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Traditional ice cream carts & lao hero uncles selling ice cream is a dying trade & disappearing fast. Ginnapis samsters got eat b4?



Singapore's 'ice cream uncles' are disappearing. Blame old age and bureaucracy.

An elderly ice cream seller poses next to his traditional cart and bike.

Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
  • Traditional ice cream carts and their elderly vendors are a familiar sight in Singapore.
  • The $1.10 treats are often sandwiched between rainbow-colored bread and are especially popular among tourists.
  • But strict regulations around street hawking put the future of the industry in question.

Squatting on the ground in front of a bicycle parked along an empty alley in Singapore, an elderly man carefully hammers a block of dry ice into smaller pieces.

"It stings, but I'm quite used to it," the man, who prefers to be known only by his last name, Liang, told me in Mandarin Chinese.

An elderly man handling dry ice with his bare hands.

Most hawkers collect their ice cream and dry ice from wholesale distributors around the country. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
It's a windy, overcast Friday morning and Liang, who is in his 70s, is getting ready for work.

Soon, he'll load his cooler with ice cream from the wholesale distributor next door before selling the treat to passersby in the sweltering equator heat for about 1.50 Singapore dollars, or the equivalent of $1.10, with only the shade of his bike's umbrella to keep him cool.

An elderly Singaporean man with a slight frame holds a giant umbrella next to his ice cream cart.

Liang, who is in his 70s, is one of remaining traditional ice cream sellers in Singapore. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
Liang is one of Singapore's remaining traditional ice cream sellers and part of a bygone era.

Up until the '60s, Singapore was teeming with street hawkers, selling everything from shaved ice desserts to pork rib soup.

Now, only about 150 of them are working on the streets today, largely due to strict regulations in the city-state.

Unlike America's ice cream trucks, these hawkers in Singapore run their business on bikes — some of which aren't even motorized.
The vehicles come attached with a cooler to store blocks of ice cream in an abundance of flavors, from the traditional (chocolate, vanilla) to the less common (corn or even the polarizing fruit, durian).

A close-up shot of a woman's hands, holding two traditional ice cream sandwiches.

In Singapore, these traditional ice creams are often served with a slice of bread, with wafer biscuits, or in a cup. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
Orders can be served in a cup, between two thin wafer biscuits, or, perhaps most recognizably, wrapped in a slice of rainbow-colored bread.

These days, licenses are difficult to obtain

For many Singaporeans, these traditional ice creams are an affordable, nostalgic treat. Buying one from one of Singapore's "ice cream uncles" is almost a right of passage.

One of the traditional ice cream carts along Orchard Road, Singapore's main shopping street.

A queue forms in front of a traditional ice cream cart along Orchard Road, Singapore's main shopping street. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
But it's not easy being a traditional ice cream seller in Singapore, where street hawking is strictly regulated by the Singapore Food Agency, or SFA.

"In 1994, street hawkers were licensed in a one-time exercise to control their numbers and no more licenses were issued after that," the SFA told me in a statement. "However, in the early 2000s, the Street Hawking Scheme was reopened as a means to temporarily help those who are needy tide over their financial difficulties."

These licenses are valid for one year but are non-transferable, the SFA added.

An elderly man securing a giant umbrella onto his ice cream cart.

Older hawkers have a license that allows them to sell anywhere in Singapore, while newer hawkers like Liang can only sell ice cream in the area where he lives. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
"The older generation hawkers were previously issued with islandwide licenses, which enabled them to ply their trade anywhere in Singapore, such as in tourist belts like Orchard Road," Kenneth Goh, the third-generation owner of Chip Guan Heng, an ice cream distributor, told me over email

However, the newer hawkers tend to be issued with localized licenses specific to the region where they reside, Goh added.

A close-up of a traditional ice cream cart.

Some ice cream uncles have a bell that they ring to catch the attention of people passing by. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
In 2019, Channel News Asia reported that there were only 13 street hawkers left who were permitted to sell ice cream on any "public land," per the SFA. This includes about seven sellers on Orchard Road.

"The Street Hawking Scheme is intended to provide temporary assistance for the unemployed and is not a permanent solution for anyone trying to make a living," the SFA said.

