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

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Immigrant Roots of Singapore Hawker Culture · Thai, Indonesian & Chinese Chicken Rice

Lau Pa Sat, Singapore's first market is a thriving food court today

Singapore hawker culture is a delicious blend of all the food cultures of people who come to live and work in the Singapore melting pot since 1819. There's cuisine from the ancient civilisations of India and China, and neighbouring countries Malaysia and Indonesia. Slightly further afield, we have dishes from Indochina, and beyond, from Europe.

All the migrant communities of Singapore together transformed the fishing village of 1819 to the megapolis of today. From the fish market at the banks of Singapore River to this culinary emporium known today as Lau Pa Sat, nestled in the heart of Singapore's Central Business District. 

There are literally a thousand and one dishes in the food emporium that Singapore is. Each migrant community - Malay, Indian, Chinese, European - bring their dishes to the Singapore picnic to share and to enjoy together. Each dish tells the story of its homeland, its journey to Singapore, how it changes Singapore and how Singapore changed it.

Many dishes, many stories. We take the story of chicken rice as but one example to tell the story of immigrants and Singapore.

Singapore Chicken Rice, the Unofficial National Dish


Singapore has not named any "national dish" but many consider Singapore chicken rice the unofficial national dish.

The story of Singapore chicken rice is closely intertwined with the story of Hainanese immigration to Singapore. And it starts here, at the old Singapore Hainanese enclave of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street - the birthplace of Singapore chicken rice. Today, "Little Hainan" is a conservation district, the historic old shops now house swanky restaurants, bars, boutique hotels, salons, spas, etc.

When Raffles of British East India Company recruited labourers for his port of Singapore vision in 1819, China was a natural source of manpower. The Qing dynasty which ruled China since 1644 was near collapse. China was wracked by wars, famine, and anarchy. People who could were leaving China in droves, especially from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hakka immigrants settled in today's Chinatown as well as Boat Quay and Clarke Quay by the Singapore River.

The Hainanese arrived in Singapore late, from around the 1880s onwards. By that time, Chinatown and Singapore River were overpopulated, so the Hainanese settled on a strip of land between Raffles Hotel and the old Arab Campong - today's Seah Street, Purvis Street and Middle Road.

Singapore chicken rice is often referred to as Hainanese chicken rice because the Hainanese were the first to sell this dish in the streets and in coffee shop stalls, starting from here in "Little Hainan".

Mobile two-basket chicken rice stalls first appeared soon after the Second World War in Little Hainan around Purvis Street, Seah Street and Middle Road. The most famous and popular was Swee Kee chicken rice restaurant at 51, Middle Road. Swee Kee closed in 1996 and the row of shophouses on Middle Road demolished - fortunately by then, Hainanese chicken rice's place in Singapore hawker culture was already firmly established.

Chicken rice stalls and restaurants sprouted up all over the island. The dish first popularised by Hainanese gradually incorporated influences from other communities into Singapore chicken rice of today.


The Cantonese entered the chicken rice scene with their own techniques in preparing and serving the dish. Unlike the Hainanese who air dry their poached chicken, the Cantonese dunk their poached chicken in ice water. This technique prevents the bird from becoming overdone, smooths the skin and meat, locks in the juices and flavours, and congeals fat into jelly. The Cantonese also dress their chicken with a soy sauce and sesame oil dressing unlike the Hainanese.


Whereas the Hainanese tend to serve their chicken with just ginger and soy sauce, the Cantonese have chili sauce, ginger sauce and soy sauce.

Maxwell Food Centre

Today, Singapore chicken rice have crossed all community boundaries - there are Singapore chicken rice sellers from every community whether Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainan and even Malay. Chicken rice stalls and restaurants are ubiquitous in Singapore today. Most hawker centres have more than one chicken rice stall with Maxwell Food Centre alone boasting eight chicken rice stalls.

Even though Singapore chicken rice has lots of Cantonese influence, it is still known as Hainanese chicken rice as the Hainanese were the first to hawk this dish in Singapore. If you go to Hainan today, you will not find chicken rice like what we have in Singapore.

