Singapore Aging: a 90-year-old spaghetti vendor helps keep foodie culture alive

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Leong Yuet Meng can not walk more than 10 meters without assistance. Still, the frail 90-year-old still runs a noodle kiosk in central Singapore, selling at least 200 bowls on a given day.

Hawker Leong Yuet Meng, 90, of Nam Neng Noodle House, poses while cooking noodles in her shop in Singapore on February 22, 2019. Photo taken on February 22, 2019. REUTERS / Edgar Su

Leong gets up around 4 in the morning to do some accounting and prayers before his son pushes her to the local market to buy the ingredients for the day ahead.

From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, it is curved over a hot pot of pasta, slices char pork char-grilled – or serves bowls of hot food at bargain prices.

"I try to do it for as long as possible, but I'm old," said Leong, one of the many old food vendors or "street vendors" in the Asian city-state.

"I'm afraid that all the experiences accumulated over the years will be lost, and none of my children can take control."

The city has about 110 vendor centers – open-air catering camps set up to accommodate former street vendors in an effort to clean up the island in the '70s – and their over 6,000 stalls are for more packed.

The government has stated that it will present an offer this month to add its culture as a hawker to the list of representatives of the intangible cultural heritage of the humanity of the UNESCO.

"We are giving the final touches (on the nomination)," Yeo Kirk Siang, a director of the National Heritage Board of Singapore, told Reuters. Applications will be accepted until March 31 to be included in the list next year.

The famous chefs Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay have expressed themselves on typically Singaporean dishes such as chicken rice; some street vendor stalls serve the cheaper Michelin star meals for $ 2; and Hollywood's hit film, last year, Crazy Rich Asians showed stars stuck in plates piled up in a famous Singapore night market.

But enthusiasm can not mask a basic problem: Singapore street vendors are getting older and their more educated sons and daughters are increasingly avoiding the cramped and sweaty kitchens for office work.

The average age of street vendors is 59, according to a government report, well above the national average of 43-year-old workforce.

"UNESCO is not a silver bullet, it's just one of the things we have to do … to keep the culture of street vendors alive," Yeo said.

EXTINCTION FACING?

To encourage Singapore street vendors to move to centers in the 1970s, the government has heavily subsidized the rents of street vendors.

While about 40 percent of older street vendors still enjoy low rents, street vendor stalls are sold in an open bidding process, often making leases much more expensive, especially on popular sites.

A street vendor, Lance Ngo, 38, said that finding twenty-year-old peddlers "is more difficult than finding gold".

The government has introduced schemes in recent years to convince veteran street vendors to pass on their skills to the next generation, teach entrepreneurial skills and subsidize equipment and rent to reduce overhead costs.

This has attracted some young street vendors looking for an escape from office use.

"Many young people see it as a way to be able to create and be their leader," said the owner of a 32-year-old coffee stall, Faye Sai. "This has attracted young street vendors and career switchers, but this is a minority."

But others say it is necessary to do more to make the business more profitable in the long run.

"Before applying for this (UNESCO), I think they have to solve the problems before them." Twenty years on the road when all the older generations pass, who will take over? "Said Alan Choong, an owner of 24 years of Prawnaholic Sino-Japanese merger bankruptcy.

Presentation (16 images)

Lee Sah Bah, a street vendor in his late 60s selling Chwee Kueh rice cakes for less than S $ 2 per serving, says he is faced with the prospect of his legacy extinguishing.

His two daughters – a lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the other accountant in Singapore – will not take over his business.

"I do not think the hawker centers will exist in the next 50 years," Lee said. "It's too hard work, we have to put in 16 hours a day sometimes, it's hot, kids would not want to work here today."

Reporting by Fathin Ungku and John Geddie, additional report by Edgar Su; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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