Monday, June 22, 2009

Singapore Hawker Centre Stories: What do you have for your dinner?


I love to frequent hawker centres in Singapore for the delectable fare at attractive prices the various stalls there offer. Besides, I believe hawker centres are places where Singaporeans from all walks of life, age and status congregate as evident from the ‘fa├žade’ of the customers visiting the hawker centres. Therein lies the appeal of hawker centres: they can really be a microcosm of the Singaporean life. Thus one’s meals at a hawker centre can not only be a satisfying gastronomic experience, one can also glean a lesson or two about the life of Singaporeans and life in general from just a meal in the hawker centre.

Let me recount an experience I had while having dinner in one of the Best Singapore hawker centre on the island last week. Why is it one of the best? The reason is that the hawker centre boasts a trove of stalls, which have won some of the best accolades ever given out to a stall for having really great food on the island. Anyway, I am not telling you the name of this hawker centre for privacy reasons to the ‘protagonists’ in the encounter I will share with you now.

I was halfway munching on my dinner at that particular hawker centre when the actions of an old dish clearer caught my attraction. The old dish clearer was nimble in his work, clearing promptly the ‘left-overs’ and the messy ‘conquered’ plates of delicacies the diners had vacated. He was steady, diligent and it took me not long after to see that he worked together with his wife, both of them decked in the same uniforms of their cleaning company.

Minutes after, I saw the old dish clearer gesturing excitingly to his wife at a table, beckoning for her to come as soon as possible to the table. The dish clearer has stumbled upon an untouched chicken drumstick left by a diner while he was halfway clearing the left-over dishes. Excitingly, he flashed out two used plastic plates to ‘grab’ the drumstick in between and immediately passed them to his wife who next arrived at the table. I heard his instructions to his wife as he passed her the left-over drumstick, “Give it to Ah Mei (name of his daughter I presume)”, the dish clearer said, face beaming, apparent pleased from finding what seemed to him a jewel and guarding the plastic plates and drumstick tightly as he passed them to his wife.

The scene I just partook of was an emotional one to me and it reminded me of a similar experience while I was having my dinner in a hawker centre in Chinatown last year. At that particular busy hawker centre, the dish clearers clearly had their hands full or there was a limited number of dish clearers at the outset as there were many tables left uncleared after dining.

While waiting for my dinner order to arrive at my table, I spotted an old man picking up a used plastic plate from one of those uncleared tables and went around, flitting from one uncleared table to the other, picking up some of those ‘more decent’ leftover food from these table that he could find and put them neatly on his plate, for his dinner!

The next time, when you start to grumble about eating the same old unappetizing food again in the hawker centres or at home, think about the two old men I have just mentioned in the article: What do THEY have for dinner? And “What would be YOUR dinner to them?” Every nation inevitably has its share of the poor.

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