24 Oct 2012

Food - Must Eats -

A Nibble at Chinatown's History

The nation’s favourite dish, Hainanese chicken rice, needs no introduction. But how many actually know where it originated from? When did it come to Singapore and who cooked it first?


The nation’s favourite dish, Hainanese chicken rice, needs no introduction. But how many actually know where it originated from? When did it come to Singapore and who cooked it first? It has always intrigued me, especially considering how my friends who have visited Hainan told me they haven’t seen anything similar there.

Annette Tan’s Savour Chinatown: Stories, Memories and Recipes answers the questions: it was Mr Wang Yiyuan who first brought the dish over from China in the 1920s. Mr Wang started his humble business selling chicken rice balls wrapped in banana leaves for one cent a packet as an itinerant hawker along Hylam Street before moving to a coffee shop after the war.

Three years in the making, Savour Chinatown: Stories, Memories and Recipes answers questions like those aforementioned and more. The book, published by Ate Private Limited and supported by the National Heritage Board, pays tribute to the famed Chinatown while compiling the recipes of the district’s most delicious foods.

“We had to gather a lot of people, all the business owners, to convince them to share their stories and recipes with us,” explains Annette Tan, on the 3 years it took to complete the book. “There was a lot of co-ordination work because every time we went to interview someone, the photographer will have to go photograph the people and the dishes, and we have a recipe tester to test the dishes to make sure that the recipes work”.

The recipes alone, in my opinion, are enough reason to read the book. Ms Tan’s book attempts to shed light on the recipes of famous names associated with Chinatown such as Ya Kun, Soup Restaurant and Da Dong. The book quantifies and records the chefs’ ‘guestimations’ for their recipes and lets laypeople have a go at preparing their favourite kaya toasts right in the comfort of their homes.


Lee Kui’s Yam Paste Cookie takes a lot of dedication to make, even for chefs.


Of course, the people and places shortlisted for the book aren’t merely the popular stalls favoured by the media; they were carefully handpicked through hearsay from people on the ground who have been living and eating there their entire lives.

The book even captures snippets of how places in Chinatown have evolved to what they are today. In the section featuring Telok Ayer, Annette explains how temples and shrines sprouted along Telok Ayer Bay for the early Chinese to thank the gods for their safe journeys, and how many of these early immigrants went on to create some of the biggest names in the area including Huat Kee and Beng Hiang.


It wasn’t that long ago when Beng Hiang first served Traditional Homemade Hei-Zhor


Yet, the book is more than just about food, or even the history of Chinatown; it is the history of the Chinese in Singapore. It tells us personal stories of how the early Chinese came here, and gives us insight to how we have become what we are today.

In the book, Mr Tang Tat Cheong, the owner of Swee Kee Restaurant recounts serving gangsters in the past, “I can’t tell you how many times someone would flip a table over in the middle of a meal to start a fight. But what can you do? You just let things happen and take it as a write-off. If we called the police, we’d have been in bigger trouble”.

The book employs magnificent pictures and apt designs to help capture the history of the places and people in Chinatown. The design starts even before the start of the book; on its hardcover, I was met with an intricately designed, distinctively Chinese drawing which captures the essence of the book.


Chinese motifs adorn the book cover of Savour Chinatown


As Mr Aun Koh, Executive Director of The Ate Group, puts it, “You'll see that it's not just a history book. It's a book that stands up as a work of art – a work of design in its own right”.

There is one gripe about the book though. For foodies who are unfamiliar with Chinatown and want quick access to all the recipes in the book, looking for them might take a while. The book is demarcated according to the different areas within Chinatown and further sub-divided into sections of historical tales, recipes associated with the particular area and the restaurants situated within the locale.

But apart from that, the book fulfils its intended purpose of shedding light on Chinatown.  As Ms Tan writes in her book, “To truly ‘visit’ this culturally rich and historically resonant neighbourhood is to tap into its history, share in its memories and taste its rich flavours – and fully Savour Chinatown”.

Savour Chinatown retails at $60 and is available at Times Bookstore, MPH, Kinokuniya, Times Newslink (Airport), Popular, Prologue, Select Books and BooksActually. Overseas Singaporeans who wish to purchase a copy of Savour Chinatown can order it online from or

By Cai Deshun


Win a copy of Savour Chinatown!

Stand a chance to win the book by sharing with us your fondest memories of the food and eating places in Singapore's very own Chinatown.

Email us your entry together with your name to The most insightful narrative wins the book.

The organiser's decision is final. Winning entries may be published on the Overseas Singaporean portal. Closing date for entries is Sunday, 4th Nov 2012.



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