Singapore • April 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes
Nestled in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown District are a frenzied array of hawker street stalls. A standard across the South East Asian peninsula, these street vendors serve up dirt cheap local cuisine at the blink of an eye; flash frying beef noodles in woks or mixing up large pots of hearty soups for the hordes of hungry locals. And with Singapore constantly being rated as one of the most expensive countries to live in, these hawkers also double as a lifesaver for even the most extreme flashpacker. Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad, however. In fact, culinary excellence knows no price tag. Among these otherwise indistinguishable stalls, each with the same plastic laminated menus; grubby garden furniture; pestering flies, and putrid smells, one sticks out like a sore thumb: Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle.
More easily and commonly referred to as Hawker Chan, this establishment is protected from the sun by a large blue awning; ropes that you would more expect to find in the ride queue of the nearby Universal Studios set up on the pavement to deal with the masses of visitors pouring to visit. Whilst other hawkers are housed within Chinatown’s shopping centres, car parks, or are simple mobile operations that pop-up on the sidewalk, Hawker Chan has the appearance of an actual restaurant. And even before it opens for business people can be seen loitering outside, wanting to be the first to sample the now world-famous food.
Inside, you feel like you’ve more entered a McDonalds than a Chinese street food stall. A self-service touch-screen computer allows you to place your order electronically, with card payment from international banks accepted. Enticing pictures of the compact menu help you navigate the Chinese symbols as you compile your order, awestruck at how it can still be so inexpensive: “$4.80 for a chicken and rice dish? It must be a starter-sized portion for that price. I better order two.”
A receipt is then printed and you join the second queue to wait for your number to be called. Standing there, you look around and see that the seating could also have been stolen from McDonald's. It’s almost as if they’ve franchised it and then decided to white-out the menu board, replacing Big Macs with soya sauce chicken noodle dishes; nuggets with hor fun.
From behind the service counter, protected by Perspex glass, you can watch the chefs busying about in the kitchen. Cooked cuts of meat hang from skewers on the wall and as you wait impatiently the smell wafts out to the floor. As your mouth starts salivating, it suddenly dawns on you where you are. That blue awning hanging over the entrance has large white lettering on it that can be read all the way from the main road overpass. Large white lettering that reads in block capitals, ‘The World’s First Hawker to be Awarded One Michelin Star’.
You may initially think that this is some rogue piece of guerrilla marketing that helps Hawker Chan stick out more than this pasty, ginger, travel writer wandering around in such an ethnically rich area of the country, and you wouldn’t be scoffed at for being wary. When we think of Michelin Star dining, we picture bow-tied waiters with slicked-back hair; cutlery we don’t know how to properly use; palate cleansing dishes where we are unsure what on the plate is even edible; and a bill that may trigger our bank to put an ‘unusual activity’ block on our credit card. Not here. As the second blue awning proclaims, Hawker Chan is in fact ‘The Cheapest Eatery being Awarded One Michelin Star’, receiving the accolade in 2016.
After a ten-minute wait, my number was called out. I’ve read online that people have been known to queue for up to three hours at this particular hawker, but I think that is probably bullshit. I was there at 12:30 pm on a Friday and there were only three people in front of me in the queue. Collecting my plastic tray containing a slap-dash dish of soya chicken and rice, I fetched some chopsticks from the cutlery section and popped myself down on a random seat at one of the dozen shared-tables. I’d last eaten a Michelin Star meal in Prague, and the bill had racked up to more than one-hundred Euro. For this culinary experience, I’d received change from a tenner, and that included buying a bottle of water and soft drink. Move over crisp and hearty pinot from the Napa Valley, I think I’ll have a Sprite instead.
Presentation of the meal aside, it was bloody tasty and definitely hit the large spot in my stomach that had been made from walking around the city all morning. Having eaten there now, though, part of me can’t help but suspect that it is all a bit of a guerrilla marketing stunt. The Michelin Guide promotes excellence in cuisine, and in that respect, yes, Hawker Chan does do exceptional street food.
With 51-year-old owner Chan Hong Meng having opened a second, fully air-conditioned, establishment inside a bustling shopping complex in the wake of this sharp rise to international fame, however, can Hawker Chan still actually be defined as a hawker? Hawker may be in the name, but there was nothing hawker-like about my dining experience. In all honesty, I left the restaurant feeling like I had just eaten in a Chinese version of McDonald's; rude staff members to boot. It may proudly boast a Michelin Star, but it cannot say that it’s stuck to its roots.