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

  • Kelly OngEmail author
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Abstract

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, 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.

Keywords

Food culture Nationalism Identity Language Everyday life 

There is something very Singaporean, even very patriotic about ordering a cup of kopi C siew dai (coffee [Malay] with evaporated milk [Hainanese] and less sugar [Hock Chew]) and drinking it with kaya toast. (Tay 2010: 214)

Introduction

Singapore is a nation-state that was founded in 1965 and that has a total population of 5,610,000 as of 2017 (Singapore Department of Statistics 2017). The citizen population of 3,440,000 (61.3% of the total population) is classified as 76.1% Chinese, 15.0% Malay, 7.4% Indian, and 1.5% Others. Prior to the nation’s independence, Singapore was a British colony (1819–1940) that was temporarily occupied by the Japanese during World War II (1942–1945). After the British granted internal self-governance to Singapore in 1959, the nation shared a brief period of merger with its neighboring country, Malaysia (1963–1965).

The trade of hawking has existed since the 1800s and has “grown up” with the nation (Kong 2007: 15). The modern manifestation of street hawking can be seen in hawker centers, which are large open-air complexes that offer a wide variety of tasty and affordable ethnic foods, and the cost of an average meal is SGD 3.50–6 (approx. USD 2.54–4.35). Thus, it is of little surprise that they are much-loved eating places among residents and visitors from abroad (Independent 2009; Tan 2018; Groundwater 2018).

Kong (2007) piques that the term “hawker center” is so familiar in Singapore, that its irony is not apparent or taken for granted in everyday life. This is because a hawker is a person that travels around selling his wares, generally advertising them by shouting. In contrast, Singapore’s hawkers have permanent stalls with proper facilities such as water and electricity, and nonverbal advertisements such as celebrity recommendations are the norm of food advertisement in hawker centers.

Thanks to globalization and the new media ecology, there has been increasing recognition of Singapore’s hawker food and centers, and some hawkers shot to international fame when they were awarded the much-acclaimed Michelin star in 2016 (Han 2016; Levius 2017). The high sales and prices of famous hawker recipes also made local headline news (Yeo and Singh 2014; Chua 2016), such as the sale of Kay Lee Roast Meat Joint to a former loyal customer for SGD 4 million in 2014 (approx. USD 3.17 million).

What is less known, perhaps, is that Singapore’s hawker centers are one of the most institutionalized food places in the world. Virtually all aspects – from the cleanliness of public washrooms to the hygiene of hawker food and stalls, and the stall bidding process to the prices of food – all are subject to scrutiny and regulation by institutions and governmental authorities such as the National Environmental Agency of Singapore. While food centers and markets clearly exist outside of Singapore, it is arguable that none of them are subject to the level of planning and regulation of Singapore’s hawker centers, and yet carry such a heavy weight of tradition (hawking) and national identity.

As a major economic hub and global city-state, Singapore has been experiencing rapid urbanization and immigration in recent years, and a third of its total workforce is comprised of foreigners (OECD 2013; Wong 2015; Teng 2018). These changes have led to a questioning of the Singaporean identity, as residents perceive that the Singaporean citizenship and permanent residence permits are increasingly being commodified in the name of economic progress or “survival” (Teng 2017; Han 2017; Tan 2017a, b). Several authors have also described the changing face of hawking, for example, it is no longer a surprise to find international cuisine such as Pad Thai and Italian pasta in hawker centers (Kong 2007; Tay 2010; Tan 2016). While some celebrate the presence of nontraditional hawker food, others have expressed doubt and lament over the loss of heritage in hawker centers.

Previous studies have shown that food culture has the ability to construct, reproduce, and reconstruct identity (Caldwell 2002; Avieli 2005; Ichijo and Ranta 2016; Mendel and Ranta 2014; Schermuly and Forbes-Mewett 2016). Ichijo and Ranta (2016) mention that although the relationship between food and national identity has been extensively studied in anthropology and cultural studies, the reverse is not true for writers on nationalism and national identity. This is despite the fact that other issues such as religion, popular media, and education have been researched and written about regarding the imagination, construction, and reproduction of the nation (Hastings 1997; Edensor 2002). In the case of Singapore, while several authors have extensively documented the relationship between Singapore’s hawker food and identity (Kong 2007; Tay 2010; Duruz and Khoo 2015; Tan 2016; Kong and Sinha 2016), few have brought out the role of spatial layouts and place-making, language and nationalism (multiracialism) in hawker centers. On the other hand, hawker signages have been studied by students and academics largely in the field of linguistics and communication (Neo and Soon 2012; Yeoh 2014); however, these empirical findings have yet to be geographically mapped, visualized, and studied in relation to hawker centers as place-processes.

This study explores the role of language and food culture in the process of identity construction within the context of everyday life in the case of Singapore’s hawker centers. It also attempts to initiate a discussion about the role of place in food culture and identity. How can hawker centers offer us a bottom-up understanding of food, language, and identity in Singapore and inform us about the ways in which language is used by members of the nation in everyday life?

This chapter will first address the topic of identity in the case of Singapore, and it will focus on how the main method of governance (multiracialism) influences the process of identity construction in the nation. Next, it will explain the history of hawking and the meaning of hawker food to members of the nation, followed by how hawker centers are places where food culture, language, and identity intersect in everyday life. This study will then explore how hawker centers can contribute to the existing knowledge about food culture, language, and identity in Singapore with the research findings on five hawker centers, which includes 501 signboard headers and their spatial constituents.

Identity in Singapore

We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation. National Pledge of Singapore (National Heritage Board 2007)

Several authors have described how the nation of Singapore was “imagined” and established according to universal concepts that would serve to unite a diverse ethnic population (Hill and Lian 1995; Ortmann 2009: 29; Rocha 2011). These universal concepts are the ideals of multiracialism, multiculturalism, multilingualism, multireligiousity, and meritocracy. Ortmann (2009) explains that as the nation’s past was wrought with ethnic tensions and corruption, the new national leaders elevated the concepts of multiracialism and meritocracy as the “two key founding myths of the Singapore state” (Ortmann 2009: 30). Hence, a new theory of multiracialism that would incorporate the other universal ideals (e.g., multilingualism, multireligiousity) was created, marking the foundations of a new multiracial nation (Rocha 2011). This is otherwise known as the CMIO, referring to the racialized framework of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and “Others”: “separate, but equal, races making up a unique and compelling Singaporean identity” (Siddique 1990; Chua 2003; Rocha 2011: 104). Ackermann (1997) describes that the “Others” category consists of ethnic communities as diverse as “‘Eurasian’, Filipino, Armenian, Jewish, Arab, people of ‘Caucasian descent’ and Japanese” (Ackermann 1997: 455).

