Hawker centre is culture, is history, is charming, is Singaporean, and it is real. “Cool,” however, has never been in the vocabulary until local design studio Bravo creates an animated directory for the Tiong Bahru Market. The online directory shows an illustrated aerial view of the hawker centre—including tables and chairs, patrons, and cigarette smoke wafting in the smoker’s corner. When you roll your mouse over the numbered stalls, their names, opening hours, and illustrations of their foods pop out. The meticulous designers captured the nuances of the colours—the yellow of the fish ball noodles is more fluorescent than the egg tarts’—and whet my appetite with their beautiful renditions of peng kueh and ming jian kueh. They even included the tiffany-blue and marigold plates—the defining characteristics of the hawker food presentation. If you have food selection disorder, like I do when faced with more 80 stalls, the website’s “generator,” essentially a jackpot machine, will help you decide what to have for mains, drinks, and dessert.
If you read them correctly, restaurant menus tell you more than just what’s on offer from the kitchen. Look closely and you’ll spot unwitting details of the era in which they were made. And if you have access to a choice collection of them that spans decades, they’ll actually tell you the story of America’s history (and make you pretty hungry, too). Oftentimes, you don’t even need to look beyond the artful covers to form an idea of the bygone days…
Read the rest of my story for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) here.
“Singaporeans” are more befittingly the colours of what they eat, rather than the colours of their skins. This is because food colours express what skin colours do not: shared history, intercultural exchanges, common understanding of tastes, and love for the same food. In this poster, which expresses the intimacy between people in Singapore using the colours of their foods, the introduction reads:
NYC’s deliverymen brave the heat, the rain, the potholes, the mad men behind the wheels, and, at this time of the year, the snow. Unless it is a blizzard like today, when the mayor bans all non-emergency vehicles including food delivery bicycles, these men have to put up with slick roads and wind chill. Many refurbish their bicycles to make their job as tolerable as possible, like fitting two furry pockets on the handlebars to keep the hands warm during the ride. The plastic bags, I believe, keep the pockets from getting wet by the rain or snow. Simple brilliance like this reminds me of how little some people have but also how having little inspires ingenuity.
The items found in New York City’s Chinese groceries today, I can imagine, are baffling to Chinese and non-Chinese alike. What is one to do with a whole packet of duck tongues, black fungus, and dried bean curd sticks? (Answer: braise it, stir-fry it, and stew it, respectively) The very same items in the 1970s, a time when Chinese and all things about them were very much considered exotic, would have been deemed mysterious, or even dangerous, and required a caption to go along for the uninitiated. Perhaps seeing a need there, Milton Glaser, the man behind the overly adapted I love New York logo, created a chart-like poster to guide one through a Chinatown grocery. It explained items like preserved celery cabbage, thousand-year eggs, and even provided instructions for calculating with an abacus.
Commissioned by the International Design Conference, the poster was created in 1972—the same year Nixon went to China after decades of hostility and distrust between the two nations. Then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou En Lai hosted a meal in Nixon’s honour and the live broadcast sparked off an explosion of interest in Chinese food. Prior to that, during the Cold War, communist and Chinese were synonymous to the Americans and so was their hatred towards them. Therefore, only in 1972 and the subsequent years would Glaser’s poster be of use to the mainstream Americans.
An illustration of 71 dishes and drinks depicting Singapore’s iconic food culture wins MediaCorp’s “Design-A-Tee” contest. The comments following the Facebook announcement—as with many users comments on various online platforms—are brutal but insightful. While some Singaporeans give the thumbs up for the design, there are complaints that generally fall into three categories:
Food is a popular choice of gifts amongst Singaporeans. Local snacks are a common souvenir from overseas trips, festivities are celebrated by the exchange of boxes of pineapple tarts or kueh bangkit, and what better way to build fellowships than stabbing one’s fork into a colleague’s food?
For many Singaporeans, food has also become a great introduction to their country. This is how it often goes: “You know chili crab, chicken rice, or laksa? Well, they come from Singapore.”
A tiny problem is that food is an imposing and intrusive gift. Sharing the joy of food or the concept of one’s culture is great, but pressurizing others, by ways of social etiquette, to literally digest them is not. As much as chili crab is great, people like variants of them, or for some, not at all.
A recent trend in Singapore’s design scene offers a solution. Food has become a popular subject matter for local designers: From kueh tutu erasers by Winston Chai and Yong Jieyu, to Lee Shu Han’s noodle poster, and the nonya kueh sticky notes by the Singapore Souvenirs collective—there is now a spread of delicious food-inspired design products available for consumption.
While these cannot be eaten like the real dishes, they are functional as vehicles for conversations with foreigners over what these food are and the relationships Singaporeans have with them. If it’s with a fellow Singaporean this conversation is to be had with, not a word is needed to strike a chord with that person.