Susanne Kerner

Since 2004, Susanne Kerner has been Lektor (Associate Professor) in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Carsten-Niebuhr-Section (TORS) in Copenhagen, Denmark (head of section 2005-2010); previously part-time lecturer at Free University in Berlin and several short-term contracts (analysis of archaeological material and field-directorship) for the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). Dr.phil (Craft specialisation and social organisation in the Southern Levant) in 1998 at Freie Universität Berlin. From 1990-1995 director at the German Protestant Institute for Archaeology and History in Amman (Jordan); 1988-1990 assistant director at the same institution. Since 1990 director or co-director of over 10 excavations and survey seasons in Jordan (e.g. “The Desert and the Sown in Northern Jordan (DSNJ)”, Umm Qais, Abu Snesleh).Numerous lectures at international conferences, organisation of exhibitions and conferences (e.g. “Food and Identity” in Copenhagen [with Cynthia Chou and Morten Warmind]; “Climate and Ancient Society” in Copenhagen, “Adaptation of Archaeological Methods in Near Eastern Archaeology” in Berlin). Research focus: social complexity, food and identity, theoretical archaeology, rituals. Teaching: courses on Prehistory and History of Near Eastern Archaeology, Social Organisation, Food, Ritual, Commensality, Gender at undergraduate and graduate level. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, Cynthia Chou

Cynthia Chou, Associate Professor with Special Qualifications (Lektor msk), social anthropologist, Head of Southeast Asian Studies, KU-ToRS. She is internationally known for her pioneering study of the life and lifestyles, as well as identity and change, of the indigenous Malays in Southeast Asia. She single-handedly built the Malay maritime life collection for the Singapore National Museum and has published highly cited books in this area which are used by several universities as textbooks. At KU, she initiated and directed several innovative programs of co-operation, both in research and education, with leading international institutions for which she has won various international prizes. Courses that she has been teaching at the University of Copenhagen include “The Anthropology of Food and Eating in Southeast Asia,” “Modernisation and Development: The Human Landscape of Southeast Asia,” and “Introduction to Southeast Asia Culture.” Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Morten Warmind

Since 2001 Lektor (Associate Professor) in Sociology of Religion at the History of Religions-section (TORS) in Copenhagen, Denmark; before part-time lecturer at Aarhus University (1992-1997), Odense University (1990) and Copenhagen University (1992-1995). PhD (“From severed heads to valkyries, studies in the relationship between Celtic and Germanic religions and literatures”) in 1997 at Copenhagen University, Department of Folklore. From 2003-2006 Head of Studies at the Dept. For History of Religion, Copenhagen University; 2006- present Head of Studies for ToRS. Numerous lectures at international conferences. Research focus: Prehistoric religions (Celtic and Germanic), Hellenism (esp. Early Christianity), religious minorities in modern Denmark, religious change. Teaching: Courses on Sociological Method and Theory, Celtic and Germanic Religion, Islam, Hellenistic religions at graduate and undergraduate level. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2015


Content Type:

Book chapter


History of Food

Related Content

How Chicken Rice Informs about Identity


Cynthia Chou

Cynthia Chou, Associate Professor with Special Qualifications (Lektor msk), social anthropologist, Head of Southeast Asian Studies, KU-ToRS. She is internationally known for her pioneering study of the life and lifestyles, as well as identity and change, of the indigenous Malays in Southeast Asia. She single-handedly built the Malay maritime life collection for the Singapore National Museum and has published highly cited books in this area which are used by several universities as textbooks. At KU, she initiated and directed several innovative programs of co-operation, both in research and education, with leading international institutions for which she has won various international prizes. Courses that she has been teaching at the University of Copenhagen include “The Anthropology of Food and Eating in Southeast Asia,” “Modernisation and Development: The Human Landscape of Southeast Asia,” and “Introduction to Southeast Asia Culture.” Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781474245326.ch-011
Page Range: 139–150


It has been said that “[s]tories about eating something somewhere … are really stories about the place and the people there [and that] the reading of a food’s story reveals, like any good biography or travelogue, a much bigger story—a cultural geography—of particular times and places” (Freidberg, 2003: 3–4). My subject matter in this chapter concerns the ordinary ritual of everyday life: food and eating, and the role that culinary artifacts play in the construction of a national identity.

