Before “星洲米粉” (xing zhou mi fen) referred to a dish in Singapore’s Chinese press, it was a term for Singapore manufactured rice vermicelli. This makes me wonder if Singapore Noodles was named 星洲米粉 because Singapore’s vermicelli was key to the making of Singapore Noodles in the earlier days. To find whether the made-in-Singapore vermicelli was any special, I spoke to Goh Soon Poh, general manager at Par Corporation, a trading house that since the 1970s has been supplying broken rice to local vermicelli manufacturers, and also consulted the Singapore Noodle Manufacturers’ Association 20th Anniversary Celebration Souvenir Magazine published in 1990.
Singapore began to produce vermicelli around the 1920s, and the industry was pioneered by immigrants from Fujian in Southern China. While the Northern Chinese commonly consume wheat noodles, the Southern Chinese, favour rice noodles such as vermicelli. Within Fujian, rice vermicelli dishes from Fuzhou and Putien stood out, says Goh.
Vermicelli productions took place in kampungs, mostly in Changi, according to the noodle association’s magazine. The producers worked with archaic tools such as stone mills and charcoal fire, to grind rice and steam vermicelli respectively, before taking it out to dry in the sun. Based on my earlier findings, there was competition from China as early as the 1940s, and local vermicelli producers never became powerful enough to edge out the imports. By the 1970s, during Singapore’s massive physical development, less than 10 surviving players relocated their business to industrial estates such as Defu Lane. These producers would eventually automate their processes and export their industrial-sized supplies.