Johor Kaki Travels for Food

johorkaki@gmail based in Singapore, travels to Johor, Malacca, Riau & worldwide for food

The History of Hainanese Chicken Rice is the Story of Singapore

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Updated: 13 May 2020. The humble Hainanese chicken rice is arguably Singapore's unofficial national dish, much more so than the more glamorous chili crab. Chicken rice stalls are everywhere in Singapore and standards are so high, you need to be really unlucky to hit a bad one.




Chicken rice is so deep in the Singaporean psyche that it even spawned a full length movie "Chicken Rice War" in 2000. Fifteen Twenty years on, "Chicken Rice War" is still one of Singapore's best productions, in my humble opinion.



Singaporeans are so attached to chicken rice that we will be up in arms should any foreign country attempt to claim it 😡

Singapore chicken rice is usually referred to as Hainanese chicken rice as the Hainanese were the first people to popularise this dish here. (But, the dish has evolved much from the original Wenchang chicken of Hainan 👈 click  )


Image credit: Wikipedia
Hainan is a tropical island off China's southern coast. Most Hainanese immigrants arrived in Singapore from around 1840s to 1920s. The majority were from Wenchang 文昌 district in the northeastern corner of Hainan island (pink colour in the map above). Today, there are about 220,000 Hainanese in Singapore.


View of North Bridge Road looking from Purvis Street in 1910. Seah Street is the side street on the left. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Most early arrivals from Hainan island settled in the Hainanese enclave around Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street. Older Singaporeans refer to them as Hainan First Street, Hainan Second Street and Hainan Third Street respectively. Middle Road was also known as Haikou Road after the capital city of Hainan island.



The Hainanese brought to Singapore a hometown delicacy known as Wenchang chicken rice 文昌雞飯. Wenchang chicken rice remained in Hainanese homes as a dish for special occasions until around the 1940s. After the Second World War ended in 1945, economic hardship forced many people to become street hawkers.

Street Hawkers in 1930s Singapore. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The first chicken rice vendor was Mr Wong Yi Guan 王义元 who in the 1940s peddled his Hainanese chicken in the Hainanese enclave with two baskets slung on a bamboo pole across his shoulders (mainly along Middle Road). He later moved into a coffee shop along Purvis Street thus starting Singapore's first Hainanese chicken rice stall.

Mr Wong's stall was known as "Commie Chicken 共產雞" and he had the nickname "Uncle Commie 共產叔". But, Mr Wong was no communist - he got this reputation because he would generously give away any unsold chicken rice to his neighbours. Uncle Commie was also a gambler, and if he had a lucky hand on that day, he would close his stall early and gave away his chicken.

Chicken offering at temple altar in 1980s Singapore. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Chicken was a luxury then and most people ate it only during major festivals like Chinese New Year. (Even in the 1970s, I ate chicken just once or twice a year and only because it is a food offering during major festivals.)

Swee Kee in 1950. This is such a precious photo for chicken rice lovers. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Mr Wong's apprentice Moh Lee Twee (alias Mok Fu Swee / Moh Lei Swee) 莫履瑞 opened Swee Kee Chicken Rice 瑞記 at Middle Road in 1949. Swee Kee kept live chicken in cages behind the restaurant. Their chicken were always fresh and beautifully done. Swee Kee was the most famous Hainanese chicken rice restaurant of the early years and responsible for popularising the dish in Singapore

Swee Kee in 1990. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Swee Kee of Singapore closed for renovation in 1997 but never re-opened. It was a sad event in Singapore food history.

Swee Kee 新瑞记 Chicken Rice in Senai, Johor Bahru
Click photo for Swee Kee story ^
Swee Kee's former workers reopened Swee Kee in Senai, Johor where it still operates today (Oct 2015 May 2020). The shop in Senai still use the Swee Kee brand name with the previous owner's permission. (There are a few unrelated chicken rice restaurants operating in Singapore using Swee Kee's name.)

There were plans by Mok Fu Swee 莫履瑞's son Moh Tai Tong 莫泰錩 to bring back their Malaysian cousin from Senai to restart Swee Kee in 2016 but it never come to fruition.