The history of what a nation eats bespeaks the history of the nation (Bell and Valentine, 1997: 168). It maps stories of intriguing webs of exploration and power relations, the flow and exchange of people, ideas and goods, as well as the negotiations and contestations of cultural and social practices in times of change and transformation. Aspects of creating local iconic cuisines similarly speak of a place’s history as a society. As Avieli (2005: 168) notes, “Iconic dishes, due to various intrinsic qualities of food, are particularly suitable means for the negotiation and expression of complex and contradictory ideas concerning national identity.” The food–nationalism equation is indeed almost always a cauldron of contradictions since food that has come to be associated with particular places often stands for complex tales of borrowing, diffusion, invention, and reinvention. Despite these paradoxes, quintessential local cuisines have been created through the unique blending of ingredients from the inside and outside and the very performative actions of the people themselves. The question is thus, “how have people used local iconic cuisines to portray an identity?” By iconic food it is meant specific kinds of food, which instantly express, when consumed or just imagined, links to specific places, groups of people or communities.

This chapter will explore the various and differing ideas expressed by the creation of one such local dish, Hainanese chicken rice, in regard to a multifaceted and at times contested Singaporean national identity. It will also examine how so much of Singapore’s history is conveyed in various aspects of this humble dish and how it is a multivocal and powerful representation of the socio-cultural ideas of contemporary Singaporean national identity at an everyday level.

Food, cuisine and national identity

A well-known saying goes, “you are what you eat.” While this phrase can be interpreted metaphorically, its literal significance must not be overlooked. Food is a universal basic necessity for the very sustenance of life. No one can do without it. Moreover, it intermingles with different spheres of life—from household to nation, from local to global, and from religion to politics. Food affects the processes and relationships within and between these spheres. Hence, people make food choices. Convictions are stirred into passionate debates in our entanglements concerning how, where, and what to or not to eat. Food and foodways together form an important social barometer to reveal who we are, our origin, and our aspirations. They constitute “a highly condensed social fact” and “a marvellously plastic kind of collective representation” (Appadurai, 1981: 494). They unite people as much as they effectuate divisions, borders, and boundaries. In Fine’s Kitchens (1996: 1), he makes the astute observation that “the connection between identity and consumption gives food a central role in the creation of community, and we use our diet to convey images of public identity.”

That nations are constructed communities is well expounded in Anderson’s (1983) much celebrated work Imagined Communities, which reflects upon the origin and spread of nationalism. Every modern nation state has, within its territorial boundary, peoples with diverse cultural characteristics. For this reason, nationalist programs deploy particular historical narratives, census, maps, and museums to inculcate a sense of community into its citizenry. Within this discourse, scores of scholars have explored how national communities have emerged through the conscious “invention” of national traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). Considerable insights have been revealed concerning how states utilize their technologies of power—compulsory education, language, flags, monuments, songs, and celebrations—to create national symbols that elicit primordial sentiments of identification among the citizenry (cf. Cohn and Dirks, 1988; Foster, 1991: 244–8). Then again, this national imagination of belongingness propagated by the ruling elites more often than not germinates within it the seeds of its own questioning and cultivates hierarchical distinctions among its citizenry. The propagation of such national identities is clearly open to contest often as much by word as in action. Contrary to official promulgations, such symbols may not necessarily be what evoke the deepest and warmest emotive appeal for the common citizenry on an everyday basis.

