Food That Binds

Singapore food is a kaleidoscope of our national identity. Tucking into a favourite hawker meal, whether here or overseas, connects us to our ancestors, our nation’s forefathers and to our neighbours — all heartstrings that lead to a place we call home.

By Violet Oon

Migrant workers tucking into a freshly prepared hot meal by a roadside stall, circa 1960s. PHOTO CREDIT: SPH-ST

You are never more aware of your national identity than when you are abroad. And food is amongst the top of the list, if not at the top, when you ask any Singaporean abroad about what makes us Singaporean — our shared dance experience? Our shared literary experience? Our shared music experience? Our shared HDB experience? Our shared National Day Parade experience? Our shared National Service experience?

Unlike in the USA where there is a very real and throbbing culture of The American Dream, our Singapore Dream is still evolving and changing. What is our dream? Is it an ideal as in the USA or is it rooted in more tangible things like the 5Cs — car, condo, credit card, cash, country club membership? Fortunately, I have observed a shift from these tangible dreams in recent years to much more idealistic and humane rooted dreams. Yes, the Ugly Singaporean does rear its head but at the same time, the Beautiful Singaporean reveals itself in people giving up tangible assets to pursue a dream — lawyers into baking, for example. More people are reaching out for dreams that are rooted in the arts, in the green movement, as another case in point. That is why our dream is still evolving and changing.

Sharing Food

Char kway teow is a firm favourite in Singapore’s hawker foods. PHOTO CREDIT: SPH-ST

And in the midst of our evolving dream is the issue of foreign talent and foreigners in Singapore — we have not yet come to terms with what our real feelings are towards immigrants — considering that nearly all Singaporeans are of immigrant stock.

But one of the yardsticks of our national identity is our shared food experience.

Yes, this would come at the top of the list when you’re away from this Little Red Dot, and when you long for home — you will find

what you yearn for most is the sound of the sizzle when the fat hits the wok at the hawker stall when the hawker is frying up your favourite char kway teow.

One student in the UK actually used to ask his friends to put the mobile phone next to the char kway teow wok so that he could hear the sizzle and imagine the taste at the edge of his tongue.

Why food and not something else? This is because we are a nation of immigrants, of men who came to work on their own and who at first left their families at home in China, India, Sumatra, Sulawesi — and what they commonly shared was the dormitory experience. The men would sleep 10 to 20 in a room at night. There was no privacy or private space but there were shared experiences and kinship. There were hardly any cooking facilities and the men would eat out each night at the street stalls, having food cooked by street vendors. This shared experience brought them together and was a way of living with other cultures. The satay vendor, the chwee kway vendor and the Indian curry shop — when popular vendors relocated from the streets to hawkers in markets, in dedicated centres and corner coffee shops, their identities and specialities were kept authentic.

Samy’s Curry is one of the fish-head curry dining institutions in Singapore.

Pioneer Hawkers
The famous Samy’s curry, for example, started out in Tank Road cooking dinners served in packets each night to Indian workers. M. Veerasamy started Samy’s Curry in the 1930s in a small shophouse. He was then in his early 30s and   customers were mainly Indian labourers — car washers and newspaper vendors. In the beginning $30 bought a labourer three meals a day for one month. Many top police officers and civil servants joined the crowd and enjoyed the meals at the restaurant premises.

Loh Yeow Seng of Hai Sing Ah Balling  in Chinatown remembers that his late father Loh Tai Yu started the business nearly 70 years ago. He came from Kuan San, China and he was a road side hawker, plying his trade illegally — Loh recalls running off whenever the police turned up and having to push the cart ahead of them as they ran. He remembered that their main customers were dockside workers and labourers who wanted a sweet treat at night after work. Reminiscing, Adrin Loi of Ya Kun Kaya Toast says, “Arriving from Hainan, China, in 1938, my father worked as a coffeeshop assistant before starting his Ya Kun kaya  stall in Telok Ayer Basin selling plain bread with jam, peanut butter and coffee. My mother, who joined him later, picked up the recipe for kaya  and we began selling brown bread kaya  toast at 20 cents per serving, each cut into eight pieces. In the day, our customers were coolies and seamen while nightfall brought us taxi drivers. In 1972, we made one of our many moves to Lau Pa Sat and in 1998 we moved to Far East Square.” Ya Kun is one of Singapore’s best known names in food and has many branches throughout the island and even abroad.

