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The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Singapore Bak Kut Teh

Bak kut teh is commonly found in Singapore. There are around 70 bak kut teh stalls or restaurants across Singapore today (2023). Not quite as ubiquitous as chicken rice, bak chor mee, nasi lemak or roti prata.

The stories of bak kut teh and modern Singapore are closely intertwined. It is fortuitous but no coincidence that both are born in the same place and at around the same time.

Bak kut teh is unique to Singapore (and Malaysia, though each have their own versions and characteristics). Bak kut teh has its roots in China's ancient medicinal soups but there is no dish named bak kut teh over there.

Bak kut teh was created by Teochew and Hokkien migrants from Guangdong and Fujian respectively. The exact dates are uncertain but the dish is closely linked to the Singapore River and Chinese coolies as well as traders who made their living here.

Bak kut teh was a dish created for Chinese coolies of Singapore River. Its austere ingredients of pork bones and herbs reflect the needs of impoverished Singapore pioneers who came to Nanyang from the collapsing Qing dynasty China after Raffles established the port of Singapore in 1819.

There are two main streams of bak kut teh - the herbal dark Hokkien type and the more pervasive peppery light colour Teochew type. The evolution of the mainstream version shifting from herbal to peppery tells of the development and changing tastes of Singapore from its founding to today. From a tiny British East India Company trading post to Singapore, the global city.

The humble dish progressed from a coolies' tonic to a national icon and favourite of dignitaries from overseas such as the former Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tseng, former Thai premier Taksin and former President of Republic of China, Ma Ying Jeou.

Today, bak kut teh brands from Singapore fly the Singapore flag in Thailand, Indonesia, China, and Taiwan.

The humble bak kut teh is a cultural icon and artefact that travelled the same river of time as Singapore, witnessing its transformational progress. A taste of bak kut teh tells so much about the story of Singapore.

Bak kut teh is a dish, especially the disappearing Hokkien herbal version, that need to be preserved with resources like we do for monuments and conservation buildings.

Written by Tony Boey on 10 Apr 2023

Murals are by Yip Yew Chong, renowned Singapore artist

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