Are you what you eat?

The late afternoon sun shines a little too brightly as I struggle with branding and marketing tactics for our new client. I am desk-bound, but I am not lackadaisical. Analysing food trends, wellness habits, and health products are my elixir; and to be able to do it for work has made me look forward to weekdays’ 9am. This struck me how work brings me to places I should have been, wanted to be in, and never imagined to be in. This project has provided an avenue to dabble in one of my past works, again, where I examine the complex relationship between food and identity; between eating and power.

In my last semester, while endlessly – not mindlessly – juggling the overloaded work, I jumped on the opportunity to contribute to NUS’ history magazine, Mnemozine, for October issue “Home”. Only when I had started brainstorming that I realise it was a fleeting topic, I did not know where to start because I did not know what it means. Not because of the subjectivities and multivalences, “home” holds a transient connotation to me. Maybe I saw it as my final go to be involved in a school project, or maybe it was a writer’s innate narcissism then, I held on to this piece; I am thankful today my intellectual buddy roped me in.

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Taken during a work trip in Fuzhou, Fujian, only to embody ironies. In my ancestral grounds but I knew nothing beyond the hotel grounds. For records’ sake, I did not try Fuzhou’s Fuzhou fishball.

As a frequent traveller, the amount of time I spent out of Singapore and adapting to various cultures overseas has heightened my appreciation for things I would have otherwise taken granted for. The more places I visit, the more people I meet, the more I realise how little I know about Singapore beyond its streetlights, cemented roads, left-hand drive, and education among many others. Every return home after a long travelling stint is bittersweet, as I deliberate between heading home straight for a rejuvenating siesta and downing a bowl of Foochow (Fuzhou) fishball soup at Maxwell Food Centre in the heart of the city. Places are like food – some you like and some you don’t – once in a while, you encounter one you seek refuge in and call home. Both are means to experience home again – local food, family and friends, and familiarity.

You are what you eat – a phrase we have probably heard at least once, or said inadvertently during meal times. Quite literally, the foods we consume affect our physiques, psychology, and emotions. Food is central to our sense of identity, and in an increasingly individualistic world, the foods we choose to consume, or not, have consequentially become an identity marker. Does the bowl of Foochow fishball soup make me more Singaporean, or Chinese?

Who is Foochow Fishball – a Singaporean-Chinese or Chinese Singaporean?

Birthplace: Foochow City, Fujian Province

Ethnicity: white and smooth, like the other “fishballs” in Asia

Skills: Minced pork fillings, melted pork gelatine

Foochow are of ancient Han Chinese stock, and migrated south to present day Foochow City, Fujian province to escape from the constant warfare during the Three Kingdom period (AD220 – 280) in today’s northern parts of China. Due to their erratic migrating patterns, Foochow culinary fares became an eclectic fusion of their northern ancestral style and southern influences over time. Foochow culinary style, which is part of larger Fujian cuisine, is popularly recognised as one of the eight native Chinese cuisines in China. Known for its expertise of “xian wei” cooking style (retaining original flavour of the main ingredients in dishes), Foochow culinary style is prized for its spectrum of taste and flavour in subtle harmony.[i]

With the advent of British imperialism, and later colonisation, in the global-southern and eastern parts of the world by 19th century, it facilitated large intra-Asian migrations. The Malay Archipelago, along with other locations, housed the Chinese migrants who were mainly from Southern parts of China. During these movements, certain features of Chinese-ness were displaced and replaced with local situations. Religions localised, languages alternated, cultures negotiated. Undoubtedly, food did not stand untouched though some dishes were preserved. One of the salient elements of the different overseas Chinese groups lies in their food, retaining essences of their distinctive cuisines. The dishes that characterise Chinese cuisine in Singapore today were originally brought here by Southern Chinese migrants. On one hand, they had to adapt to the local availability of ingredients. On the other, amalgamations with other culinary traditions with the increasing inter-marriages and interactions between the locals and migrants, or among the migrant communities.

One may categorise Foochow fishballs under Chinese cuisine in Singapore today, however I see it important to make clear the fixities and formalities of food categories. It would be misleading to see this process of making sense as a struggle and claim for hegemony over categories, but what troubles is the innocent and accidental grammatical slippage between “Singaporean-Chinese” and “Chinese-Singaporean”. It delves into greater manifestations of identities, and what it means to be ‘Chinese” in contemporary Singapore.

