The streets are dark. At 4.30am, Singapore is still in deep slumber, an uncharacteristic image of calm before the metropolis shudders to life in a few hours. But for Botak Cantonese Porridge, the day has already begun. A middle-aged couple dressed in matching burgundy shirts arrives at their store in Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre. They raise the shutters and head straight to work – starting meal preparation before the breakfast crowd reaches at 7am.
Ngoh Jook Guan, 59, and Ivy Lim, 55, have stuck to this strict daily schedule since the hawker centre opened. And just for today, a special visitor has accompanied them to watch them work. Armed with a bright smile, 25-year-old Raphael Hugh earnestly documents the porridge-making process with his smartphone camera, striking up conversations with the seasoned hawker duo.
Raphael goes by @raphhugh on TikTok. His recent series of clips that give audiences a behind-the-scenes look at hawker life has gone viral, garnering thousands of views. From you tiao masters to noodle chefs, the up-and-coming TikToker has been hard at work featuring ordinary hawkers who serve our favourite dishes for a living.
“I love capturing everyday scenes that people always overlook,” shared Raphael, “I realised that I really like interacting with people behind all the food and the people behind a story. And when you share that story online, people start to appreciate hawkers more as well.”
Content on hawker food has been enjoying increased attention in recent years, especially with the rise of TikTok. A quick scroll on the platform would reveal a plethora of food recommendations, reviews, and fun videos that offer viewers a quick history of hawker stalls. By presenting mundane moments in an artful way, these TikToks remind us that hawkers are not merely service providers, but have rich stories to tell too – just like anyone else.
Ivy and Jook Guan are not new to the media scene. Courtesy of their daughter’s outreach efforts, Botak Cantonese Porridge has been highlighted in online magazines like Eatbook and Sethlui.com. This time, it was Lim Hwee Yi, 24, who contacted Raphael and asked if he could make a TikTok about her parents’ store.
“I just want to try and create more brand awareness because we have been here for six years,” said Hwee Yi. The polytechnic graduate in communications recognises the power of social media to promote businesses. After all, she is a heavy TikTok user herself and is often influenced by TikToks to patronise F&B establishments. When swiping on her “For You” Page, she also identifies potential creators who may be willing to give a shoutout to Botak Cantonese Porridge.
But older hawkers are less likely to leverage social media to market themselves. Relying mostly on word-of-mouth, these individuals are unaware of how coverage can speed up brand promotion, potentially leaving them behind in our digitally-driven society. That is where media-savvy Gen-Zers like Hwee Yi and Raphael step in to prop them up. A hawker’s daughter and a TikTok influencer – working hand in hand to spread the word.
Indeed, TikToks and publications help hawkers to reach a wider audience. But beyond that, this content can do much more than market brands too. Ivy noticed a stark difference before and after she started receiving media attention. Previously, some customers acted in a demanding way toward the hawker couple, deeming them as “low-class” citizens. However, these customers have since adjusted their attitudes after noticing Botak Cantonese Porridge in the media.
“It is important for the public to know what hawker life is like,” explained Ivy. “With all this media coverage, it allows them to understand that we work very hard for our business and want to provide good food for you. So treat us nicely and respect us.”
She emphasised, “Media attention does not only serve as an advertisement – it can also educate the public that hawkers are actually human beings.”
The results of hawker-focused content on TikTok are heartening. But on a more sinister note, can these efforts sometimes be viewed as invasive attempts to expose hawkers’ signature recipes? And does this create additional pressure on hawkers to accept interviews when they are already so busy with their day-to-day responsibilities?
For Ivy and Jook Guan, at least, these issues are not a problem. “Basically, we think that good things can be shared,” said Ivy. They are even open to training young cooks on the porridge craft if these aspiring hawkers are willing to learn. Moreover, Ivy used to work as a travel agent, so she has an outgoing personality and is comfortable interacting with media representatives while she cooks. Their experiences are not universal, of course.
Ivy pointed out that other older hawkers tend to be less fluent in English and feel that they do not need additional publicity. Since they have already built a loyal customer base over the years, the lack of social media may not be that detrimental to their business, she claims. Additionally, some choose only to operate their stalls two to three days a week as they have passed the retirement age, so it might be difficult for new customers to head there.
Yet, these concerns do not discount the importance of highlighting everyday heroes who are often forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of city life. That is why Raphael’s TikTok series brings hawkers back to our collective psyche. “People don’t know that hawkers wake up at 2am and start work at 4am. They don’t know everything that goes behind that $3.50 bowl of porridge in front of you,” Raphael reflected.
Raphael’s TikTok series began when he first approached a mama shop owner for a video. After publishing the TikTok, the owner, Uncle Lim, thanked Raphael for documenting his life’s work. No one had thought to take photos of the unassuming businessman before. But now, Uncle Lim can watch this video to relive memories of the past – after all, his shop will be replaced, and the history and stories behind it will disappear once he decides to retire.
The mini-documentary accumulated a whopping 174.9k views on TikTok. Comments were rife in nostalgia about mama shops that played a significant part in many Singaporeans’ childhoods. There were also delighted cries of recognition at familiar faces and scenes in the video.
So, TikTok is indeed a powerful platform to share stories – not only humorous dance videos or eyebrow-raising trends. Hopefully, more young content creators will follow Raphael’s footsteps and draw focus on the love and labour that hawkers invest in their craft. Raphael mused, “Maybe sooner or later, hawker culture can become something that Singaporeans can truly be proud of.”
If you are interested in trying Botak Cantonese Porridge’s food selection yourself, their store is located at Our Tampines Hub’s Hawker Centre.
Meanwhile, you can also follow Raphael’s journey in documenting hawkers over at his TikTok channel.
Photos by Raphael Hugh. Additional visuals courtesy of Eunice Sng of the DANAMIC Team.