The first mention of 星洲米粉 as a dish in local Chinese newspapers was in 1966. (Previously, the term referred to uncooked rice vermicelli manufactured in Singapore.) It was a feature article on the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The writer described the park, named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, as the perfect place for dating or to find a date, and for parents looking to spend a day with their children. There was a food court in the park that sold Ipoh hor fun, Penang laksa, and 星洲米粉. Although the writer did not describe the dishes, so we don’t know if it was flavoured with ketchup, we at least know that by 1966, a dish known as 星洲米粉 was already available in Malaysia.
In 1969, a “high class restaurant” in Tanglin was reported to offer 星洲米粉. The article was about the state of customer service in Singapore, and a Hong Kong tourist who patronised the restaurant told the reporter that the server was too candid in her remarks. The tourist ordered several dishes to share with her friends and when she decided to topped it up with a plate of 星洲米粉, since it was only $2, the server blurted out that there was more food than they could finish. Again, there was no mention of the cooking style or the ingredients, but we know that 星洲米粉 was available in restaurants in Singapore.
In 1987, a restaurant called Lucky Restaurant (幸福楼) put up an advertisement that featured 星洲米粉 in its $160 Chinese Ghost Festival banquet menu. This restaurant described itself as a Cantonese restaurant that served authentic dim sum and meat roasts. Considering that both 星洲米粉 and the Hong Kong-style Singapore Noodles consist of char siew, a quintessential Cantonese food, the reasonable follow-up questions to ask are: Are the restaurants and zhi char stalls selling 星洲米粉 mostly Cantonese? Did the dish travel between Singapore and Hong Kong through family ties or business engagements such as chef employments?
There were also clues of Singapore Noodles being sold in Western countries in the eighties. In 1981, 金鱼缸边, a Chinese play that critiqued stock market gambling, told the story of a man who picked himself up after bankruptcy by selling 星洲米粉 abroad. One year later, a Sin Chew Jit Poh journalist wrote about a Malay restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown that sold familiar Singapore foods, amongst them 星洲米粉. The writer pointed out that this version of 星洲米粉 was different from those that street vendors sold in Singapore, which was stir fried with a mixture of ingredients (什锦) and then wrapped in a yellow lotus leaf to serve. According to the report, the Manhattan restaurant’s Singapore Noodles had yellow curry powder, resembling mee siam.
A long time Singaporean immigrant interviewed in the article said that the Americans loved onions and they didn’t like starch-thicken gravy, so the Singapore noodles in Manhattan were dry and had onions. Although his account does not explain the curry powder, it gives us a glimpse of what 星洲米粉 looked like in Singapore during the eighties. It also confirms the early entrance of the Hong Kong-style Singapore Noodles to Manhattan. Wherever it had came from, the noodles evolved to adapt to the palate of the Americans. I have not tried Singapore Noodles in Hong Kong, but I believe there will be at least some slight variations from the ones in Manhattan.
Notice that the Hong Kong- and Malaysian-style Singapore Noodles are also known as 星洲米粉 in Chinese. Because of that, we cannot know for sure how the noodles were prepared at the Lucky Restaurant, the “high class restaurant” in Tanglin, and at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. But we do know by the sixties, some form of 星洲米粉 were already known in both Malaysia and Singapore. For clarity in my future stories on Singapore Noodles, I shall spell out the type of Singapore Noodles according to the city in which it has been popular: Hong Kong’s curried, Malaysian’s ketchuped and Singapore’s wet, non-curried and non-ketchuped Singapore Noodles.
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.