Netflix's Street Food review: What the series missed out on the reality of hawker culture in Singapore
The hard truth
Netflix's Street Food aired a few weeks ago, and it has been the center of many conversations since. Well, that and the pandemonium of Avengers: Endgame spoilers. Many praised the series for beautiful story-telling and more importantly — spotlighting the endangered breed of a handful of street foods timed to wither away with its surviving owners (mostly grey-haired and peaking into their late 60s).
While outnumbered, there are successful multi-generational businesses featured in the series, like Osaka's takoyaki stand and the heroine in Singapore's episode — Aisha Hashim who runs Haig Road Putu Piring. Many merits can be observed in the nine-episode series; first being the hagiographic documentation of beauty food shots and slow-motion magic. Every episode features a selection of foods, with a main business depicting a moving origin and profile story. It's entertaining and punch-lines are delivered on the money to tug on your heartstrings. First episode in, and you feel an immediate pull to book a trip to Bangkok just to catch the old lady in goggles. Michelin-starred street food chef, Jay Fai's crab omelette seems visually formidable in every way — and the queues will speak for it.
The intent behind this, appears to be a good one. Making street eats look so enticing and artsy that more —especially the younger generation — would forgo their $20+ brunches to support and preserve the hawker scene. Being Singaporean, and a daughter of a retired hawker in Singapore, I concur. But what was missing in the episodes was the eventuality of what happens next, or even more the harsh realities of selling street food. Brilliant cinematography isn't everything at the end of the day, especially when you're building on 'real humans of' tales. Why is street food a dying trade? Why the need to preserve all this glorious eats? The reality wasn't addressed.
Singapore's episode turned out to be the weakest one. Never mind that the series left out Malaysia, which is in fact one of the reasons why our street food culture is as diverse as it is today. Our version of hawker foods is now housed in sturdy established centers and even now, air-conditioned food courts; as compared to humble stands by the roadside back in the day. Some of these traditional structures are still well-steeped within the battered lanes of Penang and Ipoh. Again, #JusticeforMalaysia.
The worry of hawker extinction in Singapore is an unavailing discussion, much like the issue of global warming. We talk about it, parade our metal straws, but no visible heavyweight actions are taken to prevent it. I enjoyed watching the stories of hawker favourites like chicken rice, wanton mee of the late Master Tang, and even Mrs Putu Piring. More can be contested on how putu piring might represent our city's illustrious local food culture, but that's another story on its own. While Singapore's episode touched on the difficulties of poor sales, personal hardships, nothing was mentioned regarding the reality of holding a 11-hour shift, while mulling over the fire and working constantly without a definitive break. All that, contrasted with the luxuries of a 9-5 desk job at Telok Ayer, with a decent gross salary enough to travel the world and maintain monthly designer hauls. No mention of millennials seeking the high life, which alludes to why hawker culture is slowly disintegrating in Singapore.
Watching my dad toil tirelessly throughout the course of 30 years surmounted my admiration for him, and while it was with a bittersweet feeling that we celebrated his retirement, I understood why the hawker culture was a dying trade. Hours are long, preparation is often arduous, working conditions equate a stuffy, cramped workspace mostly on your feet the whole time. Square that off to a current generation who prefers to splurge heavily on any grub that's not local and housed in a pretty, air-conditioned edifice, and it's hard to see how good profit can be reaped from a day's work.
In Street Food, the considerable hardships of poverty were brought to light, but everyone in the show has a happy (enough) ending. The show glamourised the trade to a certain extent, and didn't fully expound on the imminent desolation of street food transitioning into air-conditioned food courts owned by bigger conglomerates. Why? It's hard, laborious work — for minimal pay-off. A hawker sells a bowl of noodles for $3, as compared to the profit he can get by cooking a bowl of noodles in a bougie restaurant. Case in point: Seoul's heartening story of the ajumma in Gwangjang market reveals her son was inspired by her culinary survival skills — the only difference is that he cooks in a restaurant of a fancy hotel.
Self-owned food businesses are a dying trade, especially when the next generation isn't keen on spending their entire lives holed up in a stall. Counter that with the show's optimistic picture of labourious work, and I think they might be cushioning the harsh reality — a little too much for my liking.