Singapore Chicken Rice at Yet Con, Purvis Street 逸群鸡饭
Click photo for Yet Con story ^

Yet Con Restaurant 逸群鸡饭 along Purvis Street also founded in the 1940s (like Swee Kee) is the oldest surviving pioneer chicken rice shop in Singapore (as at Oct 2015 May 2020).

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History
Yet Con and Swee Kee (in Senai, Johor) are probably as close to the original Swee Kee style of chicken rice as one can get in Singapore or Johor today.

Not all chicken rice lovers today will automatically like the chicken served at Yet Con and Swee Kee (in Senai). Many felt that their chicken is not tender enough and not juicy enough.

Singapore is also home to other Chinese clans such as the Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka. Around the 1960s, the Cantonese also started selling chicken rice in Singapore.



The Cantonese use two techniques that result in more juicy and tender chicken. The chicken is poached in 90°C (sub-100°C) chicken stock (or water), so the chicken meat is more tender. The poached chicken is also immediately dunked in a tub of ice and water which results in smooth, slightly springy skin and a layer of congealed fat between the skin and flesh.

The chicken is served at room temperature to retain its textures, juices and flavours at their best.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

I like chicken that relies on its natural flavours for taste. Several chicken rice stall owners told me that they use chicken of at least 2 kilo per bird for their better flavour.

The chicken meat texture must be tender but cooked through i.e. no rare crimson blood. The juicy pieces of chicken should feel slippery smooth in the mouth (爽滑 as the Cantonese say).

Over the years, the chicken rice in Singapore gradually evolved from the original Wenchang chicken rice to a unique Singapore style of chicken rice. Singapore chicken rice popularised by the Hainanese is now influenced by Cantonese techniques. It also uses local ingredients such as extra hot chili padi (which are not used in the original Wenchang chicken rice in Hainan).



Whether served deboned or with bone in, chopping skill 
刀功 is crucial for good chicken rice. I like my chicken chopped in bold large chunks as most of the juices remain in the flesh (and not leaked away when sliced into skinny slivers).

In Singapore, stalls often serve their chicken deboned or at least offer this option. Wenchang chicken in Hainan is always served with bone. I also prefer my chicken with bone for extra flavour.


SGT_Kiang_Chatterbox_Chicken_Rice
 SGT Kiang
Serving boneless chicken with chicken rice was the innovation of the team at Chatterbox cafe in Mandarin Hotel Singapore. In 1971, the team of Executive Chef Gunter Peter Gehrmann (from Germany) was instructed to introduce hawker dishes into the cafe. SGT Kiang proposed Hainanese chicken rice which chef Gehrmann accepted.

Knowing that Western and Japanese guests which were the Mandarin's main clientele weren't used to eating chicken with bone, SGT Kiang served the chicken boneless. The chicken rice at Mandarin Hotel had the reputation of being the most expensive chicken rice in Singapore, but it was a roaring success and responsible for putting Singapore's Hainanese chicken on the world map in the 1970s. To this day, the chicken rice at Chatterbox is still on the bucket list of tourists.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Whereas Wenchang chicken is never bathed with dressing sauce, Hainanese chicken in Singapore is bathed with a dressing sauce just before serving. The sauce is made with a blend of light soy sauce, sesame oil, fried shallot oil and a dash of Chinese cooking wine 花雕酒. Of course, there are many variations such as adding oyster sauce and every stall have their own special secret blend.

For example, at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, arguably the most famous chicken rice stall in the world, the best thing in their dish today, in my opinion is their full bodied special sauce with layers of robust savoury flavours.

How did Tian Tian become the most famous Hainanese chicken rice stall in the world? For that you have to read about the history of Maxwell Food Centre, the headquarters of chicken rice in Singapore 👈 click

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History
Besides the chicken, the rice is of course the other key element in Singapore chicken rice. Good chicken rice is aromatic with chicken flavour and subtle spice aromas. The tender fluffy rice which separate easily into individual grains are coated with a thin film of chicken fat which gives it a yellowish sheen and delightful savoury taste.

In Wenchang (Hainan), the chicken is eaten with a flavourful rice. It is made by frying garlic and ginger with chicken oil to release their flavours. Raw rice grains are then fried in this aromatic oil blend and then cooked with chicken stock.

In Singapore, they upped the game with aromatic lemongrass and pandan leaf (screw pine) which are abundant in Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore chicken rice is made with Thai fragrant rice whereas in Wenchang it is make with starchy local rice.



