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Transnational Traditions: Understanding the UNESCO hawker culture dispute

By Jazmine (Media Managing Editor)


Art by Singaporean illustrator Lee Xin Li


UNESCO hawker culture dispute


Many Singaporeans pridefully remember the addition of Singapore’s hawker culture to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in 2020. However, with this happy occasion came controversy. According to the New York Times, in 2018, when Singapore first submitted its nomination for hawker culture’s UNESCO recognition, some Malaysians took offence to this [1], saying that “it sounds as if Singapore is saying that their hawker food is the original, and best”, some of them claiming that street food “has always been one of the few areas that Malaysians can confidently say they do better” than Singapore. Faced with these criticisms, Singaporeans defended their place on the UNESCO heritage list [2], claiming that the hawker centre “has long been a symbol of Singaporean culture”.


This saga showed how for many, a country having its culture on UNESCO’s list is significant to its citizens not just because of the prestige and recognition, but also because it implies an ownership of a specific culture and heritage by one’s country.


For a physical site to be put on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, some of the criteria [3] is that the site must be “representative of a culture”, and “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization”. This criteria for selection may apply to physical sites, but not intangible items such as hawker culture, which belong to a different UNESCO list. Given the usual criteria of UNESCO heritage lists, what Malaysians took issue with was that Singapore nominating “Hawker Culture in Singapore” to be on UNESCO’s list inherently implies that Singaporeans claimed hawker culture as “representative” of their country as if it were unique to them when some could argue hawker culture in Malaysia is “better”.


Food heritage and hawker culture 


A look into our history would show that hawker culture is not unique to Singapore, and has shared roots with Malaysia. Street hawkers have existed in both Singapore and Malaysia since the 19th century [4], and “all three main races in Malaya at that time formed part of [the hawker] community.” Hence, Singapore and Malaysia share a rich history behind their hawker centres, and it can be argued that both are good representations of hawker culture. 


The issue of “ownership” aside, according to the UNESCO website [5], hawker culture in Singapore was nominated as it was a space for “community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context”. It also wanted to recognise hawker centres’ food heritage, where recipes have been refined over many years and transmitted to younger family members or apprentices. The UNESCO nomination thus intends to celebrate multiculturalism and food heritage, rather than choose which country has the ‘better’ hawker culture. 


And indeed, hawker culture in Singapore represents the nation’s multicultural food heritage a great deal. Many heritage hawkers in Singapore thus boast recipes with a long history and a rich mix of cultures [5]. Singaporean hawkers have taken inspiration from the confluence of Chinese, Malay, Indian and other cultures, adapting dishes to local tastes and contexts. 


For example, Anak Bapak [6], a hawker stall located at Eunos Crescent Market and Food Centre, is Muslim-owned and sells Chinese food, such as prawn mee and char kway teow. Its owner, Mr Kamal even pioneered a halal beef bak kut teh recipe, which has attracted many customers of different ethnicities. He has passed on these unique recipes to his son Shah, who is also learning the hawker trade and mastering the dishes from his father. 


Despite racial differences, many hawkers such as Mr Kamal have managed to create delicious recipes from a mix of other cultures besides their own. As seen with Mr Kamal and Shah, food heritage is also embodied in the passing down of recipes to future generations. Plenty of heritage hawkers have an even longer history of inherited recipes, making Singapore’s hawker centres a rich site of various food heritages. Food heritage thus forms a key part of hawker culture. 


The UNESCO dispute occurred because Singaporeans and Malaysians saw the UNESCO nomination as ‘authenticating’ one hawker culture over the other, pitting each country against the other. But if food heritage involves a mix of various cultures from both countries, it makes little sense to pit Singapore and Malaysia against each other.


Food culture amidst globalisation 


If the UNESCO nomination had actually intended to celebrate multiculturalism, why did Singaporeans and Malaysians dispute it? How did the competition over whose food is more worthy of recognition come about? Such conflicts over culture are becoming increasingly widespread, and I believe globalisation has a part to play in this. Wanting to claim traditions as unique to one’s own culture has become increasingly common today, as a result of globalisation making culture more malleable. No longer is a culture restricted geographically, as it can be incorporated beyond its place of origin or even fused with other cultures to create something new. 


As culture is so malleable, many view globalisation as a threat to food culture. Globalisation is associated with increasing homogeneity [7], and indigenous cuisines are often perceived to be at risk from multinational production and food service companies. These concerns have prompted endeavours globally to celebrate and conserve indigenous cuisines. Thus globalisation has strengthened peoples’ desire to protect locally distinctive food cultures. While it is important to celebrate indigenous cuisines, it may also have the unintended effect of glorifying the ‘authenticity’ of one country’s culture over another, as seen in the UNESCO dispute. 


Despite concerns over globalisation, food heritage has actually demonstrated that the local and global can coexist. Singaporean chef Damian D’Silva [8] believes Singapore’s heritage cuisine ‘is an amalgamation of traditional recipes spanning Chinese, Peranakan, Malay, Indian and Eurasian’, and “goes beyond what people often misunderstand as local food such as chicken rice or laksa”. D’Silva himself learnt cooking from his Peranakan grandmother and Eurasian grandfather, showing that cuisines fusing different cultures have already existed long ago. Thus globalisation of food cultures has already been around for generations, and our food heritage may even have been inspired from cultures that are not typically seen as ‘local’. While it is true that globalisation can threaten food heritage if taken to the extreme, it is also impossible to speak of Singaporean food heritage without recognising the influence of other cultures. 


However, compared to past decades, globalisation has increased rapidly and has become a hotly debated topic. The impact globalisation currently has on food cultures is much more visible than its role in shaping food heritage over past generations. Globalisation has greatly integrated economies and people, so it is no wonder that many fear homogenisation of their local cultures will follow. As a result, conceptions of culture being static and ‘belonging’ to one’s country are being reinforced to counter globalisation. This is precisely what happened in the UNESCO hawker culture dispute, where an event that was supposed to celebrate multiculturalism turned into a dispute over who hawker culture belonged to and which hawker culture was the most authentic. 


As the nature of culture evolves, so too must our understanding of it evolve. It is unfeasible to fully ‘preserve’ the original form of a traditional culture in today’s globalised world, especially since culture itself is an unstable social construct. “Culture is socially transmitted” over generations [9], and “during this transmission, culture might acquire new behaviours, confirm or modify the previous ones.” Hence, it is impossible to have a fixed definition of traditional culture. Rather than ‘fragile’, culture is malleable. Knowing that cultures change over time, there then seems little point in pitting different cultures against each other to determine which is better or more unique. 


Conclusion


While appreciating cultural heritage is important, it is equally necessary to adapt our understanding of what constitutes a culture, and how we view it against other cultures. Globalisation has shaped many seemingly local cultures, especially in Singapore, which started as an immigrant society. Rather than disputing its authenticity, perhaps appreciating the rich multiculturalism and history behind our favourite hawker foods is the way to go.


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Jazmine is a Year 2 Global Studies major who is the Media Managing Editor at The Convergence. Having an interest in social phenomena such as culture and inequality, she hopes to raise awareness on social issues as well as learn more through writing and research. Over time, she hopes to explore more areas of research, such as environmental and economic issues. In her free time, she enjoys reading fantasy novels and sleeping. 


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