The Transition of Singapore Hawker Signages
I spent close to two months surveying and studying hawker signages in Singapore.
Hawker centres have been around since the 1970s. They house a variety of food and delicacies from different ethnic groups. It is also a place to gather to chat and bond over a meal. The first hawker centre — Yung Sheng Food Centre was opened in July 1972. This hawker centre was known as the “60 Stalls” (六十档) because of the 60 stalls it had. Hawker centres have hence become an essential part of every Singaporean’s life.
Hawker centre signages have been one of the most intriguing yet undiscovered areas of study from a design perspective. There are different types of signages available in Singapore’s hawkers, each carrying different designs or similar typography. The key factor here is that majority of them use bilingual signages.
Signage is not just merely a decorative notice board, it is capable to influence the effectiveness of the message and that means bringing patrons into the space which is a signage’s existential purpose. (Quoted from Hawker Gawking in Singapore by Yeoh, 2014)
The Three Generation of Signages
Over the span of two months, I went down to a few hawker centres, dug through digital archives and newspapers. From there, I further analyzed the signages based on four factors — Font size comparison between languages; Typeface choices; Hierarchy of the languages; Colours used; Language used. The signages can be classified to three generations.
From the hundred photos collected from the 5 hawker centres, I identified a series of patterns that were prominent among them. The signages are generally classified into three generations. This is not the official term to define them but it is my observation from comparing the older signages to the newest.
First Generation (1970s-90s, can be occasionally seen now)
Easily identifiable by the pure usage of typography with no images of food. It is normally set against a white background with red/blue text for different languages. There is an occasional use of illustrations to show what they are selling.
Second Generation (2000s-Current)
The second generation of signages are identifiable by the mixed usage of food images and bilingual typography. The background now involves more colours such as green, yellow and red. The most common form of signages in this generation is the use of a single food image alongside the shop name. Around the 2000s, another wave of signages was developed. This semi-new signage can be seen with the addition of awards and recognitions given by television variety shows and food blogger reviews. It is often mixed with their food photos and shop names, resulting in a clustered signage.
Third Generation (2010-Current)
The third generation of hawker signages are identifiable by the distinct look of minimalism and custom typefaces for their shop name. It often involves the use of design principles such as fonts sharing the same characteristics to achieve visual harmony. In addition, they tend to only use their shop name as the main logo. They do not show any photos of their food or the awards earned on the signage unless it is with a sticker pasted over. It is somewhat similar to the first generation of signages.
The Value of a Hawker Stall
The main factor we are seeing the transition in the design ultimately comes from the shift of value as to what a hawker stall represents.
Feeding the Family
The goal at that point of time was simple — start a business to feed my family. Signage was simply a way for customers to know who they are buying from. The transition from roadside hawkers to indoor hawker centres no doubt requires them to set up a proper stall with a proper name. The signage became a need for their business.
Supplement the Business with Extra Value
Some decades later, the stall owners changed and so did the signages. In the early 2000s, with the popularisation of photography, signages with photographed food started to appear. The signages became an imagery board for customers to view from far and know what they store offers. This is almost similar to what a restaurant offers — a menu with pricing listed.
Adding the awards and recognition to signages also became a popular practice as the media created hype for stalls that offer great food. It can also be speculated that the cost of creating such signages are decreasing as more shops are capable to produce the making of large signages. Thus, every stall owner seeks to add value on top of what they currently have to offer.
Hawker as a Branded Business
With the rise of young hawkerpreneurs (a term given to younger hawker owners to raise the likeness of the career), we began to see a group of owners who take consideration into how their stall is presented and known. Hawker stalls are now becoming more like a branded business. From branded cutleries, social media, and signages, younger owners value aesthetics as much as the food they produce. This is also to attract younger audiences who are drawn to the ‘Instagram culture’ where everything needs to look nice and aesthetically pleasing.
The Transition Doesn’t Stop
Hawker signages have evolved multiple times through the decades, no doubt these decisions were made according to the social progression. Will hawker centres be a place for nicely design stalls? Will it still be a place with vernacular signages? Will this change the perspective of how Singaporeans view a hawker centre?
At the time of writing, it’s Singapore’s 55th birthday! Happy National Day Singapore! My favourite place to be :)
I write about Chinese and bilingual design in Singapore. Writing is not my forte, and I am actively seeking all kinds of constructive comments. Feel free to PM your feedback to email@example.com. Otherwise, I am also happy to chat with you about Chinese/bilingual design in general!