Less discussed in academic explorations of national imaginaries are the more powerful and sustaining tools of imagination articulated by ordinary people themselves in their ordinary daily practices that lead to the construction of a community of belongingness. Analysis into imaginaries that have evolved into “second nature … material practice and lived experience” (Alonso, 1994: 382) such as how the “alimentary tropes” (Alonso, 1994) of cooking, food, eating, and digestion help produce, negotiate, and maintain a sense of nationalism on an everyday basis rarely receive much attention. The pertinent issue here as challenged by Palmer (1998: 180) is to identify these everyday practices and to advance “from this understanding of structural changes that allowed the idea of a cultural community to emerge, toward an understanding of how individuals became consciously aware of the cultural community … how a sense of nationality is constructed that links individuals to a particular cultural tradition.” Until now, little inroads have been made in analyzing the historical importance of the ways by which food and the iconic national dishes perceived by the people themselves have contributed towards the construction and negotiation of national identity.

Wide gaps prevail between the theoretical conceptualization of the nation as an imagined entity and understanding the daily practices that produce, reproduce, and maintain it. Studying and analyzing the seemingly mundane everyday practices of eating is simply not a trivial pursuit but constitutes significant sources for comprehending the movement of society and history. Food has tremendous historical importance (Belasco, 2002: 3). Yet academic texts do not seem to devote much attention to food and eating. In works on history regarding production and trade, or war and peace of the time, food and eating practices are ignored or at best fleetingly mentioned, whereas political and economic states of affairs receive careful deliberation. Without a richer socio-historical account throughout the years, little is understood of the development and evolution of iconic foods that have formed the nation from a bottom-up approach. Historical process is not unilinear. It is the corollary of multiple voices and formations as well as trajectories stemming from interactions and relationships.

Food is a powerful marker and referent of identity. Our choice of food “reflects our thought, including choices of people with whom we wish to identify” (Fiddles, 1991: 33). Food is something that can be indulged alone or in groups, usually with much pleasure and little censorship. Universally available raw ingredients can be combined and cooked in creative and diverse ways to produce an array of cuisines that reflect different forms of societies and cultures. In the words of Lévi-Strauss (2008: 37), “In any cuisine, nothing is simply cooked, but must be cooked in one fashion or the other,” with each rather emphatically presenting or expressing a great personal, local and regional variation or creation. Indubitably, the cultural transformation of the universal “raw” ingredients to the distinctly marked “cooked” cuisine takes on further symbolic meanings and relationships connoting corollaries such as economy versus prodigality: or plebian versus aristocrat. These aspects of food and cuisine as a positional marker take on “primary importance in societies which prescribe differences of status” (Lévi-Strauss, 2008: 39). As observed by Bell and Valentine (1997: 168), “food and nation are so commingled in popular discourses that it is often difficult not to think one through the other” and “a nation’s diet can have a key role to play in nationalistic sentiments” (ibid.: 165).

Food history of Singapore

In everyday conversations among ordinary Singaporeans, or between them and visitors from elsewhere likewise engaging in everyday conversations, food, and eating are always topics of passion in the island. There is no doubt about the central role that food and eating play in reflecting the history, heritage, life, and times of the people. Yet, ironically, there is a paucity of the written account of the island’s food history. In recent times, attempts have been made to redress this issue with works such as Kong’s (2007) study of hawker centers, Wong’s (2009) reflections of the wartime kitchen and Lai’s (2010) evolving story of the coffee shop. Although none of these works presents a complete story of the island’s food history, each is a crucial individual piece of a jigsaw that will hopefully materialize into a full picture in time to come.

Situated at the crossroads of some of the world’s most important maritime lanes, the island of Singapore’s advantageous and strategic location has been a crucial contributing factor for a story of the evolution of a rich food history to develop. At this maritime juncture, not only did ideas from major continents flow, intersect, and spread, so did a wealth of food and foodways. The early history of the island—from the seventh century when it was a part of the Srivijaya Empire to the thirteenth century when it became a part of the Malay Sultanate of Johor—has all too easily and erroneously presented, by and large, a story of a placid floating village inhabited by a small population of approximately a thousand persons comprising some 900 “primitive” boat dwelling orang suku laut (people of the sea), 20–30 Malays, and an equal number of Chinese. The cultural history of the people is presented as something simplistic with an account of their subsistence derived from a modest existence growing fruits but no rice, and a livelihood of gathering jungle yields, fishing, small-scale trading, and piracy (Turnbull, 1989: 5). Recent archaeological finds and in-depth studies of the orang suku laut reveal a more accurate account of the food history and what soldered the lives of the people in communities of that time (cf. Andaya 2010: 173–201; Chou, 2010; Miksic and Low, 2004). These works show that the island already possessed a rich food culture that was inextricably tied to the identity of its local inhabitants, particularly the orang suku laut. The identity of these maritime experts was already much intertwined with their unrivalled ability to harvest edible produce from the resource-rich marine environment. Their ability to navigate the seas to harvest every imaginable food from the maritime world provided not only food for home consumption but also delicacies for the neighboring world to feast on. Much of the prosperity and hence formation of the Malay sultanates depended on these sea-faring experts to bring in food items much sought after for this lucrative trade (Chou, 2003).

