Lie Kam Fatt has been running a traditional Chinese dessert stall in Singapore for more than 40 years. For four decades, he’s been selling a wide range of sweet Chinese soups and custards, such as black-sesame and red-bean pastes.
In December, he had to do something he hadn’t done in three years: He had to raise his prices.
Lie hiked prices by 50 Singapore cents, or $0.36, per bowl. It may not sound like much, but for the mostly elderly, lower-income customers he serves, every cent counts.
“I know some of my customers will grumble about it, but I may have to shut down my business if I don’t raise prices. All of my ingredients have become too expensive,” he told Insider.
Lie runs a stall at Singapore’s Chinatown Complex Market & Food Center, the largest of more than 100 hawker centers — open-air food courts that sell a variety of cuisines at affordable prices — in the country. But while an SG$5, or $3.60, meal is a delicious novelty for tourists and an appealingly cheap alternative for some locals, for others, it’s a necessity. Hawker stalls are staples for lower-income individuals who can sometimes live off as little as SG$5 a day, and for this part of the population, a fifty-cent price hike amounts to a big difference.
Lie is one of many hawkers in Singapore who have had to raise their prices in the first half of 2022 to continue to make profits as the costs of many common ingredients — including cooking oil, chicken, and eggs — have jumped in the past year due to COVID-19, the supply-chain crisis, and the war in Ukraine. A bak kut teh shop that sold a SG$5 pork-rib dish for 18 years without adjusting its price, for example, just raised the price of the dish to SG$6, and one drinks stall has had to tack on an extra 10 cents to each of its SG$1.50 drinks since December.
For the 65-year-old Lie, he said the cost of almonds alone, which he uses to make his sweet-almond paste, has more than doubled since November last year — going from SG$7 per kilogram to SG$14.50 per kilogram.
“In all my years of doing this, I don’t remember things becoming so expensive so quickly. But I have to keep going on. This was my father’s business and I want it to last for as long as possible,” Lie said.
Customers are still coming — for the most part
The good news is that customers, for the most part, are still coming.
Despite the price hikes, many hawker centers have seen an increase of around 60% in the number of diners in the past few months amid the lifting COVID dining restrictions, KF Seetoh, a local food critic, told Insider.
Seetoh, a former photojournalist, has been reporting on hawker centers since 1996. He founded Makansutra Gluttons Bay, Singapore’s famed hawker center, in 1997, which today has nine stalls and is best known for being the one of the few hawker centers to offer a view of the Marina Bay skyline.
“Younger people understand what we hawkers go through,” a former hotel chef who owns a wok hey, or stir-fried dishes, stall in Chinatown and wishes to be identified only by his first name, Daniel, said. He has been in the hawker business for a year and a half.
Chinatown Complex Market & Food Center in southern Singapore.
Daniel said the bulk of his supplies have doubled in cost. A 16 kilogram-can of Golden Medallion, his cooking oil of choice, has shot up from SG$26 to SG$47.
Meanwhile, a tray of 30 eggs used to cost SG$4.70, but increased to SG$6.90 in May. Just a year ago, a kilogram of chicken thigh cost him SG$2.60. It’s now gone up to SG$4.50.
“Most hawkers get their supplies from the same few suppliers,” Daniel said. “I’ve started to look for alternative suppliers, mostly online, where prices might be more affordable.”
Daniel’s wok hey, or stir fried dish.
Some hawkers are holding out on raising prices for as long as possible
Unlike other hawkers, Seetoh pushed back on raising prices. He said his stalls continue to earn around SG$1,000 to SG$2,000 a night — but profits are much lower than before, as his business absorbs the rising cost of supplies.
“The revenue is the same, but our costs have gone up — no thanks to Russia,” Seetoh said. His stalls sell a variety of cuisines including Indian-Pakistani dishes and Western-style food.
Despite the cost of supplies increasing by up to 50%, some hawkers are unable to raise their prices because of the competitive landscape of hawker food in Singapore.
“Hawkers don’t really dare to raise their prices,” Seetoh said. “If you raise your prices, a customer can just take a few steps to another stall where your competitor sells food for 50 cents cheaper.”