The introduction of centralised dishwashing has reduced the range of melamine tableware colours traditionally used in hawker centres. Will Singapore's hawker culture become monotonous?
With their uniformly chopped chicken pieces heaped atop rice and similar garnishes, the plates of chicken rice crammed on a table look as if they came from the same kitchen.
But one detail from this opening shot of Poached, a mini documentary on the rivalry between two chicken rice hawker stalls in Singapore's Maxwell Food Centre, suggests otherwise. The dishes are served on red, white, pink and lemon green plates, suggesting that different hawkers had prepared them, each with their ownrecipes and stories to tell.
The opening scene of Poached.
Since the 1970s, such melamine tableware has been adopted by thousands of food hawkers in Singapore. They originally offered a practical alternative to traditional porcelain crockery after the use of chipped tableware was outlawed for the sake of public hygiene.
When the government began relocating all hawkers from the streets into purpose-built centres around the same time, melamine tableware also became useful for distinguishing one's wares in these crowded operating environments. Local manufacturers from Singapore's then burgeoning plastics industry stepped up to offer them in a variety of colours and patterns as a convenient solution.
After decades of use, the melamine tableware has acquired personal significance for some hawkers too. Many pick “lucky” colours based on cultural, religious or personal beliefs.
Others select shades that help their dishes stand out or even look more sumptuous. A handful simply follow what their predecessor used as a show of respect and in hope of continuing success. Ultimately, it is all down to what gives these entrepreneurs an extra boost of confidence in their endeavours.
In these ways, melamine tableware has earned a place in Singapore's hawker history, perhaps even more so than the “rooster bowl” that is being revived by many local food operators nowadays to evoke a sense of tradition and authenticity.
A Language of Belonging
Coloured melamine tableware is just one way hawkers identify their wares. They also handmake visual markings by:
Painting on the tableware, such as on the handle of a cup, the side of a bowl or the tip of a utensil.
Putting a cable tie around the handles of cups and forks.
Scorching or marking a stall's unit number on the exterior of a bowl or lip of a plate. Unusual, but striking!
The need for differentiation has inspired kitchenware retailers to offer solutions too:
Mr Thomas Toh who owns 5B designed these cups with handles in different colours as a neater solution compared to the hand painted ones.
Hup Soon sells metal forks and spoons engraved with different patterns on their handles.
Washing Out Colours
Washing Out Colours
The familiar rainbow of colours, however, has faded out at some hawker centres in recent years. At the 11 new facilities built between 2015 and 2022, food is served on melamine tableware of just two or three different colours instead.
These hawker centres have all adopted a centralised dishwashing system that was introduced by the National Environment Agency (NEA), which manages all hawker centres in Singapore. Instead of hawkers washing their own tableware or hiring dishwashers as they have done in the past, a cleaning operator is appointed to wash the hawkers' dishes and upkeep the centre itself.
The system has also been rolled out in eight existing hawker centres, including Margaret Drive, Zion Road Riverside and Ang Mo Kio 628, where tableware colours have been streamlined too.
While centralised dishwashing is meant to tackle the manpower crunch that many hawkers face today, it has led to cleaning operators dictating the use of a common tableware for all in a hawker centre. The tableware typically come in just three colours to differentiate Halal, non-Halal and vegetarian cuisines. More muted shades are also favoured, such as grey, black or white.
Streamlined Cleaning and Colours
Range of melamine tableware colours at a new hawker centre versus an existing one.
Based on a survey conducted in February 2023. Only solid melamine colours are shown, and each bar represents a colour used by one hawker stall. As some stalls use more than one colour, the total number of bars and stalls may not tally. Other types of tableware, such as disposables, are also excluded from this infographic.
According to an NEA spokesperson, this system makes it easier to distribute tableware after cleaning and is only adopted by hawker centres with centralised dishwashing. Those without remain free to choose their own tableware.
“Given that common crockery is shared among stallholders, having standardised colours avoids confusion among stallholders over which crockery would be for their stall,” says the spokesperson. “[T]he types and colours of common crockery is done in consultation with stallholders, taking into consideration the sensitivity and inclusiveness of the colours.”
Most hawkers in existing centres with the new system are unsentimental about losing their old tableware or the long-used colours. However, many lament what they perceive to be a lack of choice over their own businesses.
Light stone tableware is used by most stalls at Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre.
The use of tableware in multiple colours arose from hawkers' need to mark their independence from one another, and to some extent, from their landlord, the state. Switching to standardised colours diminishes the unique identity of each hawker. Moreover, hawkers under the new cleaning regime add that they cannot opt out of it even if they want to wash their own dishes or outsource to others.
This familiar sight of used tableware in front of hawker stalls is absent in hawker centres that adopt centralised dishwashing.
The centralised dishwashing policy can be seen as a continuation of the government's decades-long effort to ensure that the public can eat safe food in a clean and hygienic environment. This is why it banned chipped tableware in the 1970s and subsequently relocated hawkers from the streets into centres with proper washing facilities. Today, hawkers are also banned from selling food items deemed high risk, such as raw freshwater fish.
However, eating is not merely about survival, and hawkers are not just food providers but cultural facilitators too. It is for this reason that the government successfully campaigned for hawker culture to be inscribed into the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2020. This drew attention to hawkers as masters of culinary traditions and the importance that their “knowledge, culinary skills and values are passed on through the generations”.
