"They are non-existent now, except for a few illegal ones in Geylang (Singapore's main red-light district) and some really old housing estates," says KF Seetoh, Singapore food TV host and creator of its Makansutra hawker guide.
These vendors have been part of Singapore's history since its time as a British colony in the early 19th Century. Dr. Mark Emmanuel, an assistant history professor at the National University of Singapore, notes that these hawkers survived and flourished even during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in the 1940s. In fact, the Japanese propaganda magazine, Syonan Gaho, in 1942 featured a hawker stall as part of a portrait of normal life in occupied Singapore, he says, adding that a government survey in 1948 recorded 7,000 hawkers and up to an estimated 20,000 illegal hawkers in the country at the time.
Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
The traveling hawkers sold Malay, Chinese and Indian noodle dishes, snacks, and drinks. Some sold dishes from baskets perched on their heads or boxes mounted on the backs of bikes; others hoisted long poles onto their shoulders and dangled two large boxes from the ends of the poles. If the hawker sold a grilled or hot dish, one of the boxes sometimes bore a heavy charcoal stove.
Dr. Emmanuel notes that noodle sellers, who usually announced themselves by hitting two sticks together to make a "tok-tok" sound, were known as the "tok-tok" men. "They usually had larger push carts that could hold a vat of boiling water in order to boil the noodles," he says.
These vendors began disappearing from the Singapore streetscape in the 1960s when the government began moving them into centralized hawker centers for sanitary reasons, however.
In Tiong Bahru, the satay man is tepid about talking. (It quickly becomes clear that he is nervous about being interviewed because he probably doesn't have a license.)
Repeatedly asking to only be called "Ah Pui Kia," which means "fat kid" in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien, he says in Mandarin that he has been selling satay in the neighborhood since 1977, when he inherited the cart from the satay man who had it before him and taught him his trade. In fact, Ah Pui Kia says he first started learning how to make satay when he was 11 and entered the business because "I didn't know how to do anything else."
Working alone, he makes the marinade for the satay and the peanut sauce by himself. (And he's certainly not about to share his prized recipe with anyone.) Each dish is served with with sliced cucumbers to counter the heat of the peanut sauce and optional ketupat, rice packed into a square and wrapped in fragrant tropical pandan leaves.
Despite his determination to remain under the radar, Ah Pui Kia is something of a celebrity in his neighborhood. Terence Ang, a director of artist management for an advertising firm, says he first heard of the satay man even before he moved into the area and was attracted by the fact that his new neighborhood had a living relic of Singapore's culinary past. "You really don't see this any more," says Ang, who's even hired Ah Pui Kia to perch his cart outside of his ground-floor apartment and make satay during some parties.