Ageing Singapore: 90-year old noodle vendor helps keep foodie culture alive

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Hawker Leong Yuet Meng runs a wanton noodle stall in downtown Singapore, selling at least 200 bowls on any given day. (Reuters)
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Hawker Leong Yuet Meng of Nam Seng Noodle House does her daily shopping for ingredients at a market in Singapore. (Reuters)
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Hawker Leong Yuet Meng prepares char siew or barbecued pork at her shop in Singapore. (Reuters)
Updated 06 March 2019
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Ageing Singapore: 90-year old noodle vendor helps keep foodie culture alive

  • ‘I try to do this as long as I can, but I am old’
  • The city has about 110 hawker centers and their over 6,000 stalls are mostly packed

SINGAPORE: Leong Yuet Meng cannot walk more than 10 meters without assistance. Yet, the frail 90-year-old still runs a wanton noodle stall in downtown Singapore, selling at least 200 bowls on any given day.
Leong rises around 4 a.m. to do some accounting and prayers before her son drives her to the local market to buy ingredients for the day ahead.
From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., she is hunched over a pot of simmering noodles, slicing char siu — barbecued pork belly — or serving bowls of bargain-price hot food.
“I try to do this as long as I can, but I am old,” said Leong, one of many older food vendors or ‘hawkers’ in the Asian city-state.
“I am afraid that all the experience that I have accumulated over the years will be lost. None of my children can take over.”
The city has about 110 hawker centers — open-air food courts set up to house former street vendors in an effort to clean up the island in the 1970s — and their over 6,000 stalls are mostly packed.
The government has said it will submit a bid this month to add its hawker culture to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“We’re putting the finishing touches (on the nomination),” Yeo Kirk Siang, a director at Singapore’s National Heritage Board, told Reuters. Nominations will be accepted until March 31 to be included on the list next year.
Celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay have effused over typically Singaporean dishes like chicken rice; some hawker stalls serve up the cheapest Michelin star meals at $2; and last year’s Hollywood hit film Crazy Rich Asians showed its stars tucking into heaped plates at a famous Singapore night market.
But the enthusiasm cannot mask one underlying problem — Singapore’s hawkers are getting older and their better-educated sons and daughters are increasingly shunning cramped, sweaty kitchens for office jobs.
The average age of hawkers is 59, according to a government report, well above the national workforce average of 43.
“UNESCO is not a silver bullet, it is just one of the things we need to do ... to keep hawker culture alive,” said Yeo.
To encourage Singapore’s street hawkers to resettle into the centers in the 1970s, the government heavily subsidized hawker rentals.
While around 40 percent of older hawkers still enjoy low rents, new hawker stalls are sold in an open bidding process, often making rentals much more expensive, especially at popular sites.
One hawker, 38-year-old Lance Ngo, said that finding hawkers in their 20s “is more difficult than finding gold.”
The government has introduced schemes in recent years to get veteran hawkers to pass on their skills to the next generation, teach business skills and subsidize equipment and rent to reduce overhead costs.
This has attracted some young hawkers looking for an escape route from dead-end office jobs.
“A lot of young people do see it as an avenue to be able to create and be their own boss,” 32-year-old coffee stall owner Faye Sai said. “This has attracted younger hawkers and career switchers but that’s a minority.”
But others say more needs to be done to make the business more lucrative longer term.
“Before applying for that (UNESCO), I think they have to settle the problems in front of them first. Twenty years down the road when all the older generation pass away, who is going to take over?” said Alan Choong, a 24-year-old owner of Sino-Japanese fusion food stall Prawnaholic.
Lee Sah Bah, a hawker in his late 60s who sells Chwee Kueh rice cakes at less than S$2 a portion, says he also faces the prospect of his legacy dying out.
His two daughters — one a lecturer at a university in Melbourne and the other an accountant in Singapore — won’t take over his business.
“I don’t think hawker centers will exist in the next 50 years,” Lee said. “It’s too much hard work, we have to put in 16 hours a day sometimes. It’s hot. Kids nowadays wouldn’t want to work here.”