Behind-the-scenes of a centralised dishwashing facility.
In fact, centralised dishwashing was pitched as one way of making the backbreaking trade more attractive to younger hawkers. Yet, the manner in which it has been implemented threatens one aspect of hawker culture—the use of melamine tableware in different colours. Few notice what is essentially the backdrop of our celebrated hawker dishes. Some may feel that these functional objects are replaceable and even find the colours garish. Nonetheless, they are the products of Singapore's history and culture, and have acquired meanings to both hawkers—and their customers—over decades of use.
Designing a Better Way?
As part of this hawker colours project, we developed a solution to make sorting different coloured tableware easier for cleaners as they deal with large volumes from different stalls in a centralised dishwashing setup. Our proposed tagging system indicates on each coloured plate the stall to which it belongs, and even a halal symbol where applicable. While this design received positive feedback from cleaners, it is unlikely to convince the operators of centralised dishwashing services in hawker centres. They currently own all tableware used in these centres and charge each stall dishwashing fees based on the total number of tableware it requested each month.
Under this rental model, cleaning operators will prefer standardised tableware instead of individualised ones, or hundreds of tableware will be rendered useless whenever a hawker business goes belly up. Non-standardised tableware will also require more onsite storage space which existing hawker centres may not be designed for. While we do not know why the rental model was chosen for centralised dishwashing service—cleaning operators did not respond to our requests for comment—it is clear that any solution must involve the different stakeholders, including NEA, cleaning operators and hawkers.
An Inconvenient Culture?
An Inconvenient Culture?
The "orange bowl uncle" of CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School canteen. | @officialchijsngs
In November 2022, a hawker selling fish ball noodle at the canteen of CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School for over 30 years hung up his apron. It elicited a flood of tributes online from alumni, who affectionately addressed “Uncle Pang”, as well as the dish he served, by his tableware choice.
“Dear Orange Bowl uncle, I ate your orange bowl since I was in pre-primary until sec 4 in 2001”
“My first meal at the canteen of St Nicholas was the famous orange bowl. The moment I took the first spoonful, I understood why our sisters strongly recommended it… It was unforgettable”
[translated from Mandarin]
“...every time during recess I will see a long queue outside your stall. I will never forget your orange bowl. Hope you have a good rest and enjoy your life after retirement”
The striking colour of his tableware would certainly have left an impression on the young students. It was also likely how they were introduced to the fish ball noodle stall. As they stepped foot into a crowded school canteen for the first time, the students probably took notice of many schoolmates slurping from orange bowls or exiting from a long queue carrying one.
Isn't this how some of us experience an unfamiliar hawker centre? We survey the tables for a coloured plate or bowl that appears repeatedly and track down the stall it belongs to. When the name of a hawker stall escapes us, we make recommendations by saying, “Buy from the yellow bowl stall, not the black one” instead. Coloured melamine tableware has unintentionally become a way for us to identify our favourite hawkers.
A Culture of Colours
Such tableware has become part of the popular imagination of Singapore's hawker culture too.
To commemorate Singapore's golden jubilee in 2015, industrial designer Yong Jieyu stacked melamine plates to create food pedestals to celebrate an object that is part of our daily landscape.
For the 2022 National Day, DBS partnered The Secret Little Agency to create a music video dedicated to local hawkers. Their dishes were served on red melamine tableware—an authentic and patriotic choice that was juxtaposed against sushi and eclairs plated on ceramic ware.
Some hawkers seem to have recognised and incorporated melamine tableware colours as part of their branding too. Kok Kee Wanton Mee, which has expanded into various food courts and coffeeshops since it was acquired by the Jumbo Group in 2020, uses orange melamine tableware at almost all its stalls. It is what was used in its original outlet at the now-defunct Lavender Food Square, and the orange tableware even features prominently on most of its signboards today.
Yishun 925 Chicken Rice is another example of a hawker stall that has stuck with its original melamine tableware colour—in this case purple—even while opening more stalls across the island.
While hawker centres with centralised dishwashing have standardised their tableware, food courts which pioneered this practice are beginning to do the reverse. At Kopitiam in Jurong Point, each stall uses tableware of different colours, shapes and materials as if to emphasise their individuality and unique history. A similar approach can be seen at Food Republic @ BreadTalk IHQ too, which seems to favour neutral tones while each stall uses tableware of different shapes.
Tableware used by Man Fook HK Roast and Sindoo Padang respectively at Food Republic @ Breadtalk iHQ.
Evidently, centralised dishwashing can co-exist with colourful melamine tableware. While it may be more convenient to standardise, is it worth losing a tradition that is reflective of some of the major turns in Singapore's hawker history? If profit-oriented food courts are going out of their way, against the logic of efficiency, to display diversity through their tableware, perhaps the hawker centres are taking this quality they inherently possess too much for granted.
Before this colourful but overlooked hawker culture gets completely erased, it is worth taking a moment to reflect: Will Singapore's hawker dishes look the same without these colourful melamine tableware?
Match more colours to hawker dishes
The People's Palette
Every hawker has a colour story
The Rainbow Maker
The colourful history of a local melamine tableware manufacturer
From Street to Table
How melamine tableware became a part of hawker culture
A Colour-Less Future
Will hawker culture look the same with less coloured tableware?