Today, if anyone approaches the SFA for a street hawking license, the SFA would connect them to the Social Service Office to see if they require financial or employment assistance.

The SFA did not respond to additional queries about the difference in license types, if new licenses are still being issued today, and whether or not it has plans to ensure the continuity of Singapore's ice cream hawking scene.

The SFA also did not share the cost of these licenses, although an old article published by local paper Today in 2014 reported that the licenses under the renewed Street Hawking Scheme cost S$120 a year.

'It's just the way it is'

One 80-year-old seller named Tan Ah Hock told me he has been selling ice cream since 1967. He's set up on the city's popular shopping street Orchard Road most days of the week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

"If I can finish selling early, I'll leave early," Tan said. Last week, a colleague told me she saw him still set up and selling to a line of customers past 10:30 p.m.

An elderly man slicing a block of durian-flavored ice cream at his cart along Orchard Road, Singapore's main shopping district.

Orchard Road ice cream uncles have a slight edge over sellers in the neighborhoods, thanks to the constant footfall along the shopping street. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
The minimum retirement age in Singapore is 63 years old. But Liang, Tan, and many other traditional ice cream sellers in the country find themselves working well into their golden years.

The job is physically demanding: The old ice cream sellers carry heavy boxes and spend most of their 10-hour shifts on their feet.

An elderly man looks through a styrofoam cooler box filled with dry ice and ice cream.

In addition to the ice cream cart, the ice cream hawkers often also use big cooler boxes for additional storage. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
There's also barely any time for a break, especially for those on Orchard Road.

Such was the case for an 82-year-old seller, who prefers to be known by his last name Wang, when I visited him on a Wednesday afternoon. His cart is located in front of Wisma Atria, a long-standing mall on the street.

Barely 10 minutes after his giant red umbrella came on — a signal that he's open for business — a line formed in front of his cart.

I watched quietly beside him as he sliced through a giant block of chocolate chip ice cream.

A close-up shot of an elderly man's wrinkled hands slicing ice cream into smaller blocks.

Wang slicing Cookies and Cream-flavored ice cream into smaller blocks. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
"It's getting harder to cut these frozen ice cream blocks. My wife is coming to help me later, she's got more strength," Wang told me. "I'm already old."

Nostalgia and tourism could save the industry, but is it too little, too late?

Chan Yong Leng, another Orchard Road ice cream seller who has been in the business since the '60s, thinks the industry will die out in a few years.

Indeed, I noticed most people buying traditional ice creams on Orchard Road were tourists.

Social media appears to be a major driver in the industry. A Filipino couple on their first visit to Singapore told me they learned about the ice cream uncles through TikTok and wanted to try it out for themselves.

Customers posing with their traditional ice cream in front of the cart.

The traditional ice creams are especially popular among tourists, although locals also think of them as an integral part of the country's heritage. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
And for many Singaporeans, these traditional ice cream sellers are an important part of the local heritage.

"I'll try to buy ice cream and support them when I can," Darren Tan, a 26-year-old local, told me. "It'll be sad if there are no more ice cream seller uncles in the future. There are not many places in Singapore where you can find such affordable and nostalgic ice cream."

Over the past decade, Goh has also witnessed a steady decline in the number of ice cream hawkers in the country.

"It would be very sad if we are no longer able to hear the familiar sound of the ice cream bells ringing in our estate in the near future," he added.

A close-up shot of an elderly man's wrinkled hands on the lid of a biscuit tin.

Wafer biscuits are stored in tin cans that are tied to the ice cream cart. Lester Ledesma for Business Insider
When I asked Chan, nearing 80, if he ever considers retirement, he told me he plans to continue selling ice cream for a few more years.

"Things may be different now, but in the past, people would look down on you if you told them you sold ice cream," Chan said. "I don't feel any particular way about the industry dying out, it's just the way it is."


Ok the bottom line is these ice cream uncles are being gotten rid of by attrition. Like dai pai tong in HK ...the gahmen dont want them but issue licences so that the low ses ah peks can earn a living. Because they offer cheaper makan options it hurt gahmen revenues..as gahmen wants high prices for licences etc...u think the gahmen governs for the ppl? U wait long long