I have witnessed overly-cultured and genteel visitors from strange lands descend onto our popular hawker centre (where they serve flavors that define the country's culinary culture), at mad peak hour moments and wonder, "Ahem, so is someone going to show us to a table for 4?"
Not going to happen ma'am.
The technique of securing seats at those feeding frenzy hours had long ago been reduced and translated to a fine art form called "chope." The first thing chope master artists do is to hone in on an empty table and mark their turf -- by putting the cheapest or most useless personal item they have on them, usually a half used tissue pack, a cheap ball point pen or even a worthless bargain stall umbrella on the seat. That, in mod-Singapore street food speak, means "lay off, she's taken," or in local vernacular called Singlish "Chope, this seat mine" (a local English slang, sans the polite grammar and attitude the British left us with).
I don't know why, but I have seen seemingly intelligent folks use iPhones and laptops and even their whole rucksack (with money and passports hidden inside) to chope -- then later bitch about how unsafe the hawker centers are on Facebook. Heaven and hell is fair, work on it and you always get what you tempt for.
There are 107 hawker centers currently in Singapore, each housing up to 200 street food specialist stalls. If your gastronomic creed decree the need for such iconic hawker feed when in Singapore -- then chow down first on these guidelines to surviving a Singapore hawker center.
These are the 10 immutable laws of using Singapore's hawker centres.
1. Firstly, scour the hawker centre for empty tables or chairs. You can share tables with other feeders but ask ahead, as they may be invisibly "choped" too (a human guard has more clout than tissue packs). Chope your seats with half-used tissue paper pack. Ensure the seats are near your favorite stall as meandering about a crowded hawker center with hot soup in hand is no fun.
2. Chope also an extra seat for your bags. Trust us, it no fun biting into a juicy HP-sauce-infused Hainanese pork chop as your bag is sliding down your lap onto a stressed out hawker centre floor at peak hours.
3. Say your order in slow but clear broken English (loose all the polite grammar) for best effect. Some gruff looking university-educated hawkers will think you care about their mastery of the language. They may happily retort with a "sure thing dear, would you like us to up the spice quotient?" as they care about yours too. Otherwise, they may just blast more chilli paste in anyway.
4. If you are wearing white tops that need to stay clean, stay away from curries, thick soups and dark sauces. These things tend to bounce all over your shirts at hawker center.
5. Choose who you want to share a table with -- all white- and blue-collared folks toil and sweat under the same permanent humid summer in Singapore and eat under that same stuffy hawker center. Sniff out good seats.
6. Ordering drinks from the beverage auntie or uncle (just a sampler)
- Coffee with condensed milk and sugar: Kopi
- Coffee with evaporated milk and sugar: Kopi-C
- Coffee (as above) but less sweet: Kopi siu tai
- Coffee black with sugar: Kopi-O
- Coffee black, no sugar: Kopi-O Kosong
- Milk Tea: Teh
- Black Tea with sugar: Teh-O
- Black Tea with less sugar: Teh-O siu tai
- Chocolate with a dollop of chocolate dust atop: Milo Dinosaur
8. If it's not a self-service stall and they offer to bring the food to your table, sit close to them, as they may just ignore your order if you are seated near the wild Alaskan corner of the hawker center.
9. Transfer the leftover crockery of your vacated table to another, so the cleaner will attend to your table faster as it's easier to wipe clean.
10. If you are clueless as to what to order, just follow the queues and ask those in the line with a smiley tourist look and perfect English "This is my first time, what should I order?" Be prepared for a deluge of confusing answers that should prompt you to activate Plan B: point at the dish of the chappie in front and tell the hawker "same thing" -- and pray they ordered the right stuff too.