Singapore is the street food capital of the world. a war and the pandemic put it in danger.

  • Street vendors in Singapore are known for selling delicious food at low prices.
  • Over the past year, ingredient prices have surged due to COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine
  • To keep up, many hawkers say they had to raise prices for the first time in years.

SIINGAPORE — Lie Kam Fatt has been running a traditional Chinese dessert stand in Singapore for more than 40 years. For four decades, it has sold a wide range of Chinese sweet soups and custards, such as black sesame and red bean pasta.

In December, he had to do something he hadn’t done for three years: he had to raise his prices.

Lie raised prices by 50 Singapore cents, or $0.36 per bowl. That might not seem like a lot, but for the mostly elderly, low-income customers he serves, every penny counts.

“I know some of my customers are going to complain about this, but I might have to close my business if I don’t raise prices. All of my ingredients have become overpriced,” he told Insider.

Lie runs a stall at Singapore’s Chinatown Complex Market & Food Center, the largest in over 100 peddling centers – outdoor food courts that sell a variety of cuisines at affordable prices – in the country. But while a SG$5, or $3.60, meal is a delicious novelty for tourists and an attractive, cheap alternative for some locals, for others it’s a necessity. Hawker’s stalls are a staple for low-income people who can sometimes live on as little as SG$5 a day, and for this segment of the population a fifty cent price hike makes a big difference.

Lie is one of many Singapore hawkers who have had to raise prices in the first half of 2022 to continue making a profit, as the costs of many common ingredients – including cooking oil, chicken and eggs – have increased. surged over the past year due to COVID-19, the supply chain crisis and the war in Ukraine. A bak kut teh shop that sold a dish of pork ribs at SG$5 for 18 years without adjusting its price, for example, just raised the price of the dish to SG$6, and a drink stand had to add an extra 10 cents for each of its SG$1.50 drinks since December.

For Lie, 65, he said the cost of almonds alone, which he uses to make his sweet almond paste, has more than doubled since November last year, from SG$7 a kilogram at SG$14.50 per kilogram.

“In all my years of doing this, I can’t remember things getting so expensive so quickly. But I have to keep going. It was my dad’s business and I want it to last as long as possible.” , Lie said.

Customers are still arriving – for the most part

The good news is that the customers, for the most part, keep coming.

Despite the price hikes, many hawker centers have seen an increase of around 60% in diners in recent months as part of the lifting of COVID dining restrictions, said KF Seetoh, a local food critic , to Insider.

Seetoh, a former photojournalist, has been reporting on hawker centers since 1996. He based Makansutra Gluttons Bay, Singapore’s famous hawker center, in 1997, which now has nine stalls and is best known for being one of the few hawker centers with a view of the Marina Bay skyline.

“Young people understand what we hawkers are going through,” said a former hotel chef who owns a wok hey, or stir-fry, in Chinatown and wishes to be identified only by his first name, Daniel. He has been working in the itinerant trade for a year and a half.

A hawker stall in Singapore full of people lined up.

Chinatown Complex Market & Food Center in southern Singapore.

Marielle Descalsota / Initiate

Daniel said most of his supplies had doubled in cost. A 16-kilogram box of Golden Medallion, his favorite cooking oil, went from SG$26 to SG$47.

Meanwhile, a tray of 30 eggs used to cost SG$4.70, but rose to SG$6.90 in May. Just a year ago, a kilogram of chicken leg cost him SG$2.60. It has now risen to SG$4.50.

“Most street vendors buy from the same vendors,” Daniel said. “I started looking for alternative providers, mostly online, where prices might be more affordable.”

A plate of chicken rice.

Daniel’s wok, or a sautéed dish.

Marielle Descalsota / Initiate

Some peddlers hold out for as long as possible to raise their prices

Unlike other peddlers, Seetoh pushed back the price increase. He said his stalls continued to bring in around SG$1,000-2,000 a night – but profits were much lower than before as his business absorbs the rising cost of supplies.

“Revenues are the same, but our costs have gone up – not thanks to Russia,” Seetoh said. Its stalls sell a variety of cuisines, including Indo-Pakistani dishes and Western-style dishes.

Although the cost of supplies is increasing by up to 50%, some hawkers are unable to raise their prices due to the competitive hawker food landscape in Singapore.

“Heddlers don’t really dare to raise their prices,” Seetoh said. “If you raise your prices, a customer may just take a few steps to another stand where your competitor is selling food 50 cents cheaper.”