Singapore’s hawker culture recommended for UNESCO’s cultural heritage list

The famed Lau Pa Sat hawker center. Image: Ethan Hu
The famed Lau Pa Sat hawker center. Image: Ethan Hu

Singapore’s beloved hawker culture has been acknowledged by heritage officials and could be added to UNESCO’s cultural list that honors practices from communities worldwide.

The city-state’s well-respected outdoor food centers that comprise of stall owners known as hawkers were recommended by the Intergovernmental Committee’s judging panel of 12 to be inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The results will be revealed in an online event held by the committee from Dec. 14 to 19. 

“The Evaluation Body is pleased to recommend the following nominations from this cycle as good examples: ‘Hawker culture in Singapore, community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context’, nominated by Singapore, is a well-prepared nomination file which reflects the spirit of the Convention in many ways in terms of its celebration of intangible cultural heritage, diversity, dialogue and sustainability,” the evaluation body said in a report yesterday. 

Singapore is also commended for having a cultural heritage element that thrives in a “highly urbanized and culturally diverse environment” and for “devising creative ways” to get communities to participate in the heritage activities actively. 

The hawker culture is assessed based on five criteria such as meeting UNESCO’s definition of intangible cultural heritage, increasing visibility, awareness and dialogue in Singapore, having existing and future safeguarding measures to ensure its promotion and continued practice, involving widespread participation from the community, and including it in Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage inventory.

If the inscription is successful, Singapore is required to submit an annual report for six years to show the progress of the hawker culture and proof of its safeguarding efforts. 

According to the National Heritage Board, Singapore has carried out initiatives to sustain the hawker trade for months before announcing its intention to apply for the list in 2018. They include the National Environment Agency’s Incubation Stall Programme that provides more opportunities to start hawker businesses, a Hawkers’ Development Program that helps hawkers equip the relevant skills needed, and incubation programs to encourage new hawkers to join the trade.

This would be the first inscription for Singapore in the UNESCO list developed in 2008 with over 400 inscribed intangible cultural heritage elements like the Mak Yong theatre from Malaysia, the Indonesian musical instrument angklung, and the making and sharing of kimchi from South Korea.

“The Evaluation Body’s recommendation is an affirmation by international experts of Singapore’s bid. Comprising a unique combination of food, space and community, Hawker Culture has evolved into a microcosm of our multicultural society, and is an integral part of our living heritage. It provides a sense of identity and continuity in Singapore, over generations and through urbanisation and development,” CEO of the National Heritage Board Chang Hwee Nee said.

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