URECA – Fighting for Resource, Wartime Singapore

From what I understand, World War II can often be seen in multiple angles and one of them is the fight for resources. The above CrashCourse video give an overview of World War II happening due to the lack of resources in the invading countries. This is also the theme in Wong Hong Suen’s ‘Wartime Kitchen’ and this post will be based around this book along with ‘Eat to Live: Wartime Recipes’ 6-part episodes on the same topic, both by the National Museum of Singapore.

The story of Wartime Singapore, also known as the Japanese Occupation, takes place from 15 February 1942 to 12 September 1945. In the preface of the book, the introduction talks about tapioca and sweet potatoes shadowing people’s memories. While that horror is definitely true, the food of Wartime Singapore goes beyond that. During WWII, the Japanese authority issued rationing cards and implemented the currency known as ‘Banana Notes‘. Due to decreasing rations and hyper-inflation due to corruption from the quasi-monopolistic (known as kumiai) firms set up by the Japanese, along with escalating black market prices, families are often without enough rations and many fell ill and succumbed to the disease due to lack to vitamins.

The Japanese also rolled out the “Grow More Food” campaign where almost all parts of usable land is used for agriculture. This turned many urban folks into simple farmers that had never done any farming before. Many land such as gardens were converted to farming areas.


Syonan, which means Light of the South, is the name given to Singapore during the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945. The magazine depicts an ostensibly smiling local Chinese woman at a vegetable plantation. https://roots.sg/learn/collections/listing/1995-01102

This also extend to the land of Bahau (Begri Sembilan) and Endau (north of Johor in Malaya), where people send off there to produce crops back to mainland Singapore. While Endau did fairly well, developing into “a small town with coffeeshops, restaurants, shops, a hospital, a school and even a bank”. Sadly that is not the case in Bahau as most people “lost their lives to malaria and other diseases”. The poor supply of water, drainage and bad soil along with drought and heavy rain ruined crops and disease killed livestock. Both food both settlements grew includes tapioca, sweet potato, fruit trees (banana, papaya), and maize plants.

As time went on, food scarcity became more and more severe. “The most important dietary deficiencies were protein and fat”, and “although most people did not starve, as food was available, ingredients lacked variety and food tended to taste monotonous”. Tapioca became very widely used as they are easy to grow and takes little time to harvest, they “became synonymous with shortage and hunger”. As Banana Note became less and less valuable, food became an unofficial currency as workers preferred to be paid in food instead.

Starvation becomes something that is closely remember in WWII. People became obsess with food, covering conversations and even Prisoners-of-War wrote fantasy recipes wishing to eat things that they can no longer be able to. Yet unbeknownst to the local population and POWs is that food shortage is a manufactured problem by the Japanese authorities. Wealthy families are slightly affected, where as the Japanese (troops, high ranking officials, people called to serve here such as Japanese teachers) and their close allies are able to feast every day.

In a way, war has turned into a death game of survival and with that food became the central topic in everyone’s mind all the time. It is a time when everything is revolved around food. It was also a time where “everybody became a hawker” and turned the world upside-down and a large number of women entering the workforce to supply their household income. The book mention that 1947’s Cenus of Population that hawking as the second most popular female occupation, after domestic service.

The book mentioned due to the lack of money, women are forced to enter the workforce to supplement their household income. The book notes that this “was possibly the first time Nonya cakes were introduced to the public and sold as street food”, as well as becoming hawker and shopkeepers, “selling popiah and laksa on the streets”. As quote from the book, “In 1942, Mary Lim, a 19-year old Nonya woman… learnt to make cakes and popiah and sold them near Tanglin Road.” Other small snacks she made includes kueh lapis (steamed layered cake), kueh koci (rice flour cakes stuffed with coconuts) and kaya cakes. As with many other dishes, rice flour were replaced with the more common tapioca flour. This is significant for the Peranakan population as traditionally men have always been the sole breadwinner and the food that Peranakan prepared has always been for cooking for family instead of selling so this is the first time the mass public was able to taste Peranakan cuisine.

It was an irony that people are perhaps eating healthier during wartime as they consume more vegetables instead of meat. The number of marriages surprisingly also increase during this time, although they are a lot simpler and more small-scale. Going back to food, as people are more poor, they were forced to consume unpolished-rice, which again is ironic as it contains “two times more minerals and four times more fibre than the polished rice favoured by many today”. Besides tapioca, other substitute for meat and rice includes sweet potato, coconut, and eels fished by the locals at “the concrete slabs of a monsoon drain”.

Meat was a luxury item during Wartime Singapore, common meat such as chicken, duck, beef, pork and fish became inaccessiable to the majority of the population. Meat was then bought in very small qaunity just to create the taste and flavor for soup and vegetable dishes. People then turned to more unconventional meat such as dog meat rabbits, guinea pigs and even subsituting them with fermented soya bean cake.

In terms of food history, World War II have a very profound impact on Singapore’s society at that time as it turn the whole social order around and forcing people to make adjustment to their diet. It forces people to get creative and uses alternative to their traditional dishes, as well as making more dishes available to the masses due to the need to increase one’s income. This influence the taste buds of everyone during the period.


Singapore Infopedia. Bahau Settlement. Accessed 28 Dec 2016: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1220_2006-12-29.html

Singapore Infopedia. Endau Settlement. Accessed 28 Dec 2016: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1221_2006-12-29.html?s=endau

World War II: The Battle of Singapore. Accessed 28 Dec 2016: http://www.midnightinsomnia.com/wwii/

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