Food, Language, and Identity in Singapore’s Hawker Centers

Reference work entry


In the nation of Singapore, eating has been described as a “national pastime,” and hawker food is often described as the true representation of the Singaporean identity. Unlike the itinerant street hawkers in the nation’s colonial and early independence days, Singapore’s hawkers now operate from permanent stalls with proper amenities in large open-air complexes: hawker centers.

Past research has shown that the nation’s script of multiracialism dominates the method of governance, as well as the process of identity formation in Singapore. This is whereby members of the nation are categorized according to four “official” races (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and “Others”) and mainly identified according to the mother tongue languages (Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil) ascribed to each dominant racial group. Thus, language and identity are tightly bound together in both public and private domains in everyday life.

However, Singapore is a rapidly urbanizing global city, and foreign-born workers constitute as much as a third of its total workforce today. ‘creating diasporas with multiple linguistic allegiances and perceptions of belonging that are no longer identified purely with territory’ (Valentine et al. 2008, p.376). Moreover, beyond the written and spoken form, language is a communication of the mind, spirit, and soul.

What is the role of language and food culture in the process of identity construction in the everyday life? How can hawker centers contribute to a ground-up understanding of identity, and the ways in which languages are used (operationalized) in the everyday life? This study aims to answer these research questions with the analysis of food, language, identity, and space in five hawker centers.


Food culture Nationalism Identity Language Everyday life 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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