As a form of acknowledgement to the presence of four different racial groups in the nation, four different languages were established as the official languages of Singapore: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. Of these, English language functions as an institutional and shared language among the four different racial groups, and Malay functions as the symbolic national language “in the Roman script” (Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Part XIII). Mahbubani (2014) remarks that Singapore is an “abnormal country,” as most Singaporeans do not speak the national language of Malay. This is with the exception of being able to sing the national anthem in Bahasa Melayu which is a duty that is encouraged, taught, and compulsory in schools and used in formal ceremonies in Singapore.

Under Singapore’s bilingual education system (1996), English is the language of instruction in schools, and Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil serve as the second or Mother Tongue languages for the Chinese, Malays, and Indian racial groups, respectively. This “natural” second language is determined according to patrilineal racial lines and is assigned regardless of “whether or not the language was spoken within the family in question” (Chua 2003; Rocha 2011: 112). By 1981, nearly all television and radio shows that used “dialect“ languages were banned, to encourage the use of mother tongue languages (Johnson 2017). This development caused many to feel alienated and “cut off” from society, such as among the older Chinese generations who understood little to no Mandarin (Chua 2005; Lee 2014).

The conception of a multiracial nation with four different racial groups and languages is also reinforced in the public and private spheres of everyday life, such as in institutions and day-to-day conversations.

From the national calendar to broadcast media, race-related festivals and elements such as Chinese New Year (Chinese) and Hari Raya Puasa (Malays) are observed in day to day life, causing one to continually imagine and experience a multiracial nation (Ackermann 1997; Chua 2003; Rocha 2011). Apart from these, management and institutional structures such as public housing, identification cards, and official forms often contain questions regarding one’s race. The scripting of a multiracial nation can also be witnessed in the urban landscape, public signage, and heritage districts serve to represent the language and “culture” of each racial identity: Chinatown for the Chinese, Kampong Glam for the Malays, Little India for the Indians, and Joo Chiat for “Others” like Europeans and Peranakans (Kong and Yeoh 1994, 2003; Yuen 2006; Henderson 2010).

Scholars have observed that English is increasingly becoming the de facto first language or mother tongue among younger Singaporeans, and there have been significant changes in how languages are used in Singapore today (Bolton and Ng 2014; Shang and Guo 2017; Tables 1 and 2). Moreover, the continued nonacknowledgment of mother tongue languages in the “Others” racial category causes them to be viewed with doubt and suspicion, as seen from the experiences of Kristangs (Portugese Eurasians) such as Mr. Andre D’Rozario and Ms. Anthonisz:

Growing up in Singapore, all of us could really relate to not having a mother tongue, not having something to call our own.

You got pink IC [Singaporean citizenship] or not? Your English very good ah? Your grandparents from where? (Lam 2017)

Table 1

Languages most frequently spoken at home in Singapore

Year

English (%)

Mandarin (%)

Chinese dialects (%)

Tamil (%)

Malay (%)

1957

1.8

0.1

74.4

5.2

13.5

1980

11.6

10.2

59.5

3.1

13.9

1990

18.8

23.7

39.6

2.9

14.3

2000

23.0

35.0

23.8

3.2

14.1

2010

32.3

35.6

14.3

3.2

12.2

Source: Bolton and Ng (2014: 311) (reproduced with permission)

Table 2

A comparison of English and mother tongue language use in Singapore, as preferred home languages

Racial group

Language

1980 (%)

1990 (%)

2000 (%)

2010 (%)

Chinese

English

10.2

21.4

23.9

32.6

Mandarin

13.1

30.0

45.1

47.7

Chinese dialects

76.2

48.2

30.7

19.2

Malay

English

2.3

5.7

7.9

17.0

Malay

96.7

94.1

91.6

82.6

Indian

English

24.3

34.3

35.6

41.6

Tamil

52.2

43.5

42.9

36.6

Malay

8.6

14.1

11.6

7.9

Other “Indian” languages

14.9

8.1

9.2

13.2

Source: Bolton and Ng (2014: 312) (reproduced with permission)

From Tables 1 and 2, we observe how the theory of multiracialism (CMIO) not only forms the core framework of governance but it is also a strong determinant in one’s sense of identity and belonging in the nation. This is facilitated by institutional structures and informal affairs in day-to-day life, where race is reinforced as a visible and grounded form of identity among Singaporeans. Several authors have pointed out that the “hybrids” (mixed races) and ethnic minorities are often relabelled or excluded from the nation’s narratives of identity and belonging, and their experiences of racial discrimination are rarely publicly acknowledged (Chua 2005; Velayutham 2007; Rocha 2011). Thus, the Singaporean identity is mainly measured according to one’s ability to identify himself or herself among the dominant racial categories and perform his or her ascribed identity accordingly (Hill and Lian 1995; Ackermann 1997; Velayutham 2007). Benjamin (1976: 124) remarks:

Singapore’s multiracialism puts pressure on Chinese to become more Chinese, Indians to become more Indian and Malays to become more Malay.

As a response to the rise of interethnic marriages and changing demographics of Singapore, the government began recognizing Eurasians as an official ethnic group in 2006 and enables residents to register double-barreled racial identities (e.g., Indian-Chinese) as of 2011 (Pereira 2006; Rocha 2011; Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore 2011). However, it was emphasized that the double-barreled racial identity would constitute one’s primary race, that is, not the race before (or after) the hyphen; thus, one’s education and socio-economic advantages would be characterized by the primary (double-barreled) race.

Figure 1 provides a summary of this section and demonstrates how linguistic and ethnic identities in Singapore have transformed under the nation’s theory of multiracialism (CMIO).
Fig. 1

Racial identities in Singapore. (Source: Author)

As a global city-state with transnational flows of people, languages, cultures, and identities that can no longer be purely determined or identified by geographical territory, the modern relevance of the CMIO framework has been brought into question in recent years (Au-Yong 2016; Cheng and Chua 2017; Siddique 2017). How can members of the same nation view themselves as Singaporean, first and foremost, instead of belonging to a certain race?

“I order ‘two kosong’ at a prata shop. Nobody thinks twice about my skin colour being more like the prata dough than the person making it. “We’re all same-same, mah!”” – Lim Shu Ming, 15-year-old student. (NDP 2003: 68)

Hawker Centers: Food, Language, and Identity in Singapore

Whereas the previous section discussed how hawker centers have “grown up” with the nation (Kong 2007: 15), this section illustrates the relationship between the trade of hawking (hawker food and centers) with language and identity, and what they mean to a vast majority of Singaporeans.

