Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · History

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History of Chinese Migration & Roots of Hawker Food Culture in Singapore


Singapore hawker centres are well known for their delicious melting pot of Malay, Indian, Chinese and other cuisines. In this article, we take a closer look at Chinese migration to Singapore, and the different flavours it brought to our communal dining spaces.

One of the earliest records of Chinese settlement in Singapore was in the 1300s by Wang Dayuan, a Chinese trader from Nanchang, China (who sailed to Singapore via Quanzhou, Fujian).

Wang Dayuan gave little details in his passing mention of the old Chinese settlement at today's Labrador Park. We know nought about how many and what they were doing here. Perhaps they were involved in facilitating Chinese traders or were traders waiting for the next monsoon to take them home to China. In the days of sail, stopovers took months at the mercy of the wind.

The kingdom of Singapura was a major trading port from 1299 to 1398. It ended when a foreign invader either Javanese or Siamese sacked and razed the island to the ground. For the next 400 years, Singapore came under the Malacca sultanate followed by the Johor-Riau-Lingga sultanate. During these years, it was variously a backwater, naval outpost or minor port inhabited mainly by sea nomads known as Orang Laut.

Chinese settlers reappeared in Singapore in the 1700s.

In the 1700s, Teochew settlers were running gambier and pepper plantations in the Riau islands such as Bintan under Surat Sungai (river agreement) terms with the Sultanate of Johor-Riau-Lingga. In the late 1700s, some Teochew settlers hopped over to Singapore and started gambier and pepper plantations here. (Image pepper plantation courtesy of NAS.)


When Raffles of the British East India Company arrived in Singapore in 1819, he noted that there were some 20 Teochew ran gambier and pepper plantations in Singapore. By the mid-1800s, there were 800 gambier & pepper plantations all over Singapore (before extending into Johor). 


Peppery Teochew bak kut teh (meat bone tea) is synonymous with Singapore bak kut teh. The origins of peppery bak kut teh is unclear but generally attributed to coolies at Singapore River. According to local food lore, coolies picked up spices and pepper that fell from sacks, and made bak kut teh with it.

Another possibility, though not mainstream which I suggest, links the Teochew ran pepper plantations with creation of peppery Teochew bak kut teh. There was plenty of peppercorn everywhere, so why not make pork soup with it?

However, there is no primary documentary evidence to support either theories.


William Farquhar the first Resident (governor) of Singapore was Resident of Malacca (1808 - 1818) before his posting to Singapore in 1819. Leveraging on his Malacca network, Farquhar influenced Chinese traders from Malacca to establish businesses in Singapore.

The Chinese who came to Singapore from Malacca were Peranakan, thus establishing the Peranakan community in Singapore from 1820s onwards.

The Malacca Peranakan community is among the largest and oldest in the Malay peninsula and archipelago dating back to the Yuan (1271 - 1368) and Ming (1368 - 1644) dynasties of China. The numbers of Chinese settling in Malacca peaked during the heyday of warm ties between the Malacca Sultanate and China's Ming dynasty.

Peranakan are local born Chinese who adopted Malay customs such as dress, language, and food etc.


Peranakan cuisine (also known as Nyonya cuisine) is a fusion of Malay and Chinese dishes and techniques. It is made with spices, herbs, and other ingredients from the Malay peninsula and archipelago. Examples of Nonya dishes include ayam buah keluak, babi pongteh, itek sio, Nyonya laksa, otak otak, kueh pie tee etc., as well as various sweets and cakes.

As Peranakan cuisine is elaborate and tedious to make, it is mostly found in restaurants and rarely in hawker centres.

I recommend Charlie's Peranakan @ Golden Mile Food Centre for an authentic Nyonya cuisine cum hawker centre experience in Singapore.

Demands for labour to operate the port of Singapore coincided with chaos in China that accompanied the century long decay and final collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Widespread corruption and incompetence led to foreign invasions, widespread rebellions, mismanaged famine, disease, natural disasters, poverty etc.

Following the Qing dynasty's defeat in the First Opium War, the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) established five treaty ports of Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai. (Image of Chinese junk in 1909 courtesy of NAS.)


Through these treaty ports, Chinese left the southern Guangdong and Fujian provinces of China by the millions. Through the ports of Guangzhou, Xiamen and Fuzhou many came to Singapore from the 1840s till the Japanese occupation (1942 - 1945). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


These huddled masses were referred to as "sinkeh 新客" or "new guests" to differentiate them from the long established Peranakan. Sinkeh took up hard labour jobs such as porters, rickshaw pullers, lightermen, street hawkers, etc.


Rickshaw men bequeathed us the rickshaw noodle dish which sadly will soon vanish in Singapore.

Rickshaw noodle is a very humble dish. It is just a soup made with leafy choy sum vegetable and dried shrimps. In the savoury soup are yellow noodles snipped into short strands so that it can be eaten with a spoon sans chopsticks. The dish is garnished with fried shallot and dressed with aromatic garlic oil for added flavour.

A rickshaw man would eat standing at a rickshaw noodle stall. Scoop the soup and noodles into his mouth, and quickly be on his way to fetch another passenger.

We can still get rickshaw noodles at China Street Cooked Food stall at Maxwell Food Centre.


From Guangdong and Fujian province, the main language communities were Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka. In Singapore, they settled in their respective enclaves, Hokkien in Telok Ayer, Teochew around Boat Quay & Clarke Quay, Cantonese and Hakka in Kreta Ayer.


The Chinese migrants in Singapore wore ponytails known as pigtails which was the prescribed hairstyle of Qing dynasty subjects. The Qing dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1912.

