There exists, far out in the wide gulf between fast food and restaurant cuisine, a culinary option that’s as ancient as civilisation itself. For more than 2,000 years, humanity has demanded quick, easy and inexpensive access to freshly cooked food on the go.
From Ancient Greek and Roman thermopolia – hot food counters – to today’s drive-through fast-food restaurants, that need has been satisfied, albeit often to the detriment of our health. Throughout human history, our lust for what we know today as street food has been sated by entrepreneurial – and speedy – gastronomical artists.
Recent excavations at the ancient city of Pompeii, which was buried after a volcanic eruption in AD 79, revealed a distant ancestor of today’s food courts. The thermopolium allowed a hungry public to grab and go long before Happy Meals and heart disease became mainstays of our highways and byways.
It’s a style of dining baked into our DNA, impossible to ignore and increasingly hard to avoid. But where even the giant American chains fear to tread, there is street food. Modern incarnations, such as Tahiti’s famous food trucks and the pop-up restaurants so ubiquitous in big cities, are beginning to reclaim territory stolen by fast food in the latter half of the 20th century.
In the wake of the dire health implications of a fastfood nation, the cheap, cheerful and often surprisingly healthy option of street food has made a comeback. In some parts of the world, however, it never went away.
The Middle East and Asia in particular have long resisted the siren call of the golden arches, instead retaining street food as a cornerstone of their culinary culture. Much of what is now shorthand for street food – falafel, pad thai, kebabs or nasi goreng – has its origins in these regions.
One of the biggest challenges in setting up so many outlets across singapore is how you control the quality and portions of the food.
In post-war colonial Singapore, hawkers, or street food peddlers, were plentiful, seeking to capitalise on a people left largely destitute and short of food in the wake of the devastating Japanese occupation.
Plagued by hygiene issues and chaotic, aggressive sales tactics, Singapore’s government pushed these vendors into hawker centres – forerunners of today’s food courts.
Inside these centres, hawkers were able to set up in stalls and small shops that combined the speed and low cost of fast food with the variety and substance of restaurant cuisine. Hygiene standards were introduced, turning hawker centres into popular places for families to bond and people to mingle over inexpensive yet satisfying meals.
Delicacies such as roast duck, fishballs and char kway teow (stir-fried flat-rice noodles) became comfort food for a nation, and today remain warm, nostalgic reminders of the hawker heyday for millions of Singaporeans. It was in this environment that the keeper of the hawker flame was forged.
Tan Kim Siong was 13 when he began helping out at his grandfather’s Teochew fishball noodle stall at the Redhill Hawker Market in Singapore in the early 1980s. Kim Siong’s parents weren’t well off, so he took on the job to make his own way.
“Eventually, I became an assistant at various hawker stalls and these stints led me to a full-time job cooking at a fishball noodle stall,” he reveals. It was a humble beginning for the man who would one day carry hawking to a place somewhere between art form and national treasure.
In 1995, after 13 years as an assistant hawker in these community dining rooms, Kim Siong rented a fishball noodle stall of his own at a hawker centre on Stamford Road. Running his own hawker stall was tough, but it gave the young entrepreneur an insight not only into the ins and outs of being a hawker, but also gave him a clearer understanding of how the centre itself operated.
“I noticed a trend of old coffee shops getting makeovers that turned them into profitable, popular venues,” he says. “I could see an opportunity to do the same with hawker stalls, and that marked the beginning of Fei Siong Group.”
Today, Kim Siong’s Fei Siong Group is one of the biggest food and beverage owner-operators in Singapore. With 15 of the city-state’s biggest eatery brands under its umbrella, Fei Siong pulls in SGD$150 million (US$113 million) annually by serving up hawker-style meals infused with a healthy dose of nostalgia.
A new generation of street food connoisseurs has developed a taste for hawker meals, and has elevated what was once a lowbrow meal into haute cuisine. By the 1990s, hawker food – and the culture surrounding it – had become an institution in Singapore, largely thanks to the efforts of people like Kim Siong, who took hawker stalls out of dedicated hawker centres and into food courts and specialty outlets.
“When I started out, there were far fewer options in terms of location for hawker stalls, as the number of shopping centres we’ve come to expect today didn’t exist in the past,” he recalls.