Humble Beginnings

Unlike the image of furnished hawker centers that can be found in virtually all parts of the nation today, Singaporean hawkers before the 1980s were makeshift street vendors. They made a humble living of selling hawker food without “potable water supply, electrical supply, sewerage and drainage systems, toilets, lighting and bin centres” (Kong 2007: 31). The business of street hawking flourished in colonial and postwar Singapore, as it required little start-up cost and capital. As the efforts of the government were directed towards economic stabilization in postwar Singapore, it was an attractive business for those who were unemployed or had little formal education (Kong 2007; Ortmann 2009; Rocha 2011).

However, street hawking was soon found to be incompatible with the government’s vision of the Singaporean nation.

As the hawkers did not have access to proper amenities such as waste facilities, food and liquid waste disposals in public areas were a common sight, and their street-side locations obstructed vehicle and pedestrian flows (Fig. 2). Moreover, most of the street hawkers operated “illegally”: it was estimated that only a quarter to a third of them were licensed in the early 1950s (Kong 2007). This made them vulnerable targets of the police force, as their hawking equipment would be confiscated during police inspections or raids. The former Head of the Hawkers Department explains:

At that time [1960s], the government had the objective of turning Singapore into the cleanest country in Asia, and street hawking were among the challenges to be surmounted in pursuit of that goal. (Kong 2007: 30)

Fig. 2

A scene of street hawking at Sago Lane in the 1970s. (Source: Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (used with permission))

Thus, it has been said that the “survival of any individual hawker’s trade depended on his ability to escape the unfavourable attentions of the police” (Kong 2007: 26). Some street hawkers even resorted to the “protection” of gangs and secret societies in attempts to safeguard their livelihoods.

While street hawkers were viewed unfavorably by the government, most of the Singaporean public were sympathetic to their plight, as they were seen as respectable people who tried to make an honest living (Kong 2007). The latter may be best described as ka-ki-kang (become your own boss) entrepreneurialism or the “village boy” myth (Duruz and Khoo 2015: 59), whereby one becomes “one’s own boss” based on personal merits of hard work and resourcefulness. These factors gave a common ground of understanding among the Singaporean population, ka-ki-nang: “we are all of the same kind.” This refers to the acumen that we are all ordinary people, who are striving to make a proper living in the same land. Apart from this shared sense of identification, the street hawkers (and their food) were a significant part of everyday life. Many Singaporeans today can still remember the days of street hawking, where their “calls would be heard well before they came within sight, titillating salivary glands building up expectations” (Kong 2007: 134; Duruz and Khoo 2015). Food writer Sylvia Tan recalls:

[R]oving hawkers worked out a system of food delivery whereby shop-house dwellers would lower baskets whenever they heard the food calls, and in this way, exchange cash for food…The food calls were distinctive – you could not mistake the nasal cry of the loh kai yik man for the guttural calls of the ap bak (braised duck) man; nor the clacking of bamboo clappers of the noodle man for the mee goring man’s insistent clanging of frying implement against wok. (Tan 2004: 71–73)

Hence, street hawkers made everyday life more vibrant and colorful, and their higgledy-piggledy stature added a certain charm to the modernizing nation (Kong 2007).

Hawker Centers Today

Well, I think that if there were no hawker centres in Singapore, it would be like the end of the world! – Daniel, a 13-year-old Singaporean (Kong 2007: 161)

Today, hawker food still serves to embody memories of growing up and living in Singapore.

Kong (2007: 27) mentions that it is perhaps thanks to the Hawker Inquiry Commission that hawkers have remained part of the Singaporean landscape. This has eventually led to the modern planning and construction of hawker centers and market-cum-hawker centers, whereby each planned location would ensure a steady flow of customers, and facilities (lighting, shared tables, basic ventilation systems, public toilets, sewage, bin centers) could be built as long-term investments for both hawkers and members of the public. As of 2017, there are approximately 110 government stand-alone hawker centers and market-cum-hawker centers, housing more than 6000 cooked food stalls (National Environment Agency of Singapore 2018).

Studies have described how these large open-air complexes serve as meeting and eating points among people from all backgrounds and walks of life: the housewife, “the CEO and office cleaner,” (Kong 2007: 19), students and families with both the young and old, and not to mention the ubiquitous neighborhood uncles who gather together to lim kopi (drink [Hokkien] coffee [Malay]) (Fig. 3). Despite stark differences in age, social status, and racial backgrounds, nearly all are equal when it comes to queuing up at your hawker stall of choice, embarking on the indomitable task to find empty seats during the office lunch hours, and sharing a table with strangers at the hawker center – Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others eating together under one roof, in the tropical heat. The Singaporean culture of chope (reserve in Singlish) with tissue papers or simple objects on seats and tables only adds to the local drama of everyday life at the hawker center.
Fig. 3

A mid-morning scene at Maxwell Hawker Centre, August 2018

This is a significant difference from eating at air-conditioned food places like food courts, cafes, fast food chains and restaurants that can be found in virtually all parts of the modern city-state, and which most Singaporeans are well able to afford (Kong 2007; Simkins 2011; TODAY 2014). These food places tend to offer only a single version of a food item, whereas there can be up four to five different hawker stalls selling their own versions of char kway teow or nasi lemak in the same hawker center. The former has also been dubbed commercialized and standardized by some Singaporeans.

A 2006 survey revealed that nine in every ten respondents ate out at least once a week in hawker centers, food courts, restaurants, and other eating places (Kong 2007). It was also discovered that virtually all (93.8%) respondents consumed food from hawker centers, in the form of takeaways or eating at hawker centers, with a sizeable proportion (44%) doing so at least once or twice per week. A recent report in 2014 also found that four in five of more than 750 Singaporean adults consume hawker food when they are not dining at home (Shandwick 2014). Not only do these statistics inform us about the culture of eating out in Singapore but they also help us to imagine how hawker food and centers are a vital part of day-to-day life for many Singaporeans, providing an elusive taste and place for home (Kong 2007; Duruz and Khoo 2015).