Singapore chicken rice cooked with chicken fat, chicken stock and spiced with pandan leaves, ginger, lemongrass, shallots, garlic and salt is so wonderfully rich in flavours and aromas that Anthony Bourdain said (in 2008) that the rice can be eaten and enjoyed on its own, all by itself.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

When Singapore's first chicken rice seller "Uncle Commie" (Mr Wong Yi Guan) sold chicken rice slung across his shoulders, the rice was in the form of hand kneaded balls. Now in 2020, no chicken rice stalls in Singapore serve chicken rice balls anymore.

Before this, the last two traditional stalls in Singapore that sold chicken rice balls, were "Hainan Chicken Rice Ball" in Jalan Besar and "Good Year Local Chicken Rice Ball" in Toa Payoh. Both have closed recently.



The chili dip is another crucial part of good chicken rice. Good chili dip has a layered kind from spiciness with a sharp sting from chili padi, a gentler kick from red chili peppers and mild spicy notes from ginger and garlic. A little fresh lime juice and white vinegar add citrussy tanginess for refreshing perkiness. The chicken stock and chicken oil balance and complete the rather complex sauce. (I personally prefer my chili dip without vinegar.)

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Chicken rice is also eaten with roughly grated ginger and spring onion dressed with rendered chicken oil known as 姜茸 (薑蓉) in Cantonese.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History
A savoury sweet syrupy dark soy sauce is often drizzled over the rice. I like to do that 😄

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Traditionally, a small bowl of chicken soup is part of a serving of chicken rice. The best chicken soup are made by boiling old hens, chicken feet, offal and cabbage (for sweetness). Nowadays, more and more chicken rice stalls dispense with the soup which I personally feel is missing something.

After decades of evolution and even though today's Singapore chicken rice is different from the original in Wenchang (Hainan), the dish is still referred to as Hainanese chicken rice.



This video sums up the history of Singapore through the story of Good Year Local Chicken Rice Ball 庆豐年海南鸡饭团.

On a separate note, in Kuala Lumpur around 1938, Nam Heong coffee shop ran by three Hainanese pals introduced Hainanese chicken rice in their menu. Nam Heong chicken rice is still around today, acquired by the Esquire Kitchen group of restaurants in 2012. Here is my experience at Nam Heong in 2018 👈 click

Incomplete Best Chicken Rice in Singapore and Johor
Click photo to view my favourite chicken rice ^

Some of the chicken rice stalls that I like best in Singapore and Johor (Malaysia).

 Singapore Chicken Rice
Click photo for full Singapore listing ^

My full listing of Singapore chicken rice.

 Johor Chicken Rice
Click photo for full Johor listing ^

My full listing of chicken rice stalls in Johor (Malaysia).

Thai Chicken Rice in Bangkok Raan Kaithong Pratunam
Click photo for Thai chicken rice ^

Hainanese chicken rice in Bangkok, Thailand.

Do bookmark this page as I will update this post on Singapore's top food icon regularly with new good chicken rice finds.






What is the difference between Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore and in Hainan? 👈 click

Please share with us your favourite chicken rice stall and chicken rice memories in the comments below 😄

Date: 24 Oct 2015
Updated: 13 May 2020

Return to Johor Kaki homepage.

41 comments:

  1. chicken rice! my mum makes the best!

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  2. wow this is the most in-depth and informative history of chicken rice!
    thank you!
    what will you cover next at this level? fried chicken!?

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  3. Replies
    1. Thank you :-D I realised that there are a lot of useful information in the videos.

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    2. Through info on the history of chicken rice Tony. Tx. :)

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    3. Through information on the history of chicken rice. Tx, Tony.

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  4. Through info on the history of chicken rice, Tony. Tx. :)

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  5. There are flaws in the history. I am a Hainanese whose ancestors came from Wenchang county. The family have been gaving chicken rice for 4 generations. My father came from Fenglai district in Wenchang county in late 1920s. He told me that they have been eating chicken rice for generations. In Wenchang the chicken rice is cooked with coconut cream. The chilli sauce is a yellowish type muxed with lots of garlic. Chopped not pounded. Ginger is added to spice it up. Also pepper is added. Reason is that pepper us abundanr in Hainan iskand and so are coconuts. The chicken are free roaming and fat. Once a year we eat chicken rice from spaded cockerels (Yan chee) They are usu very large birds. Also it is esten with a dish called qian jia fu.