The culture of food and foodways took on new trajectories with the arrival of Western colonialists. In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles and his contingent from the British East India Company stepped ashore in Singapore. The former pressed for free trade in Singapore to overshadow competing ports under indigenous rulers, such as neighboring Riau, or those under Dutch control, notably Batavia (Jakarta), where traders were subjected to taxes and restrictions. With the opening of a free port came the influx of peoples from all over to trade and work. Droves of Chinese from southern China arrived to work as coolies, artisans, farmers, miners, and itinerant traders; Indians arrived first as sepoys of the Bengal Native Infantry, then as convicts and indentured laborers, and later in the twentieth century as clerks, educationists, and merchants; Malays from the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian archipelago; Armenians, Arabs, and Europeans came as traders; and Eurasians entered the realms of law, medicine, civil service, and trade (Jayapal, 1992: 45–50; Lee, 2008: 21–6; 36–8; Turnbull, 1989: 12–15, 36–8). The population of the island swelled from just over 10,000 in 1824 to more than 60,000 some 25 years later in 1850. The immigrants brought with them an array of new food and foodways. In 1837, the American missionary Howard Malcom (cited in Wise, 1996: 40) enthused over a sumptuous Chinese wedding banquet serving sharks’ fins, birds’ nests and fish-maw hosted by a wealthy Chinese merchant.

On an everyday level, a busy and lively food scene was unfolding as the immigrant population increased. The first market was constructed in Telok Ayer in 1820, along the waterfront in close proximity to the commercial district and Chinese quarters. By the close of the nineteenth century, five big markets could be found in Telok Ayer, Ellenborough, Rochore, Clyde, and Orchard Roads. The markets were vividly described as offering a profusion of fresh local produce, which included fish, vegetables, fruits, ducks, poultry, and pigs in addition to imported meat from Siam and India, fowls from Cochin China and the Malay Peninsula, and fruits from as afar as China (Knipp et al., 1995: 15). Food vendors did not confine themselves to these markets. In 1865, John Cameron (1865: 65) observed that

There is probably no city in the world with such a motley crowd of itinerant vendors of wares, fruits, cakes, vegetables. There are Malays, generally with fruit, Chinamen with a mixture of all sorts, and Klings with cakes and different kinds of nuts. Malays and Chinamen always use the shoulder-stick, having equally-balanced loads suspended at either end; the Klings, on the contrary, carry their wares on the head on trays. The travelling cook shops of the Chinese are probably the most extraordinary of the things that are carried about this way. They are suspended on one of the common shoulder-sticks, and consist of a box on one side and a basket on the other, the former containing a fire and small copper cauldron for soup, the latter loaded with rice, vermicelli, cakes, jellies, and condiments; and though I have never tasted any of their dishes, I have been assured that those they serve up at a moment’s notice are most savoury, and that their sweets are delicious. Three cents will purchase a substantial meal of three or four dishes from these itinerant restaurateurs.