Hawker food is no ordinary food…is neither elegant nor classy, but it embodies the essence of being Singaporean. (Tay 2010: 2)

I was among some New York feeders who wormed our way in when we heard that the [Singapore Day] festivities would include Singaporean dishes prepared by a dozen hawkers flown in for the occasion. Six thousand people stood patiently in line for a go at some food from home – completely ignoring the government exhibitions and the requisite rock band. As they waited, they spoke of the stands they head for when they can manage the eleven-thousand-mile trip to Singapore – the coffee shop in their old neighborhood that has the best kaya (a sort of coconut custard, served on toast), the fried-prawn-noodle stand in Marine Parade they always visit the first day back, the place with the best halal version of chicken rice. Nobody I spoke to mentioned any restaurants. (Trillin 2007)

Scholars have pointed out that while hawker food in Singapore is largely identified along ethno-racial lines, such as mee rebus associated with Malays, mee goreng with Indians and wonton mee with Chinese, some dishes are so mixed or hybridized in culinary influences, they are perhaps best described as strictly Singaporean (Lee 1992; Kong 2007: 108; Koh 2017).

One example is Indian rojak, which is a salad-like mix of tofu, potato, fishcake, cuttlefish, vegetables, and other battered ingredients – served with a most crucial finishing touch, a chili sauce that is thickened with sweet potato. Kong (2007: 108) remarks, “This must be a surprise for visitors from India.” Other examples of Singaporean innovations include chili crab and bak kut teh, the latter referring to an aromatic pork rib soup that can be traced back to Chinese immigrants. “It’s so Chinese and yet, it’s not in China. This is what I mean: we came up with a third taste,” said Mr. Seetoh, a famous food critic in Singapore (Kong 2007: 108).

Not only does the mix of interethnic culinary flavors constitute the identity of hawker cuisine, the time-established names and identifications given to hawker food also bears testament to a Singaporean identity: everyday life as a melting pot of languages and cultures. As suggested previously, the names of hawkerfare are often word combinations or Anglicized versions of languages that are spoken in Singapore. For instance, if one would like to order a cup of black coffee without sugar in Singapore, one would say “kopi (Malay) o (Hainanese) kosong (Malay).” While these expressions may appear strange at first sight, hawker food lingos are but another banal or normal aspect of everyday life for most Singaporeans. Singapore-based Irish writer Laura Schwartz laments about the difficulty that expats have in ordering food:

Perhaps the onus is on expats to learn some new rules, especially in hawker centres...Know what you want to order by the time you get to the front of the line, order (in ‘Singlish’ or Chinese, if necessary), bring your own tissues, pay with cash, and retreat quickly to a table with your meal. (Schwartz 2014; Chew 2014)

It might be of little surprise then, that Singaporeans are proud of a hawker food/center culture that is still ultimately theirs: a bottom-up food culture and language that only “we” can speak, understand, and have the rights to challenge. Hawker centers are everyday spaces of belonging and home, where “we” are being cooked for, fed and have a place in “regardless of race, language or religion” or social standing.

In this section, we have briefly witnessed how hawker food and centers are associated with a sense of identity, home, and belonging in the nation. They embody “multiple levels of sedimented history” (Kong and Yeoh 1994: 55), and are everyday spaces of encounter where people from all backgrounds and walks of life can sit and eat “together-in-difference” (Ang 2001; Duruz and Khoo 2015: 15). While hawker centers can be viewed as merely affordable eating places in the banality of day-to-day life, they are a “microcosm of Singaporean society” (Kong 2007: 19) and meaningful place-processes that embody manifold experiences of growing up and living in Singapore, for both hawkers and their satisfied customers. Moreover, the “hot and humid” setting of hawker centers serve as a physical reminder of the past (no air conditioners) and present geographical location of Singapore: a first world global city-state situated in the tropical region of Southeast Asia. Hence, one invariably “chooses” and “consumes” (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008) the nation in hawker food and centers over other alternatives.

At the same time, the trade of hawking has always been part of an ongoing project of urbanization by the Singaporean government, as hawker centers continue to be reinvented and remodeled according to the changing times today (TODAY 2017; Boh 2017).

Thus, hawker centers function as a food-and-nationalism axis (Ichijo and Ranta 2016), whereby food culture and national identity are blended together in place within the context of the everyday life.

Research Methodology

According to Brubaker et al. (2006), discussions regarding ethnic and national identity often come “predictably packaged with standard sets of qualifiers” and tend to neglect explanations about how ethnicity and nationhood are constructed in detail (Brubaker et al. 2006: 7). Thus, a “wait and see” approach (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008) is undertaken, whereby “the research agenda is designed to leave people to their own devices” (Brubaker et al. 2006; Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008: 556; Goode and Stroup 2015). It utilizes a vernacular understanding of food culture, language, and identity and conceptualizes the everyday as an object of analysis (Brubaker et al. 2006). This is such that the quotidian, that is, the empirical phenomena would not be restricted to national or ethnic categories, which are often defined by institutions (Skey 2011; Goode and Stroup 2015).

Although a “wait-and-see” methodology and vernacular understanding of food, culture, and identity may appear naïve, they take into account the crucial assumption that the nation, food culture, language, or identities do not necessarily pervade the minds and consciousness of individuals at all times in everyday life (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008). In this manner, vernacular identifications and categorizations would be used to distinguish the relationship between food culture, language, and identity.

Unlike the strict degrees of rules and regulation that the Singapore government enforces in nearly all “big and small matters in people’s lives,” the approach towards public and private signage is rather lenient and laissez-faire unless they contain defamatory remarks or offensive language that threaten to disrupt racial harmony (Shang and Guo 2017: 187).

Thus, this study uses empirical data consisting of 501 pictures of hawker stall header signboards from 5 different hawker centers (Table 3 and Fig. 4). A signboard header is defined as the top part of signage that serves as the main description for the hawker stall and is publicly visible at all times. The other signboards were not analyzed for practical and feasibility considerations. As hawker food signboards are assumed to be voluntary and nonrestrictive in nature, it is appropriate for studying food, language, and identity according to a wait-and-see and vernacular research approach. The five hawker centers were chosen as they carry with them various histories and cultural connotations and are located in different planning districts of the country.
Table 3

Background of hawker centers in this study

Name of hawker center and description

Location and accessibility

(Number of available signboards out of total in each hawker center)

Bedok Interchange. The name “Bedok” has been existent since the time of Singapore’s British colonial history, and the area was known as a Malay kampong (village). Its name is likely derived from the Malay word “Bedoh,” as there used to be a mosque that would sound its drums five times daily to signal the prayer times

• Although the origins of the hawker center are uncertain, it likely began as a branch of the bus interchange in the town center of Bedok. This was where illegal street hawkers would set up makeshift stalls to sell their fruit and products in the 1980s. A writer recounts that “HDB officers had to be deployed daily to curb the problem”

• Directly located next to Bedok MRT (mass rapid transit) station, which was constructed in 1989

