Arts & Culture

Lim Jialiang on the romance of hawker culture and the invincibility of chicken rice

Over a beer, of course.
Words by

B-SIDE shares a pint with the F&B entrepreneur while he talks industry and the danger of wearing rose-tinted lenses when you cook.

Lim Jialiang looks unassuming when you first meet him. Keyword - ‘looks’. Often wearing what can affectionately be described as ‘unclecore’ in today’s terms, he’ll let you know that his sense of fashion is practical, comfortable and keeps him happy.

But don’t be fooled. As a sociology-degree holder turned boutique chocolatier turned beer distributor at Smith Street Taps, the 29 year-old knows a thing or two about the things we put in our mouths: our conversation is peppered with razor-sharp wit, and a refreshing frankness when he taps on his deep understanding of his industry, and the policies that govern it.

His new venture, a casual bar and dining concept along Neil Road called Cheeky just opened this weekend to much fanfare. The verdict might still be out on the young entrepreneur, but one thing is for sure. He can serve, and dish all at once.

K: Pitch your job like you're pitching to an aunty at Chinese New Year.

JL: I don’t need to do that because all of my aunties at Chinese New Year are very intimidated by the fact that I’m not gainfully employed in a normal manner so they don’t even dare to ask what I’m doing. I don’t have to prove my worth to them. Because my worth is so foreign that they don’t know how I match up to their daughters or whatever, haha.

K: And what takes up most of your time?

JL: Day to day distribution work. We set up a beer distribution company for the distribution of a Western Australian brand called Rocky Ridge, which is one of the first few sustainability-minded breweries out here in Singapore.

A lot of the processes they have in the brewery is very tied to using sustainable resources.

For example they filter and treat their own ground and waste water. They grow their own crops. They buy Australian grown barley and malt to prevent footing a carbon bill even though it’s more expensive. Things like these made us enamoured by the brand when we went there last year.

K: Who is ‘we’?

JL: All of us at Smith Street Taps. My partners and I - Daniel and Meng. So we went there as a team to - it was a work trip but we drank half the time.

K: What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

JL: Wow my memory is very fuzzy. I distinctly remember hoping that I would get in a job that was related to books. So by all assumptions I should have either been an academic or lawyer.

K: But -

JL: Once in primary school there were food fairs. Everyone would try to cook their own food and it was always very terrible. And I thought to myself - why the fuck am I going to do all this work? So I called a catering company and they brought it over and I just resold it at a 20% mark up.

And I think I made some money but not a lot because I overestimated how much I should have made.

But I went back to my house with 30 extra chicken wings and money.

K: Was that enough to make you want to do F&B?

JL: My journey wasn’t straightforward - for a lot of chefs and people in F&B there really isn’t an aha moment where you decide ‘I want to be a part of the industry’ Because that’s not the kind of job that’s well known for good career progression and so on. It’s very difficult to explain how you want to go into a line like this. So most chefs just say yeah it’s a job I enjoy doing.

K: Even though they don’t?

JL: A lot of people go to culinary school not necessarily looking for career in F&B but because it was something they came across at a point in time. It’s important to realise that at the end of the day it’s still a job.

I find it quite disturbing when people say ‘oh food is meant to be cooked for passion’ and I’m like…wait, the same guy who’s cooking your food also needs to be able to survive in Singapore. Because of how romanticised everyone in the industry makes it sound, you create myths like this. And a lot of chefs perpetuate it.

Can you imagine a chef who’s damn popular, and has worked for 10 years saying “yea I kind of came out of prison and didn’t really have a job and the F&B industry was what most readily available so I joined it and 10 years later I’m now a head chef at this Michelin star restaurant.”

The reality is often very different. But when they make it they’re like “Oh I’ve always wanted to be a chef.”

K: Does that sort of romanticism play a part in Singaporeans undervaluing the labour that goes into F&B?

JL: I don’t think so. The only reason why our hawker centres are all still full is because most of these hawkers either don’t want to retire or much more closely related - cannot afford to retire.

If they retire they don’t have inadequate savings, they don’t have CPF, they don’t have a reasonable pathway or sorts to retirement, which is why a lot of hawkers still are back.

Some of them will of course say in articles that oh I miss my customers but what is more likely is that a lot of hawkers don’t have the means to build up a nest egg.

So it creates an illusion that justifies why prices can be low like that.

K: Do you think the answer is - the big word - entrepreneurship?

JL: I don’t think they’ll be very comfortable with calling themselves entrepreneurs because it’s a new language but frankly hawkers are entrepreneurs.

I don’t think the answer to this entrepreneurism is entrepreneurism.

K: Is it a dirty word?