Eye-witness accounts described the proliferation of food hawkers throughout Singapore in the nineteenth century (Wise, 1996). Hawkers provided cheap meals and snacks such as rice, noodles, and cakes. Before the 1870s, the gender ratio for the immigrant population was highly unbalanced (Turnbull, 1989: 57). Hence, hawker food provided cheap meals to the masses of male laborers who had come to work without their families. Street food, with people squatting together in public spaces to eat, provided a sense of commensality. The combination of street food hawkers and entertainment formed another important aspect in interlacing the social lives of the people. Roving hawkers followed wayang (street opera) troupes on their rounds. Certain foods came to be associated with these street opera stalls— ju her eng chye (a water convolvulus salad tossed with cuttlefish and jellyfish); ngo hiang (a five-spiced pork roll with selections of deep-fried accompaniments dipped into red chili and pink flour sauces); desserts such as sweet potatoes in ginger syrup; cheng tng (a refreshing soup of barley, longans, lily buds, gingko nuts, and lotus seeds); and snacks such as mua chee (glutinous rice flour balls sprinkled with a peanut sugar mixture) as well as dragon beard candy interwoven with many fine strands of spun sugar.

Although a scrumptious landscape of new food and foodways was proliferating the streets; and hawker food was bringing communities of immigrants together, the British colonialists also used food and eating as a cultural performance to enforce distance between ruler and ruled, and advocate a social hierarchy. In the nineteenth until the early twentieth century, Asians lived socially segregated from the colonialists. In contrast to the Asians, mealtimes for the British in Singapore were a display of conspicuous consumption both at home and in exclusive clubs. Their meals were elaborate Victorian fare with many dishes augmented by Anglo-Asian curries and tropical fruits. In John Thomson’s 1865 (cited in Wise, 1996: 77) memoir, he provided glimpses into such dinners whereby soup and fish would first be served, followed by roast beef, mutton, turkey, or capon. Supplementing this would be an array of vegetables, potatoes, and side dishes that included tongue, fowls, and cutlets. Next came various Straits curries and rice accompanied by local piquant sauces, pickles, and spices. Desert was a spread of puddings, preserves, various kinds of imported cheese, and tropical fruits. Sherry and pale ale flowed generously throughout the evening.

Food and eating were strong and regular ways for the British to exercise power. Such opulent fine dining predominated the British colonial society in the nineteenth century, with food prepared by Malay or Chinese servants. Until the 1960s, food was used as a marker for social distinction. Asians were banned from eating, let alone interacting, with the colonials unless on a master–servant basis. Seldom would any Asian visit hotels where wining and dining of the upper echelons of society took place. At premier hotels, which were mainly white establishments, such as the Adelphi, Goodwood, and the Prince Hotel Garni, guests dined on suitable Western menus.

Although Singapore colonial society was largely segregated with different ethnic groups residing within their own enclaves, and much as food and foodways divided the colonials from the Asians, food was also the very vehicle used to cross boundaries. Different communities acquired an appreciation of each others’ cuisine so that Chinese condiments of soya sauce or Portuguese chilies became indispensable household items to satisfy the evolving palates across many ethnic communities. The complex blending of Chinese and Malay cooking developed into the Peranakan culinary tradition, while the combination of Portuguese, Dutch, Indian, Malay, and Chinese flavors formed Eurasian food. The disparity between the colonial and Asian, however, did not preclude the percolation of the food the colonials ate to the Asian population. The bridging of this gap was made possible by the vital role played by the Asian cooks, in particular the Hainanese cookboys employed in colonial households. The Hainanese or Hylams arrived long after other larger Chinese immigrant groups had settled on the island because of the relative lateness in the opening of Hainan Island to foreign trade and seafaring activities. Upon arrival, they discovered that other Chinese and their clan associations had already gained control of the more lucrative trades. Hence, as a minority group and one that was at the bottom of the social and economic scales because of their illiteracy, lack of specific skills and difficulties in communicating with Chinese from other dialect backgrounds, there was little they could do but to persevere and try to carve out a niche for themselves in more lowly works such as being sailors, domestic servants, cooks, waiters, butlers, farmers, rubber-tappers, and other unskilled laborers. As time would tell, though, their resilience and creative spirits would serve to their advantage.

