A St. Anthony’s Girls’ School teacher in 1950 told The Straits Times she could “never concede to the provision of hawker food stalls in school premises” and urged parents to give their children nourishing food during recess instead .
Her comment will raise questions among Singaporeans today, especially those who went to school after the 1950s. Was there no school tuckshop to sell food to the pupils? Her open resistance to hawker food suggests it was not unusual to find them in school premises.
The same report interviewed three schools which permitted hawkers to trade within their compounds indeed. Chong Hock Girls’ School at Telok Ayer Street conceded that “specially approved hawkers” were selling seven to eight varieties of food to their pupils. Armenian Street Chinese School opened its gate to hawkers, mainly to prevent children from “going outside and getting involved in accidents”. Gan Eng Seng School had no complaints about the hygiene of the hawkers selling popiah, sausage and “roja” to its students, but it was annoyed by “the noise they caused”.
By 1954, “all Singapore schools give concessions to one or more hawkers to trade in their grounds on payment of a small rent”. This was brought to light in a news report addressing concerns that the hawkers at Bedok Girls’ School were over-charging for snacks . The story also revealed that the school’s tuckshop sold only biscuits and tea.
It appears that food hawkers were brought into schools to complement the tuckshops, which did not always offer a full meal. Even Raffles Institution, the oldest and most prestigious school in Singapore, had only one stall in its school canteen in 1950.
But hawker stalls would soon disappear from schools. The first sign was in 1960, when the Ministry of Education mandated tuckshop stallholders to sign individual agreement with the principals, to prevent monopoly of school tuckshop by one stallholder . There were “thousands” of stallholders from about 700 school tuckshops by then. The report made no mention of hawkers.
In 1966, the Singapore School Canteen Vendors Association complained about unlicensed hawkers plying outside schools and undercutting its members . The story does not rule out the possibility of licensed hawkers selling inside the compound, but it is unlikely the Association would condone that.
The New Hawker Code enacted in the same year finally prohibited hawkers from selling within 50 yards of government schools, marking the end of hawker food in schools .
Stories about school tuckshops hardly talked about the types of food sold. There was only a glimpse on what school children were eating when restaurateur Violet Oon, who was a Straits Times reporter, visited different school tuckshops in 1980 and reported the sales of chee cheong fun, lontong, curry puff, chap chye peng, noodle soup and yong tau foo .
Such long list captured only a glimpse, because, even till the late 70s and early 80s, a large proportion of students were packing food from home, or had it delivered to them during recess and lunch breaks . It was so common in those days that when Ghim Moh Primary closed its gates during recess in 1977, the principal found himself explaining to The Straits Times that he meant to train the pupils to queue for their own food and eat on their own, not to prevent them from having home-cooked food, as a parent had suggested .
Pork lard and chicken skins probably shouldn’t have a place in schools, especially primary schools, but it seems that packed school lunches too are doomed to fade into history, with women’s entrance into the workforce beginning in the 80s. No number of wide-opened school gates will revert that.