Through the Looking Glass of Singapore’s Past
I took a bit of time to go through some online articles that I posted in the previous post, and also to read through 2 chapters each from Eating Her Curries and Kway and Food, Foodways and Foodscape. I just wanted to take some time to post my thoughts on what the authors have wrote.
Perhaps due to Singapore’s small size or perhaps because everything is so inter-connected, it seems hard to separate the history of food and food culture from the political, social and economics climate of Singapore. Chapter 1 of Nicole Tarulevicz’s Eating Her Curries and Kway mainly talks about the history of Singapore and the importance of the free-trade city port which allows for the free-flow of trades and ideas. Technological advancement also changes the diet and meal sold here, as the author pointed out the founding of Cold Storage Company in 1903 allowed for refrigeration of ingredients that made certain dishes possible to be cooked on this tiny island.
What’s interesting is the shift from street hawker to purpose-build “Hawker Centre” in 1971 (“Yung Sheng Food Centre at Jurong was the first hawker centre to operate in Singapore”) that changes the way people traverse for food. In the past, the street hawker would station themselves around the roadside of Kampong to sell their dishes and even soliciting their business by loudly announcing themselves with a rhythmic sound of hitting a bamboo piece with a stick (the now renamed kok kok mee of yesteryear). Which the introduction of Hawker Centre, Coffee Shops and more recently, the Food Court, hungry patron looking for a quick meal would instead travel to the food store. So instead of the food coming to you, you would travel to the food.
What’s interesting is that kopitiam as a whole was founded way before the introduction of Hawker Centre, as early as 1919 of Killiney Kopitiam (in which had its own story of how the “kopi” came about) and the introduction of Kaya Toast by Ya Kun Kaya Toast in 1926. So it was an interesting time in mid-1970s to early-1980s where we have kopitiam, hawker centres and street food peddlers that so many adults Singaporeans fondly remembers. That was also the time where despite having many choices when it comes to having your meal outside, most families would rather eat at home. That would change in the next 10-20 years however, as the rapid development of Singapore and both parents working that made dining out a necessity.
SINGAPORE RIVER AND HIGH STREET CENTRE. 01/11/1976. National Archive.
It is thus important to have all these background information in mind when talking about the invention of local dishes in specific time period. One example would be the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant (founded in 1946) tied to the history of Black Pepper Crab. Their website notes dinning out was uncommon before 1970s and 1980s and most patrons were the British Army.
Food as Popular Culture and a Dying Heritage
Chapter 2 of Eating Her Curries and Kway made an interesting mention of food as culture and as a national identity. It is not unusual for the early Singapore government’s urban planning to have Hawker Centre serve a duo function of dinning, but also a place of social concession (while also serve as a spot to advance political agenda – think political parties making their rounds through the neighborhood during election period). In a way, food becomes a national topic that is less controversial than say, talking about religion or national crisis – to the point of political party leading their voters by their love and knowledge of food. (Note to self: gotta learn how to make kopi or prepare a Singapore dish if I ever enter politics)
We tend to romanticize the past, to the point where we try to emulate them. Nicole Tarulevicz notes how strongly we shield our history from being distorted by disallowing anyone that isn’t a “true-blue Singaporean” from altering them. Despite that historically the mass majority of Singapore’s population were migrants and immigrants that shapes the way we cook and consume our meals, we do not allow the present to be shaped, instead clinching onto the past. Part of our massive population consist of foreign workers, maids and foreign talent from a variety, “contemporary workers are yet to have a sustained effect on the culinary landscape of Singapore, despite the national rhetoric about the impact that migrants of the past have had on the country’s cuisine”.
A Unilever Food Solutions video showing the rosy side of “Singapore Food Story”.
Chau Beng Haut mentioned in his article “Taking the Street Out of Street Food” in Food, Foodways and Foodscape criticize the elevation of generic Hawker food to “heritage” status in order to promote Singapore as a tourism spot while foreign workers and new immigrants “passing” as “hawkers” that lower the quality of the food. That got me thinking about the modern foodscape we are currently in now, where you may have Chinese immigrants serving unique “Singapore” dish without knowing the significance and history of that particular dish. The same can be said of Singaporean selling foreign dish such as Korean/Japanese and European dishes.
This present us with a dilemma of what constitute a “national dish”? Is it the romantic history associate with it? Maybe it has to be sold at a specific location? Or perhaps it is the people selling them? With so many pioneers of street peddlers-turn-hawker centre chief passing on due to old age, is it still the same if the dish is cooked by someone different? Must the chief necessarily be Singaporean?
In the currently economic climate, as noted in the news, less younger people are willing to become hawker, which seems to go against the idea of Singaporeans seeing national dishes as part of their national identity and also Singapore as a food paradise. This poses a danger not dissimilar to the current threat to Chinese Opera and Wayang shows. Unlike the theatrical acts, however, food seems to serve a bigger purpose that also function to unites most people in Singapore (mostly Singaporeans) and this connecting tread might soon disappear.
I took this chance today to visit the Jurong Regional Library, where they have a bigger arsenal of books related to Singapore food. I will be looking through them as I continue my research.
- Singapore’s Vanished Markets and Hawker Centres
- Singapore Kopitiam Culture
- An Introduction to Singaporean Kopi Culture
- In Singapore, Taking Butter With Your Coffee