The Singapore Solution to L.A.'s Illegal Street Food Vending Problem

The outdoor seating section of the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market, a major hawker centre in Singapore's central business district. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

In many cities around the world, the streets are where, literally speaking, the local flavor exists -- carts, stands, kiosks, and walking food vendors sell their edible wares, the aroma of which wafts through the air. The streets are where the everyday people eat; restaurants are the domain of foreigners and the elite.

Here in Los Angeles, local activists are currently waging an online campaign, pushing for the City Council to legalize mobile food vendors, for both economic benefit and as a way to increase access to healthier food in low-income "food deserts," which are communities plagued by a glut of fast-food chains and corner markets that stock junk food. The campaign contends that L.A. is the only major U.S. city with no form of legal street vending.

Street vending in L.A. looms large, if not legit: tacos, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and chile-seasoned chopped fruit are some of the items one might typically find on the streets of this city. But some raise questions as to the varying degrees of cleanliness, hygiene, and quality -- and the lack of accountability for such things -- one can get from a street vendor.

Perhaps one of the solutions to Los Angeles' illegal street vending problem lies in an example set over four decades ago in a city some 9,000 miles away.

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Singapore, a Southeast Asian city-state of 5.3 million located on a San Fernando Valley-sized island off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, is a place relatively few Americans are familiar with. Known by most people in the West for its government's perceived obsession with cleanliness and rather draconian forms of punishment for the equivalent of misdemeanor crimes in the U.S., the country is actually home of the world's second-busiest port and is a major global center of trade, technology, and finance. It's considered a first-world economy, which is primarily why immigrants from Singapore are so few in number in the United States.

Having previously been a British, and later Malaysian, colony, Singapore became an independent state in 1965, a time when the new country invested in building large, dense public housing complexes. Food vending, known there as "hawking," became a popular entrepreneurial activity when formal jobs were scarce following the post-World War II reconstruction years. Street hawkers had set up their carts or ersatz food stalls along major thoroughfares, at public spaces and near public housing complexes. In the late 1960s, there were some 24,000 street hawkers in Singapore -- out of a population of 2 million at the time.

But the overabundance of unregulated street hawkers turned into a serious problem for the island nation: Cleanliness and sanitation of food preparation areas and utensils became a major issue for vendors. Food quality and foodborne illnesses also became part of the public health issue. And food and liquid wastes polluted the city's streets.

In the late 1960s, the Singaporean government embarked on a compulsory registration drive for all street hawkers and designated temporary off-street locations for them to operate. In the 1970s and 1980s, hawker centres, or public food courts, were constructed to house the vendors.

An open-air hawker centre in Singapore's Bugis district. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Open-air and semi-enclosed by design (due to Singapore's year-round hot tropical climate), the hawker centres not only provide dining areas but, most importantly permanent facilities for cooking, food storage, preparation, and sanitary amenities like restrooms, sinks, and disposal receptacles. The end result was something that satisfied both the government's penchant for urban cleanliness and the country's culinary traditions.

The hawker centres serve traditional Singaporean fare, which reflects a fusion of its predominant Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures. The centres located in ethnic enclaves like Singapore's Chinatown and Little India districts feature food more oriented towards those respective cuisines. The food centres are typically found adjacent to high-density housing complexes and commercial districts. Western food such as hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches, and other foreign cuisines are instead found in chain establishments and more formal restaurants, usually in the more upscale parts of the city.

Having been to Singapore twice myself, the hawker centres were a pleasant discovery during the first visit, and a required destination during the second. The quality of the food is excellent, and the price is extremely cheap: What one would usually pay $10-$15 here in the U.S. for a full meal, the same could be had at a hawker centre for the equivalent of six American dollars or less. For a tourist, hawker centres are destinations in themselves, and are the perfect place to acquaint oneself with Singaporean cuisine, from Chinese-based noodle dishes like Hokkien Mee, to the Malay-style Rojak Salad, to the more Indian-originated Roti Prata, not to mention local desserts such as Ice Chendol and the lively-named Bobochaha. It didn't take long for me to rank Singaporean food as one of my favorite cuisines.

Though the term "food court" conjures up images of a row of generic shopping mall eateries of mediocre quality, adopting and adapting the Singapore hawker centre model to Southern California seems perfectly feasible. Permanent facilities for adequate food preparation and vendor hygiene would satisfy the requisite public health logistics that a cart cannot provide. An outdoor dining space, designed with year-round California sunshine in mind, also functions as a public venue: Strategically placing these food vendor centers near heavily pedestrian areas, transit facilities, parks or public plazas, or mixed-use developments will further enhance Los Angeles' ongoing maturity of its public-space identity.

And while food vendor activists try to change laws in Los Angeles City proper, why not make this a county-wide endeavor? After all, all food establishments must abide by county public health requirements anyway. One can just imagine the menu items we'd get from food vendors in places like the San Gabriel Valley (though the availability of stinky tofu in outdoor venues would inevitably induce controversy).

If L.A. borrows the Singapore concept of hawker centres, it would practically bring things full circle: In the late 1990s, the Singaporean government established a letter-grading system to rate restaurants and foodsellers on their adherence to cleanliness and food quality codes -- a concept borrowed largely from Los Angeles County's own restaurant letter-grading system.

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