Sense of Place

Changi Village Hawker Centre

Hawker centres- open air complexes housing a large variety of food are very much a part of the lives of Singaporeans. Although hawkers were illegal in the past, the scenario has since changed with the Singapore government intervening to legalise hawker centres. The phenomenon has been so infused into our lives that on many occasions, when we think of good food, we often associate them with those that can be found in hawker centres, and not fancy dishes at high-end restaurants.

While we have looked at the local food scene in general, we now focus more on the hawker centre phenomenon in Singapore. It is by no surprise that the local food scene is domniated by the presence of hawker centres since there are so many spread across the island. Much of our food culture can be seen in hawker centres- from the varieties of food present to the structure of the place with their (largely) round tables. Research and anaylsis about hawker centres have allowed us to understand more about the local food culture. We see why Singaporeans love the hawker centres that are unique to this Garden City and that Singaporeans have cultivated a sense of place in them.


A sense of place refers to a way of indicating that places are infused with meaning and feelings (Rose, 1995). The key to identifying how deeply embedded our food culture is in us is best seen through absence. Interviews conducted with locals studying overseas has proven this to be true. (The interviews were conducted via MSN Messenger.) Jaime Quek, 22, said that she regards hawker centres as part of Singapore culture, one that is irreplaceable. She exclaims that she misses hawker food a hundred percent, and that when she is back, she would visit the hawker centres everyday since it is not something that she gets to do back in Australia. In fact, the local food scene doesn't just appeal to Singaporeans but foreigners as well. Says Clayton Cheng, a Malaysian who has been living in Singapore since young, “I miss everything about hawker food- the heat, the dirtiness, the late hours, the cheap prices!” These are classic examples of how one only realizes the presence of a sense of place only in the absence of the place itself, and so when they are back in Singapore, they visit hawker centres countless times.

Madam Connie Sum, stall owner of King’s Fish Head Noodles in Marine Parade Central, said that “Singapore is known as a food paradise and eating is part of our culture. Hence, hawker centres which provide popular local fare at affordable rates certainly make Singapore unique and stand out as a food paradise.” She goes on to say that hawker centres are an integral part of our lives, and so will not be eradicated in time to come. In fact, stall owners who are fluent in English, like Madam Sum, face increasing crowd numbers as locals and foreigners queue up for her famous fish head noodles.

It is clear that our Singapore food culture has a lot to do with a sense of place. Dining areas have been infused with meanings and emotions over time- something that has taken place rather unnoticeably in our lives. No wonder dining places are seen as places to hold gatherings among friends and family.

Hawker Centre Upgrading Programme

With reference to hawker centres, what can be seen is that Singaporeans tend to flock to the eating places regardless of the time of the day. Many tend to return to hawker centres, and over time, have unknowingly cultivated a sense of place in them. The sense of place that Singaporeans have in hawker centres thus may not be explicit, but rather, implicit in nature. The routine of traveling to a hawker centre for food has become so commonplace that Singaporeans do not realize how much a sense of place it has created in them.

Of the people we surveyed, 77% felt that hawker centres instilled a sense of belonging in Singaporeans, and with 30% giving a seven out of ten rating for the uniqueness of hawker centres. Another 37% rated the uniqueness of hawker centres eight or more. These responses were obtained, despite 40% not knowing that hawker centres are unique to Singapore. We can understand why a percentage of Singaporeans may not find hawker centres unique, simply because they grew up in an era where hawker centres were always in existence. Even if rated less unique than its supposed status, the hawker centre is not rendered any less of a place Singaporeans can identify themselves with.

Our food culture's importance is definitely much more than imagined. We see that through the Hawker Centre Upgrading Programme(HUP) brought about by the National Environment Agency (NEA). Information taken from the official website of the National Environment Agency (NEA) shows all the different renovation works that will be taking place in most hawker centres across Singapore. The main reason for upgrading hawker centres, according to the NEA, is that hawker centres are part of Singapore’s heritage and ought to be preserved. If food culture was not of such great importance to Singaporeans, then the government might not choose to revamp almost all hawker centres but instead, do away with many. Preservation not only improves the landscape and attracts visitors with our colourful heritage, but is simply reflective of the food culture in Singapore.

More details on the HUP are available at http://app.nea.gov.sg/cms/htdocs/category_sub.asp?cid=235 .