Our pioneer hawkers ran stalls that were just two baskets slung across their shoulders on a bamboo pole. In one basket were the pantry and kitchen which was often a pot over a charcoal stove. The other basket may contain another charcoal stove and the kitchen sink (a pail of water for washing).
Our early hawker cuisine were by necessity simple dishes. Hock Lam Street beef noodle was just beef soup, rice noodle and slices of beef. Chai Chee bak chor mee was just pork soup, noodle and minced pork.


Singapore River was a Teochew enclave with most people living and working around Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. Life centred around Ellenborough Market which opened in 1845. Locals called it New Market and because it was in the Teochew enclave, it was also known as Teochew Market.

Teochew Market was expanded in 1899 and was Singapore's wholesale market for fish, seafood, meat, poultry, and dried sundries. A fire in 1968 burnt the market to the ground and it was replaced in 1973 by a huge market and residential complex known also as Ellenborough Market. This too was eventually demolished in the 1990s and replaced by Central Mall @ Clarke Quay and Merchant Court Hotel.


There were three hawker centres in the Teochew enclave in the 1970s, namely Ellenborough Market Food Centre, Empress Place Food Centre and Boat Quay Food Centre. The nearly 200 hawkers were serving a wide variety of Teochew cuisine such as char kway teow, bak chor mee, bak kut teh, orh luak, kway chap, lor ark, Teochew porridge, Teochew steam fish, Teochew fish soup, Teochew fish ball & dumpling, etc.

When these hawker centres were demolished, these hawkers were relocated to across the island thus increasing the footprint of Teochew cuisine in Singapore. Hence, even though Teochew make up only 20% of the Chinese community in Singapore, the influence of Teochew cuisine is larger than their numbers.


The Cantonese who came from Guangdong province of China were settled in Kreta Ayer which is also known as 牛车水 or literally "bullock cart water" because drinking water from a spring was distributed here by bullock carts.


Bullocks were the "workhorse" of old Singapore. They were used to pull carts of goods like pineapple, rubber bales, sacks of rice, spices, and cargo of every kind including water tanks.

Kreta Ayer was renamed Chinatown in the 1980s. (Image of bullock cart in 1950 courtesy of NAS.)


Smith Street in Kreta Ayer was the "headquarters" of Cantonese street food in Singapore. When Kreta Ayer and Smith Street were redeveloped, the street hawkers were moved to Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Today, Chinatown Complex is still the go to place in Singapore for Cantonese street food with over 200 food stalls.


The Cantonese contributions to the Singapore culinary melting pot include soya sauce chicken which won Singapore hawkers their first Michelin star in 2016.

Other Cantonese hawker dishes in Singapore include wanton mee, chicken rice, claypot chicken ricechee cheong fun, steam Song fish head, Cantonese roast meats, lo kai yik, Cantonese steamed dishes, dim sum, etc.


Among the Cantonese were Samsui women who came to Singapore in the 1920s from Sanshui district of Foshan city in Guangdong. Coming to Singapore, Samsui women vowed not to marry. They were extremely hardworking and thrifty, sending as much money back home as possible from their meagre wages in Singapore.

Samsui women were once ubiquitous in their distinctive red head dress. Most Samsui women worked in construction sites carrying bricks, stone, cement and sand on their backs. As there was construction work everywhere in fast developing Singapore, Samsui women were seen everywhere.


All Samsui women in Singapore have retired. Some returned to China while others remained in Singapore. The Samsui women contributed one dish to our food culture, namely Samsui chicken.
It is not sold in hawker centres though some restaurants may make it on request. In the Samsui style of chicken, the bird is poached, chopped and served smothered in a thick blanket of grated ginger and scallion. It is eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf and with plain white rice.

I hope there is a revival of interest in the Samsui chicken dish as it is a way to honour the contribution of Samsui women to the development of Singapore. The Samsui community and Samsui chicken dish are both vanishing in Singapore.


The Hokkien is the largest Chinese community in Singapore. They came from Fuzhou, Quanzhou, Putian, and other cities or counties of Fujian province.


The Hakka is a relatively small community in Singapore sprinkled within the other language group enclaves around Kreta Ayer and Teluk Ayer.


Hakka cuisine in Singapore hawker centres include yong tau foo, lei cha, abacus seed, etc.


The Hainanese from Hainan island were latecomers, arriving in numbers only from 1870s onwards.

Jackson Plan / Raffles Town Plan 1822

By that time, all living space west of Singapore River known as "Chinese Campong" in the Raffles Town Plan were already taken by Hokkien (Teluk Ayer), Teochew (Boat Quay & Clarke Quay), Cantonese and Hakka (Kreta Ayer). Hence, the Hainanese settled in the "no man's land" between European Town and Kampong Glam around Purvis Street, Seah Street and Middle Road.

The Hainanese were also shut out of professions already dominated by other language groups, hence many became cooks in the kitchens of restaurants, hotels, military bases, on board ships and also the homes of colonial officers and wealthy Peranakan families.


The most famous Hainanese contribution to Singapore hawker culture is Hainanese chicken rice. They also gave us Hainanese porridge, Hainanese mutton soup, Hainanese interpretation of satay, etc.

From working in Peranakan homes, Hainanese gave us Hainanese curry rice and Nyonya laksa.

From working in hotels and homes of British colonial officers, the Hainanese gave us Singapore sling, Hainanese chicken / pork chop, etc.

Enterprising Hainanese also gave us the iconic Hainanese kopitiam coffee shops.

The newest group of Chinese immigrants to Singapore arrived from the 1990s onwards. They come not from the traditional origins of Guangdong and Fujian, but from other cities and provinces such as Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Sichuan, Henan, Hebei, etc. These new immigrants add another layer of flavours to our cuisine, further enriching the Singapore culinary melting pot. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)


New Chinese immigrant cuisine in Singapore include xiao long bao, dao xiao mian, ma la xiang kuo, etc.

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