A common thread running through the stories of our pioneer hawkers is one of providing food to labourers, men who worked hard and who did not have the comfort of a wife and home to go back to each day. And the experience of these shared meals served to forge a deep
bond between them.

Sharing Street Food
Many of these labourers improved their lot and got married, had children, and these children grew up to be university graduates and businessmen, bringing with them the history of shared street side food of their fathers. This accounts for the strong sentiment and love that Singaporeans have for their hawker/ street side food — now housed in food courts and hawker centres and corner coffee shops.

Foreign Cuisines

But…much of this shared culinary identity, which centred on specific hawker food dishes, has actually eroded in the past 10 years. While char kway teow , fried Hokkien mee  and or luak used to each take pride of place in individual stalls in hawker centres, you now find them lumped together into one stall in Singapore’s food courts. What has now become our shared culinary identity? Take a walk through the food court in any mall and you will find that it includes the following: Cantonese roast meat, chicken rice, nasi padang , yong tau fu , local desserts, local coffee, Teochew braised duck …… and then the rest are foreign imports or new local dish collections and modern interpretations that have made inroads in the past 10 years into the Singapore culinary consciousness —Korean and Japanese cuisine, Indonesian ayam penyet , pasta, steamed soups and pepper hot plates.

Erosion of Our Food Culture?

Dr. Leslie Tay keeps Singapore hawker food heritage alive by blogging about it and
organising food trails.

Is this erosion serious enough to compromise our cultural food identity? Does it affect the way we feel as a nation of foodies? Dr Leslie Tay, Singapore’s most famous food blogger and champion of our hawker culture, says, “Definitely our shared food heritage — Singapore’s hawker food — is the main tie that binds Singaporeans at home and abroad. Everything changes so rapidly in Singapore — the buildings, the roads, the system — and almost everything that is from our childhood has disappeared.” Dr Tay has written a book called The End of Char Kway Teow and other Hawker Mysteries. Does this end of char kway teow as we have known it for the past half century mean the death of our shared food memories and our shared food heritage that binds us?

“My wife and I have noted that even the places we used to go dating are  gone. So there are no memories of these places and people. Amidst this ever changing scene that is Singapore, the food has remained fairly unchanged and is a constant.”

“I would say it is our anchor in an ever changing Singapore and so it is truly very important in our identity as a nation.”

Changing Landscape

After much reflection and nostalgic longing for ‘the food old days’ the answer is a resounding ‘No’ — because the nature of our national identity, as with any national identity, morphs and changes. This is part of evolution — nothing stays still, national identity included.

We are now a nation more sophisticated and erudite internationally, and our young graduates can hold their own anywhere in the world. In New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, you will find young Singaporeans in banking, management consultancy, hotel management — the list is endless.

As our young develop an international identity along with their national identity, so has our cultural and emotional landscape morphed. Do we like it? Do we like the fact that our restaurant scene has an international vibe that rivals that in the top cities in the world?

An Evolving Scene

Teochew porridge, a street food speciality, is now served at food courts and restaurants.

The jury is still out. And at this moment, as our national identity has seen a seismic change with new citizens and new PRs (permanent residents) and new transient residents from many lands and cultures, it has not settled down yet to an equilibrium.

This state of flux is reflected in our foods that bind and it is no more a case of the ‘food old days’ but new frontiers and a new national food identity. Our new pioneers are the young men and women who blog, who cook, who start their own cafés, restaurants and food businesses. Every day in the newspapers, you read of some young chef starting an outlet to serve his own version of the Singapore food dream — biscotti for one, his grandmother’s Nyonya  food for another and a chocolate cake chain for yet another. The scene is palpably vibrant and I cannot wait to turn the page to the next chapter in The Singapore Food His-Story!


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