Communism may have brought Singapore Noodles to the U.S.

Chris Cheung remembered Singapore Noodles from the 1980s when it was popular amongst the Chinese Americans in New York City. Like beef chow fun (broad and flat rice noodles) and chow mein (wheat noodles), Singapore Noodles was an economical dish that people liked to order with dim sum. It was cheap, flavourful, and it came in portions big enough to feed a group. “It was a favourite order when you go to Chinatown,” said Chris, who grew up in the neighbourhood and is now a chef himself. He is familiar enough with the Chinese food scene to have brought Anthony Bourdain and the No Reservations crew to some of his favourite restaurants in the city.

It was typical of a Cantonese restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown to serve Singapore Noodles, Hong Kong’s curried-style. Unlike the small eateries that catered traditional foods like pan-fried butter fish and meat patty with salted egg (yuk pang) for the Taishanese working men, Chris explained, the Cantonese establishments tended to also cater for customers from outside the community. These businesses could be distinguished by their dim sum, barbecued meats, and Chinese American creations such as General Tso Chicken and egg rolls. He was careful to add that the Cantonese restaurants were mostly owned by the Chinese immigrants who had travelled to New York by route of Hong Kong.

Indeed, many Chinese immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1940s and 1970s had fled the Communist China via Hong Kong (and also Taiwan).¹ They began migrating from the mainland during the Chinese Civil War and settled in what was then a British Colony, until the United States (and also Australia) repealed its immigration restrictions.

The owner of Hop Shing, a dim sum restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown, was one of them. Originally from Taishan, he had lived in Hong Kong before moving to New York. His estimated 40-year-old restaurant also serves Singapore Noodles. Mr Chao, the restaurant manager who refused my request to speak to the owner but let me in on these facts, said with certainty that his boss did not invent the dish, although he wasn’t sure if he had learned about it during his stay in Hong Kong.

Not every Chinese American who sells Singapore Noodles had lived in Hong Kong. Great N.Y. Noodletown, which many Yelpers claimed to have the best Singapore Noodles in New York City, was opened by a Chinese immigrant who had moved to the United States straight from China. Although his business partner, Stephen Li, is a Hong Konger, the latter migrated much later. By then, the restaurant, which was opened in 1964, was already serving the curried noodles.

That said, the theory of an influence from Hong Kong is plausible, as Li argues, “When open a Cantonese restaurant, everyone will follow Hong Kong style.” Historical evidences seem to back his claim.

During the Cultural Revolution, culinary artistry in Guangzhou grounded to a halt. Meanwhile, the chefs in Hong Kong took Cantonese cuisine to new levels. ² Up until the last decade, Hong Kong set the standard of Cantonese food. Even the chefs from Guangzhou look up to their counterparts across the Shenzhen River. It is possible that the Cantonese restaurants in New York had referenced Hong Kong’s culinary trends.

Today, Singapore Noodles is not only enjoyed by the ethnic Chinese but also Americans in general who are increasingly experimenting with food previously unknown to them. Whether it is the step immigration through Hong Kong, or the food industry’s admiration for their cooking style, it is clear that the former British colony had a pivotal role in the dish’s entrance to the United States. An investigation in Hong Kong is imminent.

¹ Skeldon, Ronald. 1996. “Migration from China.” Journal of International Affairs 49 (2):434.

² Tarn, Siumi Maria. “Lost, and found?: Reconstructing Hong Kong identity in the idiosyncrasy and syncretism of yumcha.” Changing Chinese Food Ways in Asia(2001): 49-69.

This story is a part of my research about Singapore Noodles’s origins and how it has impacted the lives of those who eat it and also those whose identities it has been associated with. Other related stories can be found here.

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