• It is also surrounded by residential buildings, shopping centers, coffee shops, and other food eateries and is within close proximity of schools

• 70 (out of 70)

Changi Village. In 1927, a local settlement sprang up near the British military camps at Changi Point and formed an enterprise to cater to the needs of the military and their families. It was a place of recreation and provision outside the military camps and became known as Changi Village, and it continued to flourish after the end of World War II

• However, after the British announced that Singapore would be granted independence in 1972, “the once blooming suburbia had become a struggling kampong” (National Heritage Board 2007)

• This phenomenon caused the Singapore Government to introduce plans with regards to the reinvention of Changi Village in 1975, leading to construction of Changi Village hawker center

• Located at the far east coast of Singapore, Changi Village Hawker Centre is surrounded by residential buildings, cafes, beach, and leisure facilities

• The location is accessible by several buses and not within close proximity to an MRT station. It takes an estimated 1 h 20 min (6 .4 km) to walk from Pasir Ris MRT station

• 70 (out of 70)

Maxwell Road. Formerly known as Maxwell Market, this place was established in 1928 and served as a government co-operative store during the Japanese Occupation in Singapore (1942–1945). In 1987, the wet market was converted into a food center and housed hawkers who were relocated from China Square

• It is a popular tourist destination and contains the famed Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice hawker stall with the likes of American celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and Gordan Ramsay (Farley 2015)

• It was upgraded at a cost of SGD 3.2 million or approx. USD 2.4 million in Sep 2000–May 2001

• Located in the Central Business District of Singapore and near several institutions and office buildings

• It is approximately a 6–10-minute walk from nearby MRT stations, one of which is Tanjong Pagar, which was built in 1987.

• 98 (out of 103)

Old Airport Road. As suggested by the name, this hawker center was established after the closure of Kallang Airport in 1955

• When it was established in 1958, it was known as Jalan Empat Market, and provided the area with 172 stalls for fresh and cooked foods. By the 1960s, the available stalls were inadequate to accommodate all of the street hawkers who had gathered at Kallang estate. The continual growth and exacerbation of the “hawker problem” eventually led to construction a new complex building, Old Airport Road Food Centre

• It underwent a major facelift and upgrading in 2006–2007, costing the governmental authorities SGD 5.8 million (approx. USD 4.3 million).

• This building complex is largely surrounded by residential buildings, the most famous of which was Dakota Crescent, one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates

• Located within close proximity to the city center, it is a popular place of visit among locals and tourists alike. It is now within walking distance from Dakota and Mountbatten MRT stations, which were built in 2010

• 160 (out of 168)

Tekka Centre. Founded in 1915, it was first called Kandang Kerbau Market, as the surrounding district was associated with the cattle and meat trade

• By the 1930s, it was famous for being the “people’s market,” as it was popular among different ethnic groups and offered a wide variety of fresh and cooked food products, and retail goods

• It has since been redeveloped into a residential-cum-shopping complex, where the hawker food stalls are located on the third floor. Its name was “hanyu-pinyinized” into Zhujiao Centre in 1981. This met with some conflict and contention, and it was renamed Tekka Centre in 2000

• Located within the Central Business District and in the “Little India” Heritage District and is within close proximity to heritage buildings and landmarks

• It is directly next to Little India MRT station, which was constructed in 2003

• 103 (out of 117)

Fig. 4

Locations of all hawker centers and market-cum-hawker centers in Singapore, 2017, indicating the five selected centers for this study

The 501 header signboards constitute all of the available hawker food signboard headers that were available at the time of the visit (94.9% total) and were taken from 6 to 15 March in 2017 and between 9 and 10 AM on each occasion. This timing was for practical reasons of lighting and photographing the signboards before the lunch-hour crowds. These header signboards are analyzed according to a coding framework (Fig. 5) that is based on the theory of multiracialism (CMIO). While the “vacant” stalls may contribute to a slightly different image or representation of hawker centers, the number of stall unit signboards (501) is still adequate and sufficient for the subsequent analysis in this study (88–100%).
Fig. 5

Coding structure of hawker signboard headers

Hawker Stories

This section largely comprises maps and spatial visualizations of hawker centers, to facilitate an understanding of how they may be imagined and experienced. Thus, the contents of this section are organized and ordered on the basis of scale and method in which one can approach food, language, and identity from the bottom-up details found in the everyday life.

Banal Representations of Nations and Geographical Territories in Hawker Food

Ichijo and Ranta (2016) mention that the banal representation of nations in food has become so commonplace and banal that consumers are often oblivious to them and how they construct their understanding of food culture and national identity. They “construct and reproduce what nations are, not only in terms of produce and dishes, but also in terms of images, traditions, scenes, people and geography, through, for example, the choice of language, context and photographs” (Ichijo and Ranta 2016: 6).

These suggest that the spatial identities attached to hawker food and signboards (Fig. 6) provide powerful frameworks of understanding the Singaporean nation, in terms of its food culture, languages of use, and ethno-national identities that reside within. The banal representations of other national cuisines also remind us of “our” food boundaries and qualitative differences (real and imagined) between “us” and “them,” causing particular individuals and groups of people to identify and negotiate their sense of place and belonging among these ethnic and national food cultures.
Fig. 6

Hawker signboards. (Left) “Traditional Teochew Kueh” suggests examples of kueh eaten by the Teochew or “Chaozhou” community in Guangdong and diasporas around the world like Singapore. The Chinese characters hint that the Teochews belong to a broader Chinese identity. (Right) “Sri Lankan Foods” presents images of the food eaten in Sri Lanka such as fish curry with rice. The Sinhala language characters suggest that Sinhala is used and spoken amongst Sri Lankans

For instance, a Tamil-educated Singaporean Indian man of Sri Lankan descent is reminded of his diasporic identity and inability to speak Sinhalese when he sees the “Sri Lankan Foods” signboard, causing him to reassert his Singaporean identity in the physical space of the hawker center.

Figures 7 and 8 were generated using the “real” banal representations of nations and geographical territories in hawker food (Table 4). While it is debatable whether hawker foods with national and geographical references are representative of the food culture(s) in these places, there is a certain degree of truth to the ethnic and place origins of Singapore’s hawker food, as seen in the examples in the next section. For instance, Teochew Kueh reminds us of the presence of the Teochew (Chaozhou) ethno-linguistic group in Singapore and for “Sri Lankan Foods” the presence of Sri Lankan immigrants in Singapore.
Fig. 7

Geographical extent of banal food representations from five hawker centers in Singapore. Considering the geographical location and physical size of Singapore, hawker food compounds the geographical imagination of hawker centers and the nation by several thousand times

Fig. 8

Geographic extent of banal food representations in Old Airport Road (Top) and Tekka Centre (Bottom)

Table 4

Banal food representations in hawker centers

Banal Food Ref.