What is Maxwell Food Centre – a market or an institution?

Date of Birth: c1960s

Place of origin: unknown

Location: 1d16’50.7’’N 103d50’40.9’’E

Maxwell Food Centre is hustling with people, office personnel, retirees, young families… Finding a bowl of Foochow fishballs soup necessitates a constant meandering, traversing, and skilful manoeuvring; it is tiresome but a mastered routine. Shouldering these throngs of people are vendors of all stripes. An old couple greets customers while preparing bowls with the ingredients for each respective order. Customers watch on as they await their Foochow fishballs lathered with hot soup and a dash of coriander.

This scene is no novelty to residents of Singapore, but each hawker-centre experience nonetheless begets a sense of anticipation and fulfilment. Hawker centres are a ubiquitous feature of Singapore and it is precisely our mastery of navigating through the gridlock of various stalls that fascinates travellers. Singapore is dotted with eating establishments and a consideration portion are run by hawkers, and you can hardly read any books “About Singapore” without encountering at least a slight mention of them. Economically, they facilitate the exchange of cooked-food services, and caters to the different income groups of Singapore. [i] On the other hand, they are also a national icon with its own culture and history.

Records show that many immigrants to Singapore in the mid 19th century took on hawking as a form of employment due to the low barriers to entry. However, there is no coherent dating of the first hawking activity. [ii] As many of the new hawkers relied on their dialect and ethnic groups to acclimatise, hawking districts were formed in accordance to these group identities, thus accentuating the dialect and ethnic enclaves in Singapore. The Fujians (Hokkiens) for one, dominated Chinatown and Telok Ayer. [iii]

In the face of 1960s’ globalisation where “health”, “structures” and “development” were the new jargons, there were massive urban resettlements in Singapore. Populations were relocated from overcrowded central areas into new neighbourhoods. Street hawking was seen as a hindrance to the new economic centres and as health hazards, hawkers were relocated into allocated brick-and-mortar spaces known as hawker centres. The previously ethnic-based hawkers in enclaves serving ethnic cuisines and clientele, had to adjust to the new confining physical structures and licensing procedures under Housing Board Development (HDB). [iv]

Maxwell Food Centre was no exception. It was born amidst the local-global nexus of economies. Traditional business practices were retained alongside the modernising and globalising economic structure the state adopted. The Chinese hawkers that were located in the vicinity were then housed into these urban spaces. Patrons of both street hawking and hawker centres were then socialised into a new pattern of economic exchange. In this manner, hawker centres are social institutions – institutions no less.


If there is one thing food can teach us, it is that there are no absolutes – an eternal project of shifts, adaptations and negotiations. Foods are not timeless symbolic monuments of Traditional Communities. Given that societies never existed in states of isolation, what we eat today is a continuous outcome of communities adapting and appropriating over time and space. Foods hence serve as focal episodes in recollections of pasts and personal taste of the present moment. Just like how Foochow fishballs were a distinct dish of the Fujian province, they now belong to the category of syncretised Chinese cuisine in Singapore.

We are what we eat, but we are not who we eat. No two Foochow fishballs are the same, and I like mine cooked properly in a licensed melting pot of Maxwell Hawker Centre.


[i] Sharit K. Bhowmik, Introduction, in Street Vendors in the Global Urban Economy, (Routledge: 2010) pp. 1

[ii] Kheng-Lock, Thio, A Study of “twenty Singapore hawkers”, (University of Singapore: 1963) pp. 60

[iii] Ah Eng, Lai, The Kopitiam in Singapore: An Evolving Story About Migration and Cultural Diversity, (Asia Research Institute: 2010)

[iv] Genzberger, Christine, Singapore Business: The Portable Encyclopaedia for Doing Business with Singapore, (World Trade Press: 1994)

Beng Huat, Chua, Social Memory and Street Hawking in Singapore, A thesis submitted for the degree of Masters of Social Sciences, (National University of Singapore: 2006)

Grice Kevin, The Institutionalisation of Informal Sector Activities: A Case Study of Cooked Food Hawkers in Singapore, A Thesis submitted for the PhD Degree, (The British Library: 1988)

Kong Lily, Singapore hawker centres: people, places, food, (Singapore National Environment Agency: 2007)

Nakayama Tokiko, Kimura Haruko, Unami (xian-wei) in Chinese Food, in Food Reviews International Vol. 14 No. 2, (1998)


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