“Back then, most food and beverage stalls operated out of hawker centres. But as Singapore developed, there was an opportunity to move from hawker centres into shopping malls as standalone food shops, and even setting up our own food atriums.”
Unlike the hawker stalls of the past, Fei Siong’s brands own and operate their outlets outright. “The other key players in the market largely operate on a leasing business model as landlords, renting out food stalls to tenants,” Chairman Kim Siong says.
Hawker centres are the heartbeat of the neighbourhood, where the majority of singaporeans gather for family meals every day.
“Our unique business model allows us to ensure better synergies through price control, food quality and marketing aspects.” Beginning with the EAT. chain in 2006, Fei Siong took the inimitable hawker flavour into shopping malls and food courts through brands such as Malaysia Boleh!, Encik Tan, 85 Redhill, Nam Kee Pau, Tangs Market and the full-service, old-school Huats Kee Fish Head Steamboat.
Local favourites such as bak chor mee, laksa and chicken chop curry rice, and dishes from neighbouring Malaysia, including bak kut teh and cendol, populate the Fei Siong Group’s myriad menus; fishball noodles are, of course, a staple.
“Fei Siong Group has always had, at its core, a hope to preserve Singapore’s colourful culinary heritage by bringing nostalgia to Singaporeans,” Kim Siong explains.
“I believe future generations are better able to recognise the heritage of our country through the food their forefathers enjoyed. It’s a link to the past.”
Fei Siong’s food atriums are the culmination of Kim Siong’s desire to elevate the medium. In 2012, the company created the Malaysia Boleh! brand as an “attraction dining destination”. The 650-square-metre Malaysia Boleh! food court at Jurong Point quickly became the brand’s flagship location and, according to Kim Siong, its breakthrough.
“When it opened, it brought together 20 stalls selling some of Malaysia’s best hawker fare,” he shares. Eventually, Fei Siong was forced to expand to 32 stalls as a result of its popularity, which Kim Siong cites as evidence of the Group’s commitment to giving the people what they want.
“As we’re committed to bringing our customers the best experience, we adapt to change and innovate for growth by listening to and understanding those customers,” he says. “We carefully analyse all feedback we receive in our efforts to continually improve our standards.”
And by anyone’s estimation, they’re high standards. It’s hard to imagine a food court restaurant making any kind of honours list, let alone the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, yet Singapore’s hawker culture has done exactly that.
So integral is it to the nation’s culinary lineage that UNESCO made the addition in late 2020, placing it alongside Argentina’s tango and India’s yoga. Kim Siong says it’s a bold statement of recognition of who Singaporeans are.
“It’s a reflection of our living heritage and multiculturalism, and an integral part of the daily lives of everyone in Singapore,” he points out.
“Hawker centres are the heartbeat of the neighbourhood, where the majority of Singaporeans gather for family meals every day. They cut across different ages, races and backgrounds. They’re easy topics of conversation, icebreakers, as every Singaporean has their own preferred hawker food location at one of the many hawker centres across the island.”
This heritage is at the heart of Fei Siong’s business model. To realise his vision for how hawker food could be, Kim Siong embarked upon an odyssey that was equal parts innovation, expansion and rehabilitation.
“One of the biggest challenges in setting up so many outlets across Singapore is how you control the quality and portions of the food,” he admits. While hawker meals have retained their famously low prices, the rising cost of ingredients has made it harder for stalls to make a living. This in turn has discouraged young people from walking in the footsteps of the 13-year-old Kim Siong.
“There are also manpower challenges of finding staff to work in Singapore’s food and beverage industry,” he says. “But we managed to overcome the odds through perseverance and the dedication of our core team that has been with us through our ups and downs. They ensure we produce the best results with the limited resources available.”
Such is the dedication of Fei Siong to hawker culture that the Group has become a de facto custodian of the movement’s future. Troubled by a lack of interest from Singapore’s youth, Kim Siong began working with the Singapore Government in 2015 to open 20 new hawker centres run on a not-for-profit basis.
“Within this operation, we launched an entrepreneurship program with the objective of encouraging local entrepreneurs and providing them with an opportunity to operate their own cooked food stalls,” he tells.