Hawker Centre

Total Count

Category

References

Bedok

Changi

Maxwell

Old Airport Road

Tekka

Nations

Afghanistan

0

0

0

0

1

1

China

2

 

1

0

0

3

India

1

0

0

1

3

5

Indonesia

0

1

0

0

0

1

Italy

0

0

1

2

0

3

Japan

0

1

0

3

1

5

Korea

0

0

0

0

1

1

Singapore

2

6

2

0

0

10

Sri Lanka

0

0

0

0

1

1

Thailand

2

1

0

4

1

8

States & Districts

Chettinad (Tamil Naidu, India)

0

0

0

0

1

1

Fujian

1

3

3

4

0

11

Guangdong

0

0

 

1

0

1

Hainan

3

3

9

3

2

20

Hong Kong

1

1

0

6

2

10

Johor Bahru

0

0

 

1

0

1

Kerala

0

0

0

0

1

1

Muar

0

0

1

0

1

2

Pontian

1

0

0

0

0

1

Taiwan

0

1

0

1

0

2

Cities

Chaozhou

2

1

2

2

4

11

Chong Qing

0

0

1

0

0

1

Fuzhou

0

0

1

1

0

2

Ipoh

1

2

1

0

0

4

London

0

0

0

1

0

1

Penang

2

1

0

0

0

3

Shanghai

0

0

1

0

0

1

Tokyo

0

0

1

0

0

1

aThe ancestral land of origin among several Singaporean Chinese today

bEstimated as Tamil Naidu

As seen from Fig. 7, the banal representation of hawker food culture largely focuses on the continent of Asia and some nations are more represented than others. For example, while the country of Malaysia was not explicitly mentioned, several of its geographical territories like Ipoh and Penang were frequently cited in hawker food in this study (see Fig. 7 and Table 4). This development is likely due to ensuing “food fights” or national claims to heritage food between the two neighboring countries and the establishment of Singapore’s food and national identity as distinct from that of Malaysia’s (Loh 2009; Sood 2010; Lahrichi 2014; Loh 2018; Duruz and Khoo 2015). Loh (2018) remarks that while food is one of the reasons that Malaysians and Singaporeans do not see eye-to-eye, it is also a factor that unites them. Loh cites the 2018 MasterChef UK crispy chicken rendang incident in which Singapore joined forces with Malaysia and Indonesia to rally for culinary justice that chicken rending should not be crispy (Keating 2018).

Although the crispy chicken rendang incident suggests that the relationship between food culture and national identity is complex and subject to change, it also demonstrates how banal food representations may reflect vernacular and on-the-ground understandings of food and identity, e.g., Singaporeans enjoying ipoh hor fun and pontian wonton mee on a day-to-day basis.

Moreover, the banal representations of nations differ across hawker centers, as seen from the comparison between Old Airport Road and Tekka (Fig. 8).

While the banal world of food imagination stretches to Western Europe in Old Airport Road hawker center, Tekka’s contains a greater focus on South Asia (Fig. 8). This brings out the importance and role of place, where one’s impression of food, language, and identity, as well as the extent of globalization in Singapore may be dependent on the hawker center(s) visited. Among the five centers studied, Tekka contains the only representations of Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, as well as specific states and regions in India (Kerala and Chettinad). The reason may be due to the location of Tekka Centre in the Little India Heritage District of Singapore, where it was intended to showcase various Indian identities according to the national script of multiracialism.

Altogether, hawker centers and hawker food culture serves as a platform of imagination, construction, and reproduction of nationhood in the context of the everyday.

Multiracial Hawker Centers

Thus far, it has been shown that nationalism in Singapore is largely characterized by the theory of multiracialism, whereby it penetrates virtually all aspects of life for members of the nation. This section provides an imagination of how hawker centers would look through the lens of multiracialism by providing some examples of “hawker stall identities” according to the logic of multiracialism (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other, or CMIO) (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9

Chinese stall indicators are the Chinese language (top left); Malay stall indicators are Islamic symbols (Crescent and Moon) and Arabic blessings, the Malay language and hawker food identified as Malay (e.g., Nasi Ayam Penyet) (top right); Indian stall indicators are hawker food identified as Indian (e.g., Chapati, Naan) (bottom left); “Other” stall indicators are food identity (pasta and risotto is associated as Italian food), banal representation of Italy via the Italian national flag in print

As seen from Fig. 10, the levels of racial diversity and hawker stall mixing differ among the hawker centers. Tekka Centre provides the best example of this among the five hawker centers in the study, as it has a more equal distribution of the four racial groups, compared to the dominance of Chinese stalls in all other hawker centers. Moreover, racial mixing (same row) among the four CMIO stall identities can only be found in the case of Tekka Centre (intra-row mixing).
Fig. 10

Multiracial hawker center layouts

Table 5 illustrates how the composition of race-related language(s) in each hawker center differs, and how the dominance of a Mother Tongue language over all others may contribute to a certain understanding of a hawker center. For instance, the dominance of the Chinese language in Old Airport Road Hawker Centre (84%) over all other race-related languages creates an impression that the hawker center has a dominant Chinese character and mainly offers Chinese cuisine.
Table 5

Composition of languages in hawker stall header signboards (numerical and percentage)

Hawker centers/languages*

Bedok (70)

Changi Village (88)

Maxwell (98)

Old Airport Road (160)

Tekka (103)

English (non-pinyin)

58 (83%)

80 (91%)

82 (84%)

141 (88%)

97 (94%)

Chinese

43 (61%)

53 (60%)

74 (76%)

135 (84%)

48 (47%)

Malay

11 (16%)

29 (33%)

7 (7%)

15 (9%)

31 (30%)

Indian

1 (1%)

1 (1%)

0

1 (1%)

33 (32%)

Arabic (Islamic blessings)

1 (1%)

26 (30%)

2 (2%)

0

31 (30%)

Other

1 (1%)

0

0

4 (3%)

0

*Each stall header signboard may contain more than one language

Without any prior knowledge or first-hand experience of dining at hawker centers, one may perceive that Malays and Indians are largely separated or excluded from hawker centers or among the Chinese-dominant rows of stalls. While this may be true to a certain extent, it largely stems from a practical and religious need to separate cutlery and utensils from Halal (mostly Malay and Indian) and non-Halal (mostly Chinese) food stalls, and food tray return racks are often placed at the end of the same row or column at hawker centers as seen in Fig. 11.
Fig. 11

