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Midnight at Maxwell Food Centre: A Shadow of a Once Lucrative Hawker Business

Midnight at Maxwell Food Centre: A Shadow of a Once Lucrative Hawker Business

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Photography by the author.

At 12 PM on a weekday afternoon, Maxwell Food Centre is pulsating in the heart of Tanjong Pagar, a flurry of long-sleeved shirts, black pants and lanyards coursing along the three rows of stalls and through the narrow gaps between tables.

Come 12 AM on Friday night, when the financial district falls into a slumber for the weekend, the same surprisingly doesn’t happen for this historic hawker centre.

A handful of stalls remain open and they become an oasis for those who have to work overtime, as well as the famished night owls who have swooped in from the bars at Ann Siang, just further up the hill from Maxwell, or the nearby Kilo Lounge.

Most roost outside Hajmeer Kwaja Muslim Food and its drink stall counterpart, both operating 24 hours. As the Singaporean saying goes, To run a successful supper business, you must serve prata and teh. A plate of greasy fried dough and a cup of hot beverage is the quintessential Singaporean way to sober up, and the orders keep coming as more and more inebriated individuals take their seats.

We were hungry so we decided to drop by this place, says Ryan, a young American student whos just left the club with two other friends.

He looks and sounds too young to be admitted into Kilo Lounge, but I dont question. Weve already eaten Korean fried chicken last week, referring to the numerous Korean establishments that dot Tanjong Pagar road where the club is located So we wanted something different for supper this time. Theres nothing much in this area at this hour anyway.

He orders prata and Maggi goreng for his group.

Aram, a part-time Grab driver working the night shift, has supper here three times a week. Its quieter than your usual prata places, so its much nicer to chill while waiting for jobs.

Hip Indian beats emanate from the drinks stall, and juxtaposed against a dark and sleepy CBD, I feel momentarily lost in a melding of time and cultures.

At several single tables, elderly men sit alone, resting their heads on folded arms, some with unfinished drinks that have since gone cold under the whirring blades of the ceiling fans. Like solitary castaways on their own tiny orange islands, they drift through time and dreamscapes, occasionally stirring as they snooze.

On the opposite end of Maxwell, flushed ladies tuck into hot bowls of porridge against a backdrop of hearty, booming laughter from a group of men on their third bucket of ABC stout.

In this part of town where alcohol is priced at a premium, Maxwell is the only place where you can still pay a reasonable price for the big bottled beer that your typical Singaporean uncle subsists on.

Yet business has dropped substantially over the last few years, says Mr Yap, who runs the only other drink stall at this hour. Maxwell was once a full-fledged midnight supper place bustling with customers who would come from the many pubs and KTVs in the area. Those have since disappeared, along with much of the booze crowd. Today, most stalls dont bother opening till late any more.

He also cites the lack of parking lots as a reason why customers hardly come at night these days.

Lottery numbers on offer at an altar set up inside Maxwell.
Already 17 years in the business at Maxwell, the 60-year-old prefers to work at night because he cant get used to waking up early in the morning. Furthermore, competition in the day is so much fiercer with the other drinks stalls in operation.

In the past, people would just pay whatever price that you have set for your drinks. Now, people would come and ask me about the price of a bottle of beer first. If they find it too expensive, they will just move on to the next stall, Mr Yap tells me in Mandarin.

Even the ang mohs are more price-conscious and even haggle sometimes. They have the cheek to ask me to sell a bottle of Tiger beer at $5, when the cost price is already $6 each and I’m only earning a $1 profit, he laughs. Its not easy to be in this business now.

He explains that even with the hugely increased costs set by the drinks suppliers, hawkers like himself cant afford to increase profit margin by raising their prices. For instance, the price of a crate of sugar cane has gone up from $12 to a whopping $27, but hes only raised the price of a cup of juice by 20 cents. Still, some customers complain about their drinks becoming more expensive.

Mr Yaps rental costs $2,000 monthly, and he also has to pay an annual fee of $320 for his alcohol license. These days, hes just surviving to make ends meet, and has to open his stall on weekends too despite the fact that Tanjong Pagar is more like a ghost town then. He’s even elected to run the stall without a helper to minimise costs. As long as he can pay his rent and suppliers, he can sleep well at night.

To emphasise how hard it is to be in the business today, even if youre located at one of the most famous hawker centres in a central location, the veteran hawker adds that the stall next to his has already gone through 10 different tenants. The longest tenure was four years while the shortest only lasted a week.

Many young people dont understand that you will be burning a lot of money when you first open a stall. And if your business cant keep up, once your money runs out thats it.

For elderly hawkers like Mr Yap, running a stall is no longer about maximising profits. It’s just a way to keep themselves active and self-sustaining as they while time away.

“We can’t find work outside because nobody will employ us at our age. Being a hawker is the best thing that we can do.”

How do you think the hawker industry in Singapore will survive when costs continue to go up? How many hawkers will be left in the business in the next 10 years? Have your say at community@ricemedia.co.

Author

Benjamin Lim Contributing editor