“More importantly, it was a chance for us to preserve the traditional hawker food heritage.” It was this point that encouraged Singapore’s National Environment Agency to partner with Fei Siong on the project, citing the Group’s “strong emphasis on achieving social objectives”.
And care – for staff, customers, heritage and the community at large – is intrinsic to the Fei Siong philosophy. As Kim Siong explains, the commitment to hawker culture doesn’t end with providing a cheap meal.
“Fei Siong Group is committed to delivering authentic and quality local dishes at affordable prices to our customers,” he asserts. “Through heritage recipes and operational expertise, we aim to serve up the best casual dining experience customers can get – satisfaction by taste and affordability.”
The standard of care is matched behind the counter. “When we take good care of our staff, they will work harder for us in return. I’m a firm believer in the ethos of ‘my staff are my family,’” Kim Siong insists.
This is demonstrated in what he describes as his “laissez faire” attitude to leadership. “I need to trust my employees to do the right things and to possess the integrity that invites this trust. That’s what I look for when I hire.”
As dynamic as Fei Siong’s public face is, behind the scenes there’s just as much going on in terms of optimisation and improvement. Hawker centres are about as analogue an enterprise as is possible, but Kim Siong says that under the bonnet, there’s a modernisation effort underway.
“To date, we’ve started our journey of digitalisation to improve the quality of life of our hawkers. We’ve successfully implemented an enterprise resource planning system, which was unheard of when I started out,” he reflects.
It’s hoped the system will tie together the many disparate threads involved in the more than 150-outlet-strong Fei Siong Group, which caters to more than 1,600 staff across its brands. “We also have a robust HR system across the company to look after our staff. It’s quite an undertaking, as you’d imagine.”
When COVID-19 exploded around the world in early 2020, the food service market was hit particularly badly. With lockdowns forcing customers to stay at home, the already fragile hawker centres were disrupted on an unprecedented level.
However, never one to back down from a challenge, Kim Siong saw the global health crisis as an opportunity to improve. “As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Fei Siong Group was determined to emerge from it stronger,” he says.
“Many of our colleagues were unable to return home, so we ensured they were comfortable with sharing their challenges and asking for whatever they needed.” It was this strong level of trust that ultimately proved to be a lifesaver.
“It’s important to have a strong culture of trust to address concerns in a time like this, so we were able to assess the situation, listen to our staff and then take steps to make sure they felt safe and secure in their jobs.”
Fei Siong also extended this support to the community in the wake of the pandemic. In August, it partnered with The Food Bank Singapore as a community engagement initiative to help those impacted by disruptions brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.
“We also regularly sponsor community initiatives including those run by The Rice Company, which manages The Business Times’ charity The Business Times Budding Artists Fund,” Kim Siong adds. The group also teamed up with Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura (PPIS), Singapore Muslim Women’s Association, in November to make a difference for disadvantaged families using the power of hawker culture.
“We organised an event with PPIS at our Encik Tan restaurant that specialises in Chinese dishes, treating disadvantaged families to a sumptuous meal at our Marina Square outlet,” he states proudly.
“Additionally, in 2021, we’ve helped 140 students through cash donations and meal vouchers to tide them over during this difficult period.” The Redhill hawker centre where his journey began, serving up fishball noodles in his grandfather’s stall, still exists.
In fact, Kim Siong owns a part of it: Fei Siong’s 85 Redhill Teochew Fishball Noodles store has immortalised his grandfather’s livelihood. For Kim Siong, Fei Siong and hawker culture are more than his life’s work; it is, in a way, the soul of Singapore.
Hawker culture has survived – and at times thrived – since its modest beginnings on the streets of the city-state, and in the process has become the nation’s comfort food. With such a universal language at his command, he has driven Singapore’s desire for the cuisine that defines it to new heights.
Firmly entrenched in a role that’s evolved to carry more than a fair share of societal responsibility, not to mention the day-to-day duties involved in running a US$113 million-ayear company, Kim Siong stays grounded by keeping his own origins front of mind.
“Almost every day, I eat fishball noodles,” he says. “I did so as I was growing up. I grew my business around the dish. I owe it that much.”
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