Food tray return carts in hawker centers. (Left) Halal and the languages of Malay and Tamil; (right) non-Halal and the Chinese language

Racial-Language Mixing

According to the framework of multiracialism, a mother tongue language is assigned to each dominant racial identity. Hence, the mixing or intersections of Mother Tongue and religious languages (Arabic) attached to racial identities are viewed as racial transgressions or boundary crossings. An example of this can be seen in Fig. 12.
Fig. 12

Mixing of mother tongue and religious languages. (Top) Toa Payoh Rojak has Chinese and Arabic characters, and the latter is often associated with the religion of Islam in Singapore; (bottom) Mohd Hanifa Drinks contain Malay and Chinese characters

Because the placement of multiple racial languages can be viewed as a form of marketing to more consumer groups, these racial transgressions may go unnoticed or ignored in the banality of everyday life. As a conservative approach, common food names such as satay, rojak, otah, and laksa were not classified as Malay or Indian languages, due to the nature of their mixed influences in Singapore. Due to this restriction and the limited scope of this study, only three maps of racial-language mixing were generated (Fig. 13).
Fig. 13

Racial-language mixing: Changi Village Hawker Centre (top left), Tekka Centre (top right), and Old Airport Road Hawker Centre (bottom)

As seen from Fig. 13, the low numbers and percentages of language mixing (5.7%; 0.625%; 4.8%, respectively) based on the available signboard headers suggest that the representation of mother tongue and religious languages (Arabic for Muslims) are outward indicators of one’s identity. In the case of Tekka Centre, it was discovered that the Malay and Indian signboard headers would contain Chinese subtitles (e.g., Mohd Hanifa Drinks in Fig. 12), but the reverse was not true, for example, in Chinese food stalls having Malay or Tamil subtitles. This suggests an internalization of Chinese-majority dynamics among the Malay and Indian ethnic minority groups (power differences), even if the intention behind the Chinese subtitling was merely for commercial reasons.

Therefore, the mixing of racial and religious languages in space suggests that they are bold acts of racial boundary transgression (or subservience), serving to reinforce or challenge existing mindsets pertaining to how food, language, and identity are performed in the nation.

Hawker Food Culture

One of the key characteristic features of hawker centers among food places in Singapore is the variety of food and brand specializations offered by individual hawkers. As Hainanese chicken rice is often dubbed the national dish of Singapore (Songkaeo 2014; Farley 2015), Chicken Rice Nation is a description for how it may serve to bind a people together (Fig. 14). As hawker food is also known as food for sharing, satay and rojak are selected for the depiction of the local food culture in Singapore (Kong 2007) (Fig. 15). For the purposes of this study, what constitutes Singaporean chicken rice takes reference from the Hainanese version. This excludes other types of chicken rice sold at hawker stalls, such as ayam penyet and nasi ayam.
Fig. 14

Chicken Rice Nation: Bedok Interchange HC (top left), Changi Village HC (top center), Tekka Centre (top right), Maxwell HC (middle), and Old Airport Road HC (bottom)

Fig. 15

Satay and Rojak for sharing: Bedok Interchange HC (top left), Changi Village HC (top center), Tekka Centre (top right), Maxwell HC (middle), and Old Airport Road HC (bottom)

Chicken Rice Nation

As seen Fig. 14, there were cases of Hainanese-style chicken rice stalls found in Chinese and Malay hawker stalls (e.g., Bedok, Maxwell); however, in most cases, it was only sold in Chinese hawker stalls. This finding also suggests that there is a strong Chinese racial dominance in the production and sale of this national dish. While this understanding is congruent with a Hainanese-Chinese identity, it gives us food for thought on how it is a national and majority-dominant dish.

Satay and Rojak for Sharing

Figure 15 shows that satay and rojak stalls are found in Chinese and Malay hawker stalls in some hawker centers (Bedok and Maxwell), and in Chinese, Malay and Indian hawker stalls within others (Changi Village and Old Airport Road). This suggests that satay and rojak have a higher potential than Hainanese chicken rice when it comes to crossing food and racial boundaries. Although the satay-rojak hawker stalls in this scenario sell either Satay or Rojak (or both), this finding suggests that hawker food that is designed for group sharing may hold greater potential for blurring real and perceived racial differences, in hawker centers and beyond.

Hawking Histories: Role of Place

This section attempts to visualize the processes involved in the trade of hawking and place-making in each hawker center. As suggested previously, the trade of hawking in Singapore existed in the colonial era and before the turn of the twenty-first century. Thus, street hawkers who are still in operation today carry with them rich histories and traditions that were once rooted in place. Their stall signages serve as both memories and reminders of the buildings and streets that no longer exist or function in the same way in modern Singapore (Fig. 16). An example of this is “Hock Lam Street,” which was located in the civic district, and that was comprised of rows of shophouses and street hawkers selling food and trade wares. It was purposed for redevelopment in the late 1970s.
Fig. 16

A “Hock Lam Street” Beef Kway Teow Hawker Stall at Old Airport Road HC

Not only do these historical entities serve as memories of the past, they also function as local food “awards” as they symbolize culinary tradition and authenticity.

Hence, these hawker stall “awards” play an integral role in the process of place-making of each hawker center, as the reputation and stall composition of each hawker center is neither the same nor equal. For the purpose of this study, hawker stall “awards” refer to both official awards (from food competitions or institutions) and a local recognition of hawker stall accolades, the latter including newspaper mentions (Fig. 17), local celebrity and television show recommendations, and pictures of esteemed people like the President of Singapore patronizing the hawker stall.
Fig. 17

Example of hawker food stall awards

As many hawkers do not display their awards, location, or year of origin on the header signboard, Fig. 18 provides a glimpse, albeit incomplete, of the hawking histories and process of place-making at hawker centers.
Fig. 18

Hawking histories: Bedok Interchange HC (top left), Changi Village HC (top center), Tekka Centre (top right), Maxwell HC (middle), and Old Airport Road HC (bottom)

Singaporean hawkers express their hawking histories and identities in distinct ways resulting in unique “heritage” maps of each hawker center (Fig. 18). For instance, while hawker awards (only) were featured most prominently in Tekka Centre, while that of place (only) was most prevalent in Maxwell HC. The year of origin was a prevailing aspect in Bedok Interchange HC and Old Airport Road HC. The specifies of place mentions also differ from hawker to hawker, in that it ranges from specific buildings and floor levels such as “People’s Park” and “Blanco Court 3rd Floor” to specific street names such as “Kallang, Geylang 5th Street” and “Albert Street” and the mentioning of neighborhoods like “Hougang” and “Orchard.” Altogether, these identifications and representations of place by hawkers reveal investments of meaning and value as well as the distinctiveness of material culture in each hawker center.