Many Hainanese were employed as “cookboys” and “houseboys” by the colonialists, so they began their culinary training in the homes and social clubs of nineteenth-century colonial employers. Very quickly, there came a huge demand for their services as they became known for their loyalty, reliability, and creativity in the kitchen. Their British masters and mistresses depended on them to maintain their colonial lifestyle and to present food that would serve to legitimate and perpetuate their higher social status (Lai, 2010: 8). While they labored to follow instructions from their employers to produce standard British cuisine such as roast chicken, pork chops, pies, and cakes, they also acquired innovative techniques and adeptness to use whatever available condiments to recast the dishes (Tan, 2004: 11). The ability of the Hainanese cookboys to manipulate food and foodways came to symbolize the possibility of crossing boundaries. They made available their knowledge of Western food and opened opportunities for others to learn that the adoption of appropriate eating and food preferences was crucial to the attainment of high social status by demonstrating a cultural affinity with the community of the masters. Wealthy Asian families in aspiring to be socially advantageous would host fashionable and lavish Western-styled receptions or parties serving cucumber sandwiches, meat roasts, and tea instead of rice and sambal belacan (shrimp or fish paste condiment).

During World War II, contrary to the popular view that there was not enough to eat, Wong’s (2009) documentation of wartime food and variety of recipes using local produce attests to the ingenuity of the people. The memories and autobiographies of how the people themselves recall their food history offers an intimate and vivid account of everyday life that otherwise remains untold in official narratives.

After World War II, an examination of how food and eating patterns moved in different directions has led to a deeper understanding of the changes in the political and social climate of the island. New coffee shops, bakeries, and other food and beverage enterprises were started by many Hainanese cooks who were left jobless with the departure of the British colonialists. That is, the Hainanese cooks had little choice but to use their culinary skills to carve out a new niche for themselves yet again. The emergence of this new food sector very much reflected the rebuilding of Singapore. The snackbar industry serving soda pop and hamburgers was soon cornered by the Hainanese. British colonial menus were replaced by American-inspired menus. Grilled meats peaked in popularity with the opening of American-style steak houses in the 1970s. The emergence of the Soviet Union as a super power in the 1960s led some Hainanese chefs to seek employment in Russian households on the island. Having thus learned to cook Russian food, these Hainanese chefs would in time open a number of highly successful and elegant restaurants specializing in Russian cuisine.

Today, Singapore is experiencing another inflow of immigrants and the everyday foods of the island continue to reflect “a highly condensed social fact” (Appadurai, 1981: 494) mirroring the webs of internal and external social interactions and relationships that the people imagine their nation to be. In this, we find the exploration and quest for self-definition. The promotion of official national icons such as the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid or the Merlion sculpture has proved to be more popular among tourists rather than among the citizenry in their everyday lives.[1] Instead, it is the continuation of these imaginaries of food and foodways via unofficial national cuisines that continue to capture the imagination of the citizenry. Among the various food favorites contending for the status of the unofficial but most popular national cuisine as perceived by the citizenry themselves is Hainanese chicken rice.

Chicken rice

The dish known as Hainanese chicken rice consists of two parts. First, a chicken is poached in a rich stock of garlic cloves, ginger, chicken fat, and pandan (screwpine) leaves. The chicken is then lifted from the stock and immediately soaked in ice-cold water to ensure succulence and tenderness. It is allowed to rest for a while before it is chopped into bite-size pieces and then neatly arranged on a bed of thinly sliced cucumber on a serving plate. Just before it is served, it is drizzled with light soy sauce and sesame oil, and topped with sprigs of coriander leaves. Accompanying the chicken is the rice, which is cooked in a separate chicken stock that gives it a shiny crust and a fragrant aroma. The Chicken Rice dish is served with a bowl of chicken soup, and a trio of sauces: thick dark soy sauce, ginger purée, and a tantalizing garlic cum red chili dip with a touch of vinegar. It is a dish of flavor, aroma, and texture.

Although it is called “Hainanese,” it has been documented that “the only chicken rice found in Hainan in China, an island off the southern coast of China, is made with the Wengcheng chicken, a bony fowl with very little flesh served with rice thick with oil and accompanied by ground green chilli dip. Hainanese chefs also use pork and chicken bone stock unlike their Singaporean counterparts who avoid the pork base in their chicken rice” (Singapore Infopedia, 2010).

