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Singapore’s aging street-food hawkers get help from Instagram

Seah Hui Li rises before dawn every morning to make 400 traditional steamed buns filled with creamy red bean paste to sell in one of Singapore’s famed hawker markets. But as COVID-19 restrictions kept diners away, the 63-year-old stall holder struggled.

Business is now looking up, thanks to an Instagram campaign aimed at helping elderly vendors and ensuring the city-state’s rich tradition of local street food continues to thrive.

The campaign promotes the stalls of struggling hawkers who’ve been hit hardest by the pandemic because they aren’t digitally savvy enough to promote themselves on food delivery platforms. The @wheretodapao page — which is Mandarin for “where to takeaway” — has more than 37,000 followers and carries photos of some 75 stalls, short biographies of the hawkers and reviews of their cuisine.

“The social media post definitely helped my business,” said Hui Li. “I saw many new faces who said they are here because they saw the post online.”

The Instagram site is the brainchild of 24-year-old social media executive Jocelyn Ng, who was inspired to help the hawkers after reading about their struggles in an article on social media.

“I’m not an influencer or anything,” she said. “I just wanted to share the personal stories of all these elderly hawkers.”

Singapore’s hawker stalls are an indispensable part of local life and typically awash with customers lured by dishes such as chicken rice, prawn noodles and seafood soup. Hawker centers have won global acclaim, recognized by UNESCO last year as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Some of the oldest hawkers have been on the job since the 1960s, and many pass down their recipes to younger apprentices. The challenge of preserving the hawker trade has been widely discussed in recent years, and the government has been urging traditional cash-only stalls to embrace electronic payments and food delivery platforms.

Around 3,000 cooked-food stall holders use such online ordering services, with the support of the government, industry bodies and community volunteers, according to the Straits Times newspaper, which cited Amy Khor, senior minister of state for Sustainability and the Environment, as saying earlier this month.

Among them is Huang Jian Hui, 37, who’s been using the platform WhyQ since 2019. “There’s definitely improvement in the business from the delivery services,” he said.

But for the mom-and-pop stall holders not online, the Instagram initiative is a chance to capture some business.

Anthony Low, chairman of the hawkers division at the Federation of Merchants’ Associations Singapore, applauded the initiative.

“Since Singapore’s independence we’ve had the hawker centers, and these are embedded in all residents’ hearts,” he said. “Singaporeans are so used to coming here. They treat it like home.”

And he’s confident the traditions will survive the pandemic.

“I believe the older generation of hawkers went through rain and storm,” he said. “It’s not COVID that will bring them down.”

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