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Wine Brewing in Old Temasek 🌴 Dawn of Singapura Drink Culture 700 Years before Singapore Sling 🍸


Today, Singapore has a thriving, innovative, exciting drinking scene. But, when did drinking start in Singapore? What is the original Singapore drink culture? Nobody really knows.

Apparently, people in Singapore were already enjoying their drinks 700 years ago. This we know, thanks to the travelogue of Wang Dayuan, a Chinese adventurer who passed this way around 1330.

Wang Dayuan 汪大渊 (1311 - 1350) from China's Quanzhou city in Fujian made two major voyages in 11 years between 1328 and 1339. In 1328 - 1333, he visited Southeast Asia and South Asia. In 1334 - 1339, he went further to as far as East and North Africa.

During his first voyage, Wang visited the island of Dan Ma Xi 淡马锡 around 1330 (he was just 19 then). He wrote a travelogue A Brief Account of Island Barbarians 島夷誌略 which contains notes on the people and places he visited. Fortunately, the entire text of Wang Dayuan's travelogue is still available today. You can download and read it here 👈

Details are limited in Wang Dayuan's brief account but they provide valuable first hand insights and leads for further research on what life might have been like in Singapore, 700 years ago.

On Dan Ma Xi island was the kingdom of Singapura founded in 1299 by Sang Nila Utama. He was a prince from Palembang, the capital city of the Buddhist Sri Vijaya empire which controlled the Malay peninsula and archipelago from 650 - 1377.

When Wang Dayuan arrived in Dan Ma Xi / Singapura in 1330, it was thirty years since its founding by Sang Nila Utama. Population was probably a few thousand, practiced Buddhism and was a vassal state of the Sri Vijaya empire which was then in decline and at the nadir of its power.

At that time, Sang Nila Utama had probably consolidated control over his little kingdom. By then, he was already hosting and facilitating traders from the Malay archipelago, India and China, such as Wang Dayuan. 

In his travelogue 岛夷志略 "A Brief Account of Island Barbarians" Wang Dayuan highlighted three locations and noted three groups of settlers in Singapura.

First, Long Ya Men 龍牙門 and pirates.

Wang Dayuan warned that there's a pirates' nest at Long Ya Men which literally means "Gate of Dragon's Teeth". Long Ya Men was a pair of craggy outcrops - one known to locals as Batu Berlayar near today's Berlayar Beacon and another at Tanjung Rimau on Sentosa island. Since time immemorial, they guided seamen negotiating the narrow straits between Singapore island and Sentosa island.

Long Ya Men no longer exist today. They were destroyed in 1848 by British engineer John Thomson to expand Keppel Harbour. As Chief Engineer of the British Straits Settlements, John Thomson was responsible for many infrastructure projects in Singapore. Thomson Road is named in his honour.

A rough replica of Long Ya Men was built in Labrador Park in 2005 to commemorate the 600th Anniversary of Ming dynasty Admiral Cheng Ho's voyages to maritime southeast Asia (Nanyang).

The second group of people Wang Dayuan mentioned was a Chinese community of men and women who lived side by side the pirates "男女兼中國人居之" on Dan Ma Xi Island / Singapura island near Long Ya Men. This was probably today's Labrador Park.

Nothing else is known about this group of Chinese - they could be traders waiting for the change of Monsoon for the return trip to China and among them might be some who married local women. (If so, their offsprings could be "local born" or Peranakan who preceded the Peranakan of Malacca.) 

(In the days of sail, Chinese traders come in Jan - Feb with the Northeast Monsoon and return to China with the Southwest Monsoon in Jun - Aug.)

The third group Wang Dayuan mentioned were locals who lived at 班卒 which sounds like Pancur, the Malay word for "spring of water". 班卒 was probably the area between today's Singapore River and Fort Canning Hill. 班卒 settlers were farmers who also "煮海為鹽,釀米為酒 boiled seawater into salt, brewed rice into wine".

There are no further records of how Singapore's early settlers "boiled seawater into salt, brewed rice into wine". This is an attempt to flesh out Singapura wine making based on deductions from circumstantial evidence.


At this time (1330), China was ruled by the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1368). From its founding in 1299, Singapura developed into a thriving port till it was invaded and destroyed by either Siamese or Javanese in 1398. The kingdom of Singapura lasted 99 years. 