Why has this humble street food appealed to national imaginaries of such a large portion of the citizenry? The much adored local food celebrity, Seetoh ( http://www.makansutra.com/Makanzine/aug00/national_day.html ) of the Makansutra fame wrote a mischievous but easily identifiable article for the ordinary person on the street:

National Day is when I eat chicken rice. Why? …

If I can, I’ll vote chicken rice to be my Home Affairs Minister. You see, every time I eat it here, it tells me I am home and the state of affairs about is a-ok! …

You see, I don’t need massive fireworks, dramatic flypast and mobile column displays to remind of how much home means to me.

All I need is chicken rice.

Mmmmm … I cannot quite articulate what this national dish reveals every time I savour a plate when I return home after a trip abroad, which is quite often. This $3 meal reminds me of my history here. I can hear the noise of the neighbours with their nosey kids waiting impatiently for you to vacate your hawker centre seat for them. I can also see the son of the chicken rice seller, a political science graduate, helping papa out on weekends when he is not on duty in the SAF. I can also smell the thick CBD traffic air whizzing by me—and my mind tells me, it alright, it’s home.

The simplicity—rice, chicken and cucumbers—tells me that there is greatness in this humble arrangement. Like the way this country grew up. Though alien in content, the ginger and chilli sauce add that zing that can only complete this Hainanese delight. Cliché—they are like the foreigners calling Singapore home. Polish off that plate and it can only be satisfying.

A narration of the story behind the evolution of the Hainanese chicken rice is but a fine reflection of the material manifestation of an evolving Singapore national identity, bridging the gap between theory and praxis of nationalism.

Wong Yi Guan is said to have been the first to bring the dish in the 1920s to colonial Singapore from Hainan Island. He started as an itinerant hawker plying chicken rice balls wrapped in banana leaves for 1 cent per packet along Hylam Street. Originally, chicken rice was eaten as hand-rolled rice balls (bui jin in Hainanese). The round shape represented harmony and family unity. The practice of shaping chicken rice into balls, though, started to fade from the 1950s, due in part to government laws requiring hawkers to conform to hygiene standards in the preparation and serving of food. After World War II, Wong moved his business into a coffee shop along the same street.

In the 1950s to 1960s, Wong used his chicken rice as a powerful food symbol to express his (and that of fellow Chinese in Singapore) political sympathy for and solidarity with the hometown folks in China who looked forward to bettering their lives under the leadership of the new communist government. He renamed his food “Communist chicken,”—a style which practically became synonymous with chicken rice (National Museum Food Gallery).

Subsequently, the founder of the famous Swee Kee chicken rice along Middle Road was said to have learned to make the dish from Wong.[2] However, the name “Communist Chicken” fell into disuse because the communist insurgencies in Malaya of the time led to the questioning of the loyalty of those Chinese whose political sympathies lay elsewhere. To be part of the new imagined Singapore, one should no longer be consuming “Communist Chicken.”

In 1971, the chicken rice dish moved into another realm. The then German chef of the Mandarin Hotel, a premier institution of contemporary Singapore, is attributed to have “created” the dish as a meal that is good enough for royalty. In a 2009 national day article, the following appeared in print in the local paper Today.

When they travel, some people pack their favourite flavours, like sachets of chicken rice mix—just in case their taste buds get homesick …

Before Chatterbox [a coffee house in Mandarin Hotel], several people would share a whole chicken. But Chef Gehrmann, who decided to put it on the hotel menu after he tried it at several hawker stalls in Singapore, presented it as a premium dish. The meat was served in individual portions and presented in a boat-shaped bowl along with rice, soup and sauces like chilli and garlic on a tray.

With a bit of advertising, the Chatterbox chicken rice took off and soon, legions of fans were crowding into the coffeehouse on the ground floor of the hotel. (Ng, 2009: 8)

The hotel offered the dish at half price each year on August 1, the date of the launch in 1971, which is very close to the August 9, the national day of the island state. However, this special offer eventually had to be scrapped not because of its lack of appeal, but rather because the annual celebratory promotion appealed so strongly to the sentiments of the citizenry that too many people turned up each time causing a jam.