Thai Style Chicken Rice in Singapore

Thais in Singapore greeting Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn in 1985

Thais came to Singapore from the 1980s to work in construction, manufacturing and trade. Thai population in Singapore peaked in the 1980s to 1990s as Thais formed the bulk of construction workers in Singapore. The number of Thai workers have reduced since the turn of the century as the construction industry relied more on workers from China and India. Today, the Thai population in Singapore stands at below 50,000 and are mostly traders and students.

Despite the transitory nature and relatively small presence, Thais too left their mark in Singapore's hawker culture. Most hawker centres have at least one Thai food stall. There's always a market for Thai cuisine in Singapore with demand from Thais in Singapore longing for a taste of home and returned Singaporean tourists craving for Thai flavours they enjoyed while visiting Thailand. 

Thais live across Singapore and gather in Little Thailand on weekends

The imposing Golden Mile Complex along Beach Road is Singapore's "Little Thailand". Golden Mile Complex was designed in the bold "Brutalist" style in vogue in the 1950s to 70s. It was completed in 1973 to international acclaim for its daring and innovation. 

GMC's heyday was in the 1980s when the large Thai supermarket moved in in 1985. It pulled in Thais living in Singapore with its wide variety of Thai produce, sundries and goods. Thai construction workers, factory workers, and any Thai in Singapore would throng Golden Mile Complex on weekends. It is the place to meet fellow countrymen living in Singapore. This in turn drew in restaurants and services like remittance shops, currency exchange, hair saloons, etc. Thai style bars and discos followed.

Express bus companies set up in Golden Mile Complex in the 1980s with embarkation and arrival points here. Thai construction workers, factory workers, and other Thais arrive and depart Singapore at Golden Mile Complex (before today's era of cheap air travel).

At the turn of the century, Thai construction workers were gradually phased out, replaced by workers from South Asia and China. The Thai population in Singapore shrunk to just 46,000 by 2012.

With the declining numbers of Thais in Singapore, Thai businesses in Golden Mile Complex slowly close. Some Thai restaurants changed hands to Singaporean ownership. Cuisine served tilted towards Singaporean tastes such as mookata steamboat, and more recently, crab fried rice. The smaller eateries migrated to Singapore hawker centres.

Though a shadow of its 1980-1990s heyday, Golden Mile Complex is still the main meeting place of Thais in Singapore. The URA (Urban Renewal Authourity) has slated GMC for conservation, so we will see its facade for a few more generations. But, its soul will likely be gutted and what emerge will be unrecognisable from its 1980s heyday.


Bangkok is a popular destination for Singapore tourists. Many would spend at least a day in Pratunam, Bangkok's shopping hotspot. Many would have tried Thai style chicken rice while in Thailand and realised that it is similar to Hainanese chicken rice back home. The reason is simple. Like in Singapore, chicken rice was brought to Thailand by Hainanese immigrants.

Like in Singapore, today, Hainanese chicken rice in Thailand is influenced by Cantonese. The poached bird is given an ice water bath in the Cantonese way after poaching. The rice is also cooked with chicken stock and fat.

Thai chicken has one more layer of cultural influence. Thai style chicken rice reflects Hainanese, Cantonese and Teochew influence as 15% of Thailand's population are Teochew. Like in Singapore, while it was the Hainanese that brought chicken rice to Thailand, the Thais also adopted the Cantonese style of preparation.

Thai style chicken rice sauce is a blend of soy sauce, chopped ginger, garlic, chili and there is also tau cheo (fermented soy bean) because the Teochew put tau cheo in everything they eat (okay, I exaggerate but only slightly). It is mainly this tau cheo laced sauce that sets Thai and Singapore chicken rice apart.


There's a no name Thai eatery at the ground floor unit #01-15B in Golden Mile Complex that serves a variety of Thai dishes including Thai style chicken rice. The bird is poached and chilled the Hainanese and Cantonese way like Singapore chicken rice. It is also served with rice flavoured by cooking in chicken stock and chicken fat.