In 1998, excavations conducted at Empress Place beside Singapore River where Wang Dayuan said the 班卒 people lived, turned up thousands of Chinese porcelain shards dating back to the Song (960 - 1271) and Yuan (1271 - 1368) dynasties. A collection of these artefacts are open for public viewing at the National Museum of Singapore (where I took these pictures).

The abundance of these porcelain ware at the ancient settlement site indicates close ties between the people of Dan Ma Xi / Singapura and traders from China.

What kind of rice wine were the 班卒 people brewing?

It could be a form of tapai which is still made in Malaysia and Indonesia today. Today, tapai is mainly made with either white rice, glutinous rice or tapioca.

First, let's settle the question of whether it was rice or tapioca (since tapai can be made from either).

Rice likely came to the Malay archipelago from China (where it originated). The earliest records of Chinese presence were traders from the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). Tapioca or cassava came much later when Europeans brought them to Asia from the Caribbean / South America from the 1500s onwards. Portuguese, the first Europeans in the Malay archipelago arrived in Malacca only in 1509.

So, the wine 班卒 people were making was from rice and we can safely rule out tapioca. In any case, Wang Dayuan did state clearly that the 班卒 people were making rice wine. It would not be too far fetch that Wang Dayuan enjoyed a cup or even a jar with the 班卒 people during his passage (so he tasted and knew what he was saying).

How might 班卒 people brew rice wine in the kingdom of Singapura?

We might get a clue from how tapai is made in Sabah today.

Today, the main ingredients of tapai rice wine are glutinous rice (pulut), yeast (sasad) and water. Brown and white rice are also used and they produce tapai with a different flavour. 

Glutinous rice is washed and boiled in clean water. The partially cooked rice is spread on banana leaves to cool. Powdered yeast (fermenting agent) is mixed thoroughly with the rice. The rice and yeast mixture is transferred into a clay or ceramic jar. The opening is sealed, the jar stored in a dark, cool, dry place to allow the rice and yeast mixture to ferment. After a month or two, the mixture turns into a watery fermented mash which is then sieved to collect the clear yellowish-brownish colour wine. 

Chinese call this 黄酒 yellow wine because of its colour. Chinese still make glutinous rice wine in basically the same way today.

Kadazan-Dusun rice wine making demonstration
Rice wine or tapai is made in many parts of the Malay archipelago, for example in Sabah. In Sabah and Sarawak, tapai is an important part of Kadazan-Dusun community identity and culture.

In its most basic form, I would guess that the 班卒 people rice wine which Wang Dayuan saw and probably tasted is similar to the tapai we have in Sabah now, and the homemade rice wine in Chinese kitchens today.

Written by Tony Boey on 24 May 2021


Extracts regarding Long Ya Men and Pan Cur from 島夷誌略 by Wang Dayuan:


門以單馬錫番兩山,相交若龍牙狀,中有水道以間之。田瘠稻少。天氣候熱,四五月多淫雨。俗好劫掠。昔酋長掘地而得玉冠。歲之始,以見月為正初,酋長戴冠披服受賀,今亦遞相傳授。男女兼中國人居之。多椎髻,穿短布衫。繫靑布捎。  地產粗降眞、斗錫。貿易之貨,用赤金、靑緞、花布、處甆器、鐵鼎之類。蓋以山無美材,貢無異貨。以通泉州之貨易,皆剽竊之物也。  舶往西洋,本番置之不問。回船之際,至吉利門,舶人須駕箭稝,張布幕,利器械以防之。賊舟二三百隻必然來迎,敵數日。若僥倖順風,或不遇之。否則人為所戮,貨為所有,則人死係乎頃刻之間也。


地勢連龍牙門後山,若纏若斷,起凹峯而盤結,故民環居焉。田瘠,穀少登。氣候不齊,夏則多雨而微寒。俗質,披短髮,緞錦纏頭,紅紬布繫身。  煮海為鹽,釀米為酒,名明家西。有酋長。地產上等鶴頂、中等降眞、木綿花。貿易之貨,用絲布、鐵條、土印布、赤金、甆器、鐵鼎之屬。

Making Chinese rice wine at home today.

Image of Labrador Park courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of junk courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Image of Kadazan-Dusun lady courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Kadazan-Dusun man courtesy of Wikipedia Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas.

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