brought back this concept. It does feel like cultural appropriation on some level,” she responds, phrasing this quizzically like it is a topic for discussion rather than a conclusion.

"It's completely different from going to a Bangkok street market, for instance. Rather than being an actual [Asian food market], it's imitating it in a way. They don't hold down to any cuisine. It's multicultural. It's not like being in Singapore, but it's as close as you can get in London."

Rahman is very proud of her Singaporean roots, but there is no bitterness of betrayal or resentment that her culture has been appropriated. Instead, she exudes a hint of pride that someone could be so impressed with a cultural element from her home that they would use it to inspire something else. Not a bastardised corruption of what she remembers, but more of a subtle salute to an echo teetering precariously on the ledge of recent memory and the crevasse of nostalgia.

I asked Rahman what Downey would need to do in order to attract her and other members of SUKA to Hawker House. She replies bluntly: “The food.” It isn’t Singaporean enough for her. Downey’s hawker centre may have hit the right balance of Asian inspiration and western gentrification, but there’s still an elephant in the room. It’s a Singapore-style hawker centre without any Singaporean food.

Apparently, it’s not easy getting people to engage with Singaporean or Malaysian food in markets. Street Feast once had a stall, Sambal Shiok, that served Malaysian food in one of their markets, but it couldn’t quite get the traction it deserved. I ask Downey if he’s heard of Anthony Bourdain’s ambitious 155,000sqft food hall in New York, costing around USD60million, where he plans to sell all sorts of cuisine, including Singaporean food. He is surprisingly dismissive—I feel like I am being shown someone’s favourite rock from a collection, and then ruin the mood by asking if they’ve seen Ayers Rock. He isn’t convinced that they will even open. Instead, he lets me know about his friend, Jeff Leong, and his plans to deliver Asian (and Singaporean) food to London.

Leong is the owner of a few restaurants in London’s Chinatown, described by Downey as a “champion of Chinatown”. He wants to team up with Downey to create another hawker centre in the West End that would be over 30,000sqft with an entirely Asian dining experience. “It’s always been our plan,” Downey promises. “I would love to do a genuinely Southeast Asian Hawker House, where you go in and have a whole range of Southeast Asian flavours. It would just transport you to another part of the world.”

My impression of Downey and Hawker House becomes less cynical. What may have been tailored to draw in the exoticism-obsessed East London hipster crowd clearly comes from a genuine passion for all things Asian cuisine. Hawker House may be an architectural allegory for gentrification, but it’s also a devoted ode to genuine avidity.

Later in the evening, the crowd transitions from family-friendly, post-work merriment to hundreds of young, middle-class people—each one more trendy than the last and all looking for cool eats. The vendors at Hawker House are radically enthusiastic about food. Seb Holmes is the owner of a quaint Thai food stall called Farang. He was previously the head chef of Smoking Goat, a nationally revered Thai restaurant in Soho, but still feels far prouder to be serving saporous chicken in a hawker centre. But it is his observation of the contrast between Hawker House and Asia that interests me. “It’s completely different from going to a Bangkok street market, for instance,” he notes. “Rather than being an actual [Asian food market], it’s imitating it in a way. They don’t hold down to any cuisine. It’s multicultural. It’s not like being in Singapore, but it’s as close as you can get in London.”

The timing couldn’t be better, with millennials spurning the pub and club scene in favour of whatever the next hip thing is. At least, that’s what Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur, owner of London’s first nitro ice cream bar, tells me. “These days, it’s all about being social in an interesting environment. It’s an alternative to going out to bars and clubs. It just feels like an evolution of a street food market.” “Evolution”—I like the sound of that. Perhaps hawker centres have more to offer than they seem? Akbari-Kalhur ends off with, “I think everyone in food knows about [Singapore hawker centres] and how they’ve influenced us in London.”

“I think everyone in food knows about [Singapore hawker centres] and how they’ve influenced us in London.”

After immersing myself in the environment, that influence is much clearer. I see people sharing food and tables, each chowing down dishes from different vendors. Parents insisting their children sit down and eat while bemused foreigners attempt to establish what—if any—etiquette exists. Impatient diners debate the correlation between food quality and the length of the queue. Singaporean familiarity soon merges seamlessly with the injection of London embellishment.

“It’s enchanting; it’s magical. I think, whereas in a normal food market in England it’s lovely and you might get some good cooking, [Hawker House is] a little bit different,” Foster concludes, before being beckoned by his radio to put out (or perhaps light) another fire. Different is right. Different from London, certainly different from Singapore, but an interesting fusion of both. While Singapore isn’t especially acknowledged as a key inspiration for Hawker House, it’s encouraging to see elements of Singapore culture be exported abroad. That’s Singapore’s gift to Street Feast and London. Just don’t expect a pack of tissues to reserve a seat: baby steps, people.

From: Esquire Singapore's August 2016 issue.