JL: It can help in marketing and branding. When you call yourself entrepreneur you’re signalling that you’re in a very different game. The game of building good concepts, good F&B concepts. In a way if people know you’re a restauranteur here, they would have a very different reaction.

K: I’m going to play Devil’s advocate. How many people in F&B are delusional?

JL: I like to joke that a lot of restaurants are set up because there’s a shiny thing missing from a rich person’s portfolio. And that shining thing is a restaurant.

When you go to places with very advanced F&B scenes, like New York and Sydney, bigger countries right, you hear a lot of fancy investment projects. They throw in a bunch of money, hire a famous chef, but they don’t really know what they want to do with the space. The turnover rate is crazy - they come in and try their luck, it’s exhausting.

K: Circling back to hawker culture. Are young people the answer?

JL: Young people are the answer because most old people will die lah, that’s how time works right. But no, it’s not so much a young-people-solution thing. More of the fact that hawker centres need more experimentation and a lot more liberalising to make it work better.

Hawkers are not asking for handouts. It’s basically being able to make sure that you get a sustainable lifestyle out of it. You are putting in 60 hours a day, you are selling most of the food for $4-$5, you have a to hit a certain number of plates to get that, and its hard work. Young people who aspire towards a middle class lifestyle, they aren’t prepared to put in that work.

Also, we have to understand that hawker culture was alive when people in the 80s were able to do a lot of things there and by a lot of things, I mean drink alcohol. Until 3am, 4am in the morning.

People don’t get it. In the 80s hawker centres opened so late because people had Tiger beer next to them.

K: So the alcohol ban killed hawker centres.

JL: And the development of other drinking spaces.

K: Amidst all that, your new bar-cafe joint, Cheeky, just had its opening this weekend. Tell us more.

JL: Casual, good meals, friendly beer. All day dining. Brunch, lunch, whatever. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but noticed that Neil Road didn’t really have friendly neighbourhood-y place, just a lot of very big concepts, you know. And that’s where all the gay bars are.

When I realised that the location was up for grabs, I thought to myself there’s such a lack of gay-friendly spaces already, so if I had an opportunity to set up a space I will want it also to be LGBT friendly. When I was running Demochoco, we sponsored Pink Dot for 3 years straight. This is no different.

K: But you’ve learnt from Demochoco no?

JL: If there’s anything I’ve learnt in this industry is that you’re never certain where the road will go. You can have a lot of successful openings under your way, but just that one thing is your Achilles heel. The most important thing is to stay grounded. You’re only as good as the concept you most recently set up.

K: Where do you see hawker food going in the next decade?

JL: My prediction is you see lesser traditional foods over the next 10 - 12 years. Lesser Kway Chap, lesser pig organ soups. Things like that. You are going to see more healthy options whatever that means - brown rice, less oil, salads and things like that. So definitely we are changing the way we eat. But there are a few concerns and we are definitely still going to be obsessed with Japanese food. Japan finds us such a great market.

Hawker food will not die.

But you’re going to see a situation whereby hawker centres will turn into malls. So there’ll be more franchises. and you see signs of it now actually. If you go down to the new Marine Parade hawker centre, you see that 30-40% of the stalls there are all chains. So you see the exact same stall at another hawker centre.

So that’s what it means to run a hawker stall in the current day and age lah. You need to - if you don’t scale up your production, you’re never going to make ends meet.

So the romantic story that UNESCO or everyone has spoken about family-operated or owned places, that’s just going to die out lah.

K: What do you think is going to survive? Out of all the food here.

JL: Chicken Rice. It’s easy. Easy to do easy to process. You can do it in a central kitchen and maintain its quality. For example Tian Tian chicken rice is done at the central kitchen. They know it themselves. This will happen lah. Things that land itself well in central kitchen, food that can travel a bit - that’s why theres so many roast meat stalls in hawker centres now. Because most of them don’t roast their meat on site, you don’t see an oven with the meat at the back means they are not roasting their meats outside.  

K: Is there a case for the 菜饭 (mixed rice) stall?

JL: Oh the 菜饭 stall will definitely be around. They were the progenitor of chain restaurants.

K: So the future is scaled hawker food.

JL: The future of hawker food is scaled, unromantic, and industrial. It’s a very depressing future.

K: Do you think Singaporeans appreciate what you bring to the table?

With Smith Street Taps…this spot is quite special for a lot of craft beer drinkers because this is where they first discovered their craft beer. Now there are so many sources out there but when a lot of people have memories of craft beer drinking in Singapore they think of this space.

So we’re happy to be a part of that and our customers are happy to be around la.

That’s why 6 and a half years and we’re still going strong. That’s an eternity in F&B.

Photography credits: Joel Lim Photography
Main feature image: Kenneth Chia

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