What sets it apart from Singapore chicken rice is the sauce which is made with tau cheo (fermented soy bean), chili, ginger and garlic. I love the tau cheo in the sauce which is a Teochew trademark.


Across the road from Golden Mile Complex at Golden Mile Food Centre, in the basement, there's stall #B1-39 known as Thailand Chicken Rice. Owner May Lee sold chicken rice in Bangkok for three years. In Singapore, May serves the same poached and chilled chicken, plus fried chicken. Unfortunately (in my opinion), May has taken out tau cheo from her sauce, leaving just chili, garlic, lemongrass and lime juice. May's regulars love her sauce sans the signature Thai style tau cheo.

Ayam Penyet · Indonesian Style Chicken Rice in Singapore

Indonesia is Singapore's immediate southern neighbour and historically, Singapore and also Malaysia were part of Nusantara - the realm of the Javanese Majapahit empire from 1293 to 1527. So naturally, Indonesian cuisine features prominently in Singapore hawker culture. There are the ubiquitous mee rebus, lontong, gado gado, ayam penyet, satay, soto, rendang, just to name a few commonly seen examples.

Indonesia is a vast archipelago stretching over 5,000 km from west to east. There are over 1,300 ethnicities in Indonesia. In Singapore, there are Javanese, Boyanese, Minangkabau, Riau Malays, Bugis, and Banjarese migrants whose ancestry originate in Indonesia. Indonesians in Singapore live in Kampung Glam and eastwards to Geylang, Geylang Serai, Bedok, Chai Chee, Changi, etc.


At the heart is Geylang Serai Market which began as a street side market in the 1920s. Indonesians now live all over Singapore, but many still come back to Geylang Serai Market during weekends for marketing, comfort dishes and meeting up old friends at the hawker centre. During the Muslim fasting month, the area around Geylang Serai Market is thronged by shoppers who visit the Ramadan Bazaar to buy festive goods and food to break fast.


Like Chinese and Thais, r
ice and chicken are staples to Indonesians. Rice and chicken dishes are eaten across the Indonesian archipelago. There are literally hundreds of ways of cooking chicken and rice in Indonesia, reflecting its ethnic diversity. Yet, there is unity in the diversity as Indonesian chicken rice dishes are made up of three basic elements - rice, chicken and sambal (spicy sauce).


Of Indonesian chicken and rice dishes, ayam penyet probably has the widest footprint. Not only has ayam penyet conquered the archipelago from Medan to Surabaya, it is popular in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. 

Ayam penyet is cooked by boiling chicken in a spiced stock, allowed to cool, and then deep fried in oil. The fried chicken is smacked with a mallet or flat of a chopper to break it apart so that it is easy to eat with fingers. The chicken is flatten, hence the name, penyet (Indonesian word for flattened).


The chicken is eaten with plain boiled rice or spiced rice (like Singapore and Thai chicken rice) and sides of fried tempe (fermented soybean cake), raw lettuce and cucumber. 

If the heart of ayam penyet is the smashed chicken, then the soul of the dish is the spicy savoury sambal made by grinding chili pepper, garlic, candlenut, fermented shrimp (belacan or terasi) etc. together.

New generation hawker at Yishun Park

Singapore hawker centres, stalls and cuisine will change, will look different from the past. Singapore hawker culture rooted in immigrant history, I hope will stay the same.

New generation hawker centre at Marsiling Mall

In particular, I hope Singapore will remain a melting pot of culinary cultures that is:

👉Always welcoming of new people into our midst

👉Willing to accept new ideas, flavours and experiences

👉Dare to change, there are no sacred cows

👉Preserve and respect tradition and skills / craftsmanship

👉Available and accessible to everyone.

Written by Tony Boey on 11 Mar 2022


Image of Wah Kee chicken rice courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Image of coolies courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Image of Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Image of Malay village courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Image of Geylang Serai Market courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Image of satay man at Geylang Serai courtesy of National Archives of Singapore. Image of Swee Kee courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

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