Singapore’s ‘hawker culture’ finds a place in UNESCO list

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Singapore’s tradition of communal dining at hawker centers, which are basically open air food courts, popularized by celebrity chefs and hit films such as ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance.

The cultural agency of the United Nations has declared that it has added the “hawker culture” of the city-state to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, almost two years after Singapore submitted an application to be included in the list.

Hawker Culture

Dating as far back as the 1800s, hawker culture in Singapore originated from the early migrant population selling quick, affordable meals on street pavements, in town squares and parks wherever they could set up their makeshift stalls.

Hawker centers are a unique aspect of Singapore culture and lifestyle. It is also an important place for social interaction and community bonding. Singapore’s food culture was greatly influenced by its geographical location and its diverse population.

“These centers serve as ‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner,” UNESCO said.

Celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay have effused over favorite hawker center dishes such as chicken rice. The 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians (available on Netflix) showed its stars tucking into heaped plates at a famous night market, and some stalls are famous for meals costing only a few dollars.

Not all rosy

Nevertheless, Singapore’s hawker culture does face many problems.

The median age of hawkers in the city-state is 60, and younger Singaporeans are increasingly shunning cramped, sweaty kitchens for office jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic also dealt a blow, halting the usual train of tourists to the centers, while even locals were prevented from dining out for a few months during a lockdown earlier this year.

Singapore must submit a report every six years to UNESCO, showing the efforts made to safeguarding and promoting its hawker culture.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture. It was founded in 1945 and is headquartered in Paris.