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Review: The Hawker by The Second Breakfast Company

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★★☆☆☆ (Attended 13/11/19)
Good attempt to immerse audiences in this novel concept, but let down by a central lack of purpose.

The humble hawker centre is nothing short of a national icon. Representing our multicultural society with its mix of just about every kind of cuisine, along with its affordability and convenience welcoming diners of all class and backgrounds, it truly becomes a microcosm of Singapore itself.

But even as this is celebrated in ways such as being pushed to be on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, or common hawker fare gets made into mass produced memorabilia, it’s an icon that’s dying, thanks to rising operation costs, an unwillingness to commit to the long arduous hours of labour and unsustainable prices, amongst other reasons. How long more can we hold on to our hawkers then?

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With The Second Breakfast Company’s production of Aslam Shah’s The Hawker, the company explores the consequences of the death of the hawker centre and the parties affected. Directed by Tan Hui Er (with assistant director Lynn Chia), the production also subverts the traditional theatrical form, by attempting to immerse audiences in a simulacrum of an actual hawker centre, allowing them to sit amongst various characters and ‘eavesdrop’ on their individual stories and conversations as they deal with the hawker centre’s impending closure.

From the front-of-house to the performance space itself, The Second Breakfast Company has gone to great lengths to create a believable hawker centre environment within Aliwal Arts Centre. Designed by Republic Polytechnic students Shawne Yzleman, Eve Irdina, Irfan Hadi and Samuel Chia, printed placards reminiscent of hawker stalls are stuck across the windows outside the theatre, while even the front-of-house don plain t-shirts with towels slung around their necks. If they so wish, audiences can even pay a nominal fee to enjoy a plate of food and drink to bring into the performance and consume while they watch.

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In the theatre itself, audiences are seated across various round tables, with half-eaten plates of rice and almost-finished mugs of drinks still on them, as if we have just taken over another group that finished their meal. Fairy lights typical of a streetside coffeeshop are strung from above, posters of missing cats are placed on the pillars, and some of the seats are even ‘choped’ with packets of tissue paper. At either end of the theatre is a washing up area and a makeshift ‘stall’ hawking mee rebus, while a big white notice above it states in no uncertain terms that the hawker centre is set to be demolished to make way for a new shopping mall. Even the ‘programme’ takes the form of a laminated, garishly coloured table placemat reminiscent of coffeeshop menus, rife with (intentional) misspellings and text in Comic Sans font. Together, all of this shows what a phenomenal effort has gone into production design.

The Hawker begins as couple Ah Teck (Hu Yuheng) and Rosie (Rachel Yen) take over the centre, a moment filled with possibility and new beginnings, full of pride and joy as they hang up their shiny new sign. But it’s not long before all those hopes are dashed, as we fast forward to the hawker centre’s last day of operations, and see the effect it has on both stall owners and visitors. Ah Teck and Rosie are on the verge of a divorce; secondary school students Li Ann (Lynnie Cheng) and Cindy (Ong Yixuan) talk about their schoolmates, teachers and family; Li Ann’s brother and cai png stall employee Larry (Ivan Tan) reconnects with army mate Ash (Dennis Sofian); migrant worker Arumugam (Jaisilan Sathiasilan) is on a phone call with his mother; and Malay stall owner Daud (Fadhil Daud) and Tiger Beer aunty Nancy (Val Teh) navigate their fundamental differences with each other. Of the cast members, Rachel Yen stands out as the performer who truly embodies her role as the failed businesswoman, a distinct tinge of sadness in her heart as she realises how much she is about to give up.

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Each of these five scenes takes place simultaneously, with each set of actors performing their respective scene at each table before moving to the next and repeating it. In between, we catch glimpses of characters as they go about their daily lives at the hawker centre, showcasing how their lives practically revolve around it. While this format helps create a realistic, noisy atmosphere and allows each scene to feel as if we are eavesdropping on the conversations, the format itself seems to compromise on the immersive format the team worked so hard to create, with the act of repetition breaking the illusion of each conversation taking place before us in real time.

Where The Hawker is lacking most lies in its thin script, where as much as we understand each character, there is never enough depth or urgency to them, such that we are curious but never compelled to find out their fate when the hawker centre shuts down. The most relatable scene ends up being the one between Larry and Ash, with both actors well-cast to portray the stereotypical ‘ah beng’ and civil servant respectively. Pressures rise as their scene goes on, as Larry takes out his grievances by attempting to bargain, then outright yelling at the only face of the ‘enemy’ he knows and feels is responsible for his dire situation, and a familiar situation to how helpless one feels in the face of decisions made by authorities beyond our control. In addition, the scene between Daud and Nancy too is one that highlights a common situation in our country. In Nancy’s outrageous suggestion that they work together to set-up a “mee rebus and beer” shop and that Daud simply cast aside his religion, we see that there are certain things we still take for granted, and an underlying ignorance that prevents us from fully co-existing as a multiracial, multicultural society,

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The beauty of The Hawker is that it seems to work precisely as intended – to present a series of brief, fleeting conversations that allow audience members a glimpse into these characters’ little crises. Surrounded by the hubbub of other scenes taking place around the other tables, we feel like ghostly intruders on these private talks, silent witnesses unable to intervene as we watch these lives change before our eyes thanks to the destruction of this place. In the final scene, there is a lingering sadness that hangs in the air as the sign that once seemed so full of hope finally comes down. Yet, while change is always hard, just as the city continues to grow, so shall these characters live on and find a way to adapt to their new futures, the former hawker centre fading into mere memory and a relic of the past.

The Hawker plays from 13th to 17th November 2019 at Aliwal Arts Centre. Tickets available from Eventbrite

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