Singapore’s bid to seek Unesco recognition for its hawker culture as an intangible cultural heritage had many Malaysians fuming. Apart from disparaging Singapore hawker food as a watered-down bastardisation of Malaysia’s “authentic” version, detractors also seethed at the city state’s audacity to claim, yet again, what they feel is rightfully theirs.

Such quarrels over heritage between the neighbours are not new (sometimes even Indonesia gets into the fray), underlining how intimately linked their histories and cultures, culinary or otherwise, are.

Singapore’s bid for UN hawker honour angers Malaysia

Critics of the Unesco application, however, are missing the point. The bid isn’t about a particular cuisine or its origin and ownership; it is about Singapore’s hawker centres and the important part they have played in national life. Like many of my compatriots, eating at hawker centres was and remains an integral part of my Singaporean-ness.

The phrase “hawker centre” seems oxymoronic because “hawker” suggests itinerant peddlers in random locations, whereas “centre” is the antithesis of that. Hawker centres have changed over the years and continue to evolve, but they have always offered affordable food in relatively clean surroundings. Singapore-style food courts, the air-conditioned iterations of hawker centres, have even been exported to cities across Asia.

Hawkers have been part of human history since the emergence of civilisations. In the beginning, farmers might have sold surplus produce from their land or livestock to buy goods they could not make themselves, such as oil, salt or more sophisticated farm tools. As time went on and human settlements became more complex, a specialised class of hawkers came into being.

We know that street hawkers were part of Chinese urban life as early as the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770–256BC). According to the Rites of Zhou, a work on the organisation of government and bureaucracy thought to have been compiled in the 3rd century BC, “evening markets are markets that operate at dusk, consisting mainly of male and female hawkers”. Even then, it is almost certain that hawkers existed long before the Eastern Zhou, and they have continued to ply their trade to this day, much to the chagrin of urban sanitation officials across China, as well as in Hong Kong.

Given the paucity of descriptions in historical records, the best way for us to, literally, get a picture of what hawkers were like in premodern China are depictions of street scenes in paintings such as Along the River during the Qingming Festival, by Song-dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145), and Ming Emperor Xianzong Enjoying the Lantern Festival (1485), or on murals such as the one in Yanshan Temple, in Shanxi province, which dates back to the Jin dynasty (1115–1234).

They show hawkers carrying merchandise – food, toys, cosmetics and so on – in baskets or chests tied to the ends of shoulder poles and setting up shop along busy thoroughfares. Food hawkers carried stoves, grills and items of furniture, such as low stools and tables, on these poles.

Shoulder poles have all but disappeared in China. The trade equipment of choice for today’s hawkers usually involves wheels, either foot-powered or mechanical. In Singapore, food hawkers can still be found in the streets, outside hawker centres, but the food on offer is of the “cleaner” variety, such as ice creams and pre-packaged snacks and beverages.