When British pop star Cliff Richard announced he was going to cut a new album in Chinese in 1989, he made a point to inform the journalists that he loved everything Chinese, including his favourite food, Singapore Noodles.
Imagine the underwhelming reaction from Singaporeans at that time. If the pop star had listed bak kut teh or Hainanese chicken rice, many Singaporeans would certainly glow with pride. But the mentioning of Singapore Noodles would only yield responses that I imagined went something like this:”He loves Singapore Noodles? Eh… Yeah! But what is that huh?”
In an earlier introduction of my Singapore Noodle research project, I established that the dish most likely to have inspired Singapore Noodles, be it the Hong Kong curried version or the Malaysian ketchup style, is 星洲米粉. I came to this conclusion because the English translation of this Chinese dish is “Singapore Noodles”, or “Singapore Rice Vermicelli,” if we want to be specific about the noodle type. I looked at Singapore’s old and existing Chinese newspapers to find out what had been said about 星洲米粉. Only news articles published before 1990 were available for viewing online. But that was good enough to get a sense of when the dish first became known to the Singapore media. The later published articles will have to wait till I go back to Singapore.
The earliest mentions of 星洲米粉 referred not to any particular dish but to the made-in-Singapore rice vermicelli. In 1948, Nanyang Siang Pau reported that the 米粉公会, or the association for rice vermicelli manufacturers, had decided to set up a collaborative to improve the quality of Singapore-produced rice vermicelli. This collaborative will promote high quality white rice for production so as to better compete with the imported rice vermicelli, which was threatening the survival of the tens of vermicelli factories in Singapore.
But the initiative did not work out well. The same newspaper reported in 1965 that the number of rice vermicelli factories had dwindled from 35 in 1950 to only 10 in 1964. The total production output dropped from 4000 kilo per month (conversion from dan stated in the report) to 1250 kilo per month in 1964. Singapore’s rice vermicelli industry, however, did see signs of rebound in 1965, after the authorities issued more manufacturing permits. The total production output doubled to 2500 kilo per month. Because the local demand for rice vermicelli was 8000 kilo per month, Thailand and China imports were still necessary, but the demands for them decreased.
The rice vermicelli manufacturers still around today could give us a clue on how 星洲米粉, once referring to the locally produced raw noodles, became a name of a dish. Were their noodles exported to countries like Malaysia and Hong Kong? Did they print recipes on their packagings that might have inspired today’s Singapore Noodles (food manufacturers in the mid 20th century are known to suggest recipes alongside their products)? I shall contact them and report back with interesting stories.
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.