It is reported that the Mandarin Hotel sells about 4,000 chickens monthly or 16,000 servings of chicken rice. It follows that there have been nearly 9 million servings since it was launched. The chicken rice dish has won numerous national cuisine awards for the hotel. However, it is ironical that throughout all these years, the chickens have come from the same supplier from Malaysia (Ng, 2009: 8).

Today, Hainanese chicken rice is used to promote Singapore overseas. It is often served at international expositions and global events abroad, and in Singaporean-run restaurants overseas. Hainanese chicken rice is also one of the few local dishes served on the national airline carrier Singapore Airlines.

Because of the Singapore’s historical links with Malaysia, it comes as no surprise that Hainanese chicken rice is also a highly favored Malaysian cuisine. At the opening of the Malaysian International Gourmet Festival in 2009, the Malaysian Tourism Minister commented that “Chilli crab is Malaysian. Hainanese chicken rice is Malaysian. We have to lay claim to our food” because some other countries had hijacked various Malaysian national dishes. These remarks led to a furor across the causeway. In this argument on both sides of the causeway, little allowance was given to the fact that both the contemporary nation states of Malaysia and Singapore were once a part of Malaya, and that the cuisine of the people tells their unique history and the heritage they share. For each side, this was a battle to lay claim to a cuisine that had greatly inspired the imaginaries of the construction of their nation state. As arguments were hurled back and forth over the issue of “Can you copyright food?” ( http://chutzpah.typepad.com/slow_movement/2009/09/st-can-you-copyright-food-.html ), the social history of the people continued writing itself as people on both sides of the Straits continued happily to consume chicken rice. There has been a call that “Hainanese chicken rice” is now so much a part of the Singapore identity that it should be called “Singapore chicken rice.”


The historical power of food in shaping the bottom-up cultural memory and identity of belonginess, for the citizenry has not gone unnoticed by those at the top. In the March 2010 debate on the budget statement in the Singapore Parliament, a member of Parliament conceded in the following speech that,

Food is another important part of our rich cultural heritage—one which has been and will always [be] an attraction to locals and foreigners alike.

We should consider setting up a Singapore Food Museum. There is much room to develop this. This history of our food variety will highlight our links to the world. Our taste buds connect us. Most Singaporeans coming home after a long trip will always say that the first thing they must do is to have their char kway teow or laksa fix. I am sure our second generation new citizens who grow up on hawker food will also have their favourites. At the same time, we are also exposed to many new cuisines and dishes from our new immigrants. ( http://www.straitstimes.com/STI/STIMEDIA/pdfs/budget_speech_by_baey_keng.pdf )

The case study of the chicken rice meal represents many things, including: both the articulation with the outside world and the people’s own internal integrity and ability to reproduce by their food imaginaries a community of belongingness. Chicken rice as an everyday icon is not abstract but substantive, and, when it is eaten, the nation becomes physically incorporated or embodied by its subjects. By the very fact that the structures of food and cuisine are not fixed and immutable, but in a constant state of transformation, reveals how powerful they serve as ingredients to be studied for relations between the individual and social collective in telling their own history of imagined communities. The transformations in the diet of the people of Singapore and the case study of the chicken rice meal is but just food for thought on larger issues.

[1] The orchid Vanda Miss Joaquim was made the national flower of Singapore in 1981. In contrast to other national flowers, it is noteworthy that the Vanda Miss Joaquim is a hybrid. It was the first Singapore hybrid plant to be registered (Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 2006: 578). The merlion is a mythical creature which possesses a lion’s head and the body of a fish. The idea of using a merlion to symbolize Singapore as the “Lion City” was mooted in 1964 by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board. In 1972, Lim Nang Seng was commissioned to create Singapore’s Merlion sculpture (Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 2006: 349).

[2] Swee Kee is a famous Hainanese coffee shop in Singapore. However, there is much debate over whether it was Swee Kee or still another Hainanese coffee shop Yet Kon Hainanese that first served chicken rice.