Singapore Noodles and the Lacklustre Singapore Vermicelli

Drying beehoon under the sun in 1956, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

Drying beehoon under the sun in 1956, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

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.

1956 beehoon factory in Singapore. Notice the kampung setting in the backdrop. Print screened from National Archive Singapore.

1956 beehoon factory in Singapore. Notice the kampung setting in the backdrop. Print screened from National Archive Singapore.

1956 beehoon factory in Singapore, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

1956 beehoon factory in Singapore, print screened from National Archive Singapore.

All the founders of today’s five remaining manufacturers – People Bee Hoon, Chye Choon, Saga, Eng Bee and Hock Hin – have Fujian roots. People was established in 1943 and is the oldest among them, says Goh, but it was sold to another family business some years ago. Together with Eng Bee, they are the only ones still manufacturing their vermicelli in Singapore, while the others have moved their operation to cheaper neighbouring cities in Vietnam and Indonesia. While these Singaporean companies have been producing their vermicelli with rice – even while many regional manufacturers have turned to wheat and corn starch to cut cost – their products are not exceptional.

“Singapore’s vermicelli was never special,” says Goh, nor is it distinctive like Taiwan’s Hsinchu vermicelli or Xinghua vermicelli, whose environment imparts unique tastes and textures to it. Based on the previously mentioned 1948 news report, the quality of Singapore produced vermicelli was unspectacular and did not match up to the imports from Xiamen, supporting Goh’s claim. Singapore’s vermicelli also never dominated the domestic market, which by 1965 was still largely dependent on imports from Thailand and China.

Knowing where Singapore’s vermicelli stood during the mid century is important because Singapore Noodles could very well be developed in that period, since the earliest media mentions of Singapore Noodles in Singapore and Malaysia were in the 1960s. But the lacklustre quality of Singapore vermicelli diminishes the possibility that it was indispensable to the making of Singapore Noodles or critical to its naming.

If not the Fujian immigrants’ vermicelli-making skills, could their culinary methods have inspired Singapore Noodles? Fujian-style vermicelli dishes aren’t the norm in Singapore or have resemblance to how we eat our vermicelli today. Although Xinghua vermicelli is well-known in Singapore thanks to the successful expansion of the restaurant, Putien, the noodle’s unique ensemble of prawns, clams, pork and peanuts is only sought upon by non-Putien Singaporeans in the recent 10 years. Xiamen vermicelli with cabbage, carrot and canned stew pork ribs, another common dish in Fujian, is also unusual in the hawker and restaurant scenes here. Most importantly, none of these vermicelli dishes share the same set of ingredients, flavour profile or cooking method with any of the three types of Singapore Noodles.

The next important question to ask Mr Goh is the social significance of vermicelli to the people of Singapore. This will explain why Singapore Noodles is cooked in professional rather than home kitchens, and why it is mainly sold at zi char and restaurants. It may even help me narrow down the types of food businesses where Singapore Noodles is likely to have come from. My analysis in the next post.

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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