The ethical gold rush: Gilded age for guilt-free jewelry

Updated 21 April 2019
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The ethical gold rush: Gilded age for guilt-free jewelry

  • Specialized producers now tack a “fairmined” ecologically friendly label on their output
  • Swiss house Chopard last year became the first big name to commit to “100 percent ethical” creations

PARIS: Forget how many carats — how ethical is your gold? As high-end consumers demand to know the origin of their treasures, some jewellers are ensuring they use responsibly sourced, eco-friendly or recycled gold.
Specialized producers now tack a “fairmined” ecologically friendly label on their output, and the Swiss house Chopard last year became the first big name to commit to “100 percent ethical” creations.
The Geneva-based firm, which makes the Palme d’Or trophy for the Cannes Film Festival, says it now uses only verified suppliers of gold that meet strict standards to minimize negative environmental impacts of mining the precious metal.
Among the many certificates and standards claiming to codify “responsible” goldmining, two labels stand out.
They are “fairmined” gold — a label certified by a Colombian NGO — and the more widely known “fairtrade” label launched by Swiss foundation Max Havelaar.
Both support artisanal mines that seek to preserve the environment in terms of extraction methods, along with decent working conditions and wages for the miners.
Such production remains limited — just a few hundred kilograms annually. Global gold output by comparison totals around 3,300 tons.
Concerned jewellers are keen to ensure they can trace the source of their entire supply to an ethical production cycle and to firms certified by the not-for-profit Responsible Jewellery Council, which has developed norms for the entire supply chain.
RJC members must adhere to tough standards governing ethical, human rights, social and environmental practices across the precious metals industry.
The French luxury group Kering, which says it has bought more than 3.5 tons of “responsibly produced” gold since 2015 for its Boucheron, Pomellato, Dodo and Gucci brands, has committed to 100 percent use of “ethical” gold by 2020.
“We are trying to maximize the proportion of Fairmined and Fairtrade gold — but their modest production is in great demand so the bulk of our sourcing remains recycled gold, (which is) certified ‘RJC Chain of Custody’,” says Claire Piroddi, sustainability manager for Kering’s jewelry and watches.
Fairmined or Fairtrade gold is “about 10 to 12 percent more expensive. But recycled gold barely generates any additional cost premium,” Piroddi told AFP, since it was already refined for a previous life in the form of jewelry or part of a high-tech product.
Going a step further, using only precious metal from electronic or industrial waste is an original idea developed by Courbet, a brand launched just last spring.
“We do not want to promote mining extraction or use recently extracted gold, so we sought suppliers who recycle gold used in graphics cards or computer processors. That’s because we know today that more than half of gold’s available reserves have already been extracted,” says Marie-Ann Wachtmeister, Courbet’s co-founder and artistic director.
She says the brand’s watchwords are ethical and environmental consciousness.
“In a mine, a ton of terrain might contain five grams of gold, whereas a ton of electronic waste might generate 200 grams,” Wachtmeister says.
“Clients are also demanding an ecological approach more and more — they are aware of their day-to-day impact and consider the origin of what they wear,” she adds.
“The issue of supply really resonates with the public at large,” adds Thierry Lemaire, director general of Ponce, a jewelry firm that was established in Paris’s fashionable Marais district in 1886.
The company is RJC-certified and uses only recycled gold.
“There is a logic to that — if we want to do our work well, then let’s go the whole hog and respect nature. That can be done today because the entire chain has become standardised.
“Studios such as ours that work for major names on Place Vendome are all certified,” Lemaire says, referring to an upscale square in Paris.
He represents the fifth generation of family firm Ponce, which produces 45,000 gold rings a year from recycled gold.
Working in a pungent atmosphere of heated metal, refiners sit hunched over polishing machines, a large leather hide slung over their knees to catch the tiniest shaving.
“Every Friday, we have a great clearout and go over the workshop with a fine-tooth comb to pick up little bits of (gold) dust and shavings,” Lemaire says.
“Nothing is lost, it’s a truly virtuous chain.”