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    1. Thank you Jlc for your comment and information. I will incorporate your input into the write-up. Appreciate much.

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  6. Growing up in JB, my favourite chicken rice store used to be at Century Garden. As kids, we would call it the "Wong Fei Hong" shop because the chicken rice seller used to look like the famous martial artist! Unfortunately that store has now closed. My current favourite store is Ah Lee Kampung Chicken Rice at Taman Sri Tebrau :)

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    1. Thank you William :-D Wong Fei Hong? wow I didn't have a chance to try that. Yes, I like Ah Lee chicken too. They also serve an interesting wild boar curry :-D

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  7. Wow,Tony JK, you must have spent a lot of time in researching the history of Hainanese Chicken rice. Thanks for the in-depth description of the details in preparing the dish. I can remember the name Swee Kee chicken rice in Sg but can't remember it's taste which I ate 30 over years ago. However, I have tried Senai Swee Kee outlet recently. It's good but customers will compare prices with other shops. Not many shops provide the ground ginger sauce. For the premium price of Senai outlet, I think they need to spruce up the atmosphere. (Pn Chong LH)

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    1. Thank you Pn Chong. The research done by others helped me a lot. Sadly, I have never eaten chicken by Singapore's Swee Kee before ;-( I think I will visit Swee Kee in Senai again soon to get more oral history. Appreciate much.

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  8. Wow, such an informative article on the history of chicken rice in sg!! The pics makes me sooo hungry... chicken rice for lunch later! :)

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    1. Thank bro Ian. Where are the good places for chicken rice in Kuala Lumpur?

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  9. The nicely taken shots of "yellow" chickens, making dripping so much of saliva! Tony must try a few form Beach Road and Whampoa Market! Chicken Rice; the rice is not only rich with pandan ginger fragrance, but the chewy tender meat with the "yellow" melt in your mouth fats, dipped in the all famous hainanese chilli, blended with ginger and dark soy sauce added. One have no regrets to finish two three bowls of rice in one makan section. Sinful but the feeling in the tummy is fulfilling. Accomplishment.

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    1. LOL Thanks GDdeals. Yes the Beach Road and Whampoa Market chicken rice are great. They are on my eat list. Will blog about them soon :-D

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  10. Wow .. I know where to go for my chicken rice now!

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    1. Thanks Pauline. Please share with us your favourites too ;-D

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  11. As always, a good read... and good list of chicken rice stalls

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    1. Thank you very much asiamic ;-D

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    2. Interesting read as usual. Slight typo...instead of 姜融 shd b 姜茸. Out of curiosity; where does kampong chicken fit in?

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    3. Thanks Paige for your comment and for pointing out. I have made the amendment :-D

      Do you mean kampung chicken as a type or chicken or kampung chicken, the name of the shop at Thomson Road?

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  12. Thank you Tony, chicken rice is a must eat dish when I go to Singapore..!!! Recently just try chatterbox but I still prefer Swee Kee chicken rice...

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    1. Thanks Jeffery Bong. Do you mean Swee Kee of Senai or Swee Kee at Middle Road (the one that closed in 1997)?

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  13. Tony, I mean the one in middle road. When I use to work in Grand Hyatt in Singapore. Still remember the taste till today!! Miss it..!!!

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    1. woah.. you are so lucky... I have never tasted the Middle Road Swee Kee before.

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  14. Hi, I am hainanese and this is an excellent article of our chicken rice history and heritage. Grateful for this :))

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    1. Thank you. You are most welcome. Glad you like it :-D

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  15. Great article, totally what I was looking for.

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  16. Quality articles or reviews is the secret to attract
    the viewers to visit the web page, that's what this
    site is providing.

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  17. Why people still use to read news papers when in this technological globe
    all is existing on net?

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  18. You got a very superb website, Glad I observed it through yahoo.

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  19. Very good post. My mum still makes the best chicken rice!
    Will you write about mamak stall culture?

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  20. Great article, very well written. Thankyou. Had it first almost 50 years ago in Seah St., memorable, even I have cooked this dish more than a thousand times I still cant speak hainanese

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