Figure 19 is a flow map of hawker origins where the sources are the geographical approximations of places mentioned in the hawker stall header signboards. The destination(s) are the individual hawker centers where the hawker stall is located. The magnitude of hawker flows is not reflected (i.e., five mentions of “China Street” appears the same as a single mention). Nonetheless, it helps us to visualize the life of street hawking and various extents of movements that some hawkers have made before settling down in certain hawker centers. One can also imagine the sense of place and identity that hawkers have in a nation that is ever-changing, and how people, food, and places are interconnected and hawker centers as geographically “networked” within a broader system of operations.
Fig. 19

Flow map of hawker origins

Discussion and Conclusion

Singapore’s hawker centers constitute a complex combination of food, languages, and identities. They are places of geographical imagination and representation, providing characteristic understandings of hawker food origins and the Singaporean nation, as well as that of food cultures in other nations. The banal representations of food also serve as reminders of the various ethnicities that exist in the Singapore society and show how vernacular understandings of food and identity politics may be revealed in which nations and places are mentioned (or not), as seen from the case of heritage food “wars” between Singapore and Malaysia.

At the same time, hawker centers are institutions that invariably reproduce the nation’s theory of multiracialism, as the attachment of race-related languages to ethnic food reproduces existing racial identities, when those ethnicities are subsumed within broader racial groups.

This study has demonstrated that the banal representation of food, intersections of mother tongue and religious languages in space, and the nature of hawker food have the potential to blur food and racial boundaries in the nation. They serve as reminders that there is more to “Chinese-ness,” “Malay-ness,” and “Indian-ness” in the population demographics of Singapore (Kong 2007: 108), and the visibility of minority and “new” immigrant hawker cuisines inform consumers that there are actual faces, languages, and cuisines behind each ethnic group, especially among those casted in the “Others” racial category. As hawker food is also relatively low in cost, accessible and frequently eaten among Singaporeans, it has the potential to be “an entry point, both theoretically and methodologically, for thinking through broader body-environment-place relationships” (Del Casino 2015: 805). Hence, the role and power of place and space in hawker centers is observed to conceptualize and challenge the meaning and contents of racial identity in Singapore, albeit in the real and imagined forms.

Therefore, hawker centers function as a “food-and-nationalism axis” (Ichijo and Ranta 2016): they are organizational structures, where the trade of hawking is institutionalized, and are unique places which construct, reproduce, and challenge nationalism. Each hawker center has its own unique history and process of becoming (Pred 1984; Yeoh and Kong 1996: 53) and blends food, language, and identity in the context of the everyday life. Scholars on nationalism have emphasized that nations and national identities are “not just the product of structural forces” (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008: 554) nor fixed categories, and that it is ordinary individuals are the key actors who “make them real” in the course of their social interactions and activities in their daily lives (Thompson 2001: 24; Antonsich 2015). Thus, in addition to the above characteristics, the individual experiences of walking, chopping, eating, talking, sweating, and hawking at the hawker center forms a part of the national production of vernacular and on-the-ground understandings of food, language, and identity in Singapore.

In relation to broader food and nationalism discourses, the case of Singapore’s hawker centers reveal that everyday places are not only public places where food culture may be located in a nation: they carry much potential to generate, reproduce, and challenge both nationalism and food culture(s). The findings of this study have revealed the potential of food to unite and divide a people, and support the understanding that nationalism is no longer abstract but substantial to the individual, when the nation becomes physically embodied in the form of food (Avieli 2005). Lastly, the spatial dimension is an immutable foundation that cannot be removed from one’s encounters in the world. While neither space and place carry permanent meanings nor can exist as a “concrete way of belonging” (Duruz and Khoo 2015: 180), the process of place-making is still crucial in helping us to understand how relations are built in space and place, and why traditional food is often regarded as an anchor of national identity when all else shifts.

In this study, a “wait-and-see” (Fox and Miller-Idriss 2008) and vernacular approach (Brubaker et al. 2006; Skey 2011; Goode and Stroup 2015) was shown to be particularly useful in understanding how food, language, and identities are expressed and experienced on-the-ground. They enable an analysis of empirical data and phenomenon that do not neatly fit within ethnic or national categories and inform us about the role and function of food culture in the everyday nation. Jurafsky (2014) reminds us that the language of food “helps us understand the interconnectedness of civilizations and the vast globalization that happened, not recently, as we might think, but centuries or millennia ago, all brought together by the most basic human pursuit: finding something good to eat” (Jurafsky 2014: 4). Hence, while vernacular terms and understandings are loaded expressions that may mean different things to different individuals – chicken rice in Singapore’s hawker centers may be known as “Singaporean Chicken Rice” to a tourist, “Hainanese Chicken Rice” to a Singaporean Chinese, and “Chinese Chicken Rice” to an expatriate – they enable us to perform the task of understanding “the actual processes of meaning making and the exercise of vernacular power that are constitutive of social identities” (Goode and Stroup 2015: 718).

Suggested additional research on this topic would include a cross-analysis between colonial racialism and postcolonial multiracialism as expressed in the culinary and sensory landscape of hawker centers (Goh 2008; Cheung 2014; Low 2013), and the interviewing of the hawker stall owners behind the choice of design in their header signboards. A broader research could also include the analysis of cultural and religious symbols in hawker signage, such as red lanterns (associated with Chinese) and pictures of Hindu gods. Although Anglicized Chinese characters (pinyin) were not considered as English languages for the purposes of this study, it is debatable about what constitutes English in the Singaporean context, if vernacular terms such as “yong tao foo” are so common and widely used that even non-Mandarin speakers can understand what they mean. A future reproduction of this study would also reflect the stability of hawker stalls in hawker centers, as well as its transformations as place-processes.

Hawker centers have “grown up” with the nation and provide room for both continuity and change to be established in an ever-changing society. They bring the “nation” back to its immigrant and ka-ki-nang roots, reminding the people of Singapore that we share the same space (place, country, and land) while we eat “together-in-difference” (Ang 2001; Duruz and Khoo 2015: 15). Hawker centers have been emblematic of various stages within Singapore’s nation-building project and will continue to embody expressions of identity, language, and belonging among the majority of Singaporeans.

Notes

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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