Hainanese community

Singapore Infopedia


The Hainanese in Singapore originated from Hainan province in China.1 According to the 2020 population census, the Hainanese community is the fifth-largest Chinese dialect group, and constitutes 6 percent of the Chinese population in Singapore.2

The Hainanese came to Singapore as early as 1821 to trade goods such as wax, tiles, shoes, umbrellas, paper, dried products and Chinese medicinal herbs.However, they did not emigrate to Singapore until much later. This was due to the late opening of Hainan Island to foreign trade and seafaring activities, which increased significantly after its port, Hankou, was made a treaty port in 1870. Another reason was the conservative view of the average Hainanese towards emigrating. This was especially pronounced in their attitude towards female emigrants, whom they suspected to be prostitutes or “kept” women. Once in Singapore, the Hainanese immigrants formed enclaves and settled mainly in the Middle Road–Beach RoadBukit Timah–Tanglin Road and Changi–Nee Soon areas.4

As the Hainanese arrived in Singapore much later than the other Chinese dialect groups such as the HokkienTeochew, and Cantonese, they were forced to find employment in less lucrative trades, since the other dialect groups were already well entrenched in agriculture, commerce and trade. Being a small dialect group, the Hainanese also lacked business contacts, which Chinese businesses relied upon for survival. To make matters worse, the Hainanese had difficulty communicating with the other dialect groups, because their language was unintelligible to the other Chinese communities. The early Hainanese migrants were also illiterate and extremely poor, and lacked the relevant skills for any trade or profession. On top of that, they saw themselves as sojourners – temporary residents of the colony – and hence did not attempt to acquire new skills.5

Hence, the Hainanese could only gain a foothold in the service sector, working as cook boys, waiters and servants in hotels, restaurants, bakeries and bars or as cooks and domestic servants in wealthy European and Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) households. Many Hainanese became seamen, and some worked on board as chefs. These circumstances probably explain why the Hainanese became well-versed in Western food and drinks.6

The Hainanese also took the opportunity to venture into the hotel, bar and restaurant businesses during the Depression years, from the late 1920s to early 1930s, when rental rates for shophouses were low, and suitable premises became available. With the postwar decline of the British and Peranakan families, more Hainanese moved into the hotel industry and set up their own restaurants and coffeeshops or kopitiam.7 In fact, the Hainanese community has been credited with introducing the kopitiam culture to Singapore.8

Today, the Hainanese are associated with the food and beverage industry, in which they found regional fame. Ngiam Tong Boon, the bartender at Raffles Hotel who concocted the cocktail drink now famously known as the “Singapore Sling” in 1915, was a Hainanese. Hainanese chicken rice, as its name implied, originated from a Hainanese. Adapted by Wong Yi Guan, the dish was made famous by his apprentice, Mok Fu Swee, through his restaurant Swee Kee Chicken Rice at 51–53 Middle Road (now demolished). The popularity of the dish has since spread beyond our shores to the region and East Asia.

It is also generally acknowledged that the Hainanese brew the best coffee in the kopitiam of Southeast Asia.9 Some have turned their kopitiam business into successful franchises such as Ya Kun Kaya Toast, founded by a Hainanese named Loi Ah Koon in 1944. Han’s, a local cafe chain specialising in Western food and confectionary, is also owned by a Hainanese.10

Temples and associations
In 1857, the building housing the main Hainanese association, the Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan (formerly known as Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan), and the clan temple, Tin Hou Kong, was constructed at 6 Malabar Street. The main deity of the temple is Ma Chor (or Tian Hou), the goddess of safe passage at sea. In 1878, the clan association and temple were relocated to its present location along Beach Road. The building later underwent refurbishment, which was completed in 1963.11

Other than this main association and temple complex, several smaller clan associations can be found nearby, mainly along Seah Street. These are kinship clan associations formed by clansmen sharing the same surname and originating from the same district on Hainan island.12

Chinese New Year practices
Like other Chinese dialect groups, the Hainanese have their own Chinese New Year practices. For the reunion dinner held on the eve of the new year, Hainanese families cook steamed chicken (or ji) and mutton (or yang) soup. They are always served together because ji yang sounds like ji xiang, which means “fortune”. In fact, chicken is central to any Hainanese celebration. Another popular reunion dinner dish is chives fried with glass noodles. Chives, or gao sang, means “prosperity for a long time” in the Hainanese dialect, while the long, thin strands of glass noodles symbolise longevity. Dried cuttlefish or ju hu is sometimes added to the dish, as the Hainanese pronunciation of ju hu is phonetically similar to you yu, which means “surplus” in Mandarin. Hainanese chicken rice balls and chin deh, a hollow ball made of glutinous flour covered with sesame seeds, are occasionally prepared as well. The spherical shape symbolises the “coming together” or reunion of family members. Ancestors are invited to partake in the feast before the family begins dinner.13

Puppet shows
In the 1950s–1980s, Hainanese rod puppet shows were common during religious ceremonies and festivities such as weddings. Only the upper halves of the puppets are shown on stage, while puppeteers control the wooden stilts from behind the scenes.14

The average puppet of San Chun Long measures approximately 60 cm–70 cm in height, comprising a centralised rod connected to the head, and two thinner hand rods for manipulation.15 They are dressed in colourful costumes and headpieces.16 Most Hainanese rod puppets have movable eyes, making it seem more lifelike.17 Different character roles have their own features, such as the gaping or distorted mouth of the clown and the female matchmaker puppet. The latter usually has a mole.18

San Chun Long (三春隆), founded in 1947, is the oldest Hainanese puppet troupe in Singapore.19 In the 1940s and 1950s, San Chun Long held more than 100 performances a year across Malaya and Singapore in amusement parks, temples and associations.20 In Singapore, the troupe mainly performed at Hougang, Changi and Aljunied, where many Hainanese lived.21 As the popularity of puppet shows declined, so did the number of performances. In the 1970s, the number of annual performances dropped to about 50; today, such puppetry shows are rare.22

Jeanne Louise Conceicao

1. Thomas Tsu-Wee Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 14. (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI)
2. Department of Statistics Singapore, Census of Population 2020 Statistical Release 1 – Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion (Singapore: Department of Statistics Singapore, 2021), 48. (From NLB’s Web Archive Singapore) 
3. Lai Chee Kien, “Multi-Ethnic Enclaves around Middle Road: An Examination of Early Urban Settlement in Singapore.” BiblioAsia 2, no. 2 (July 2006).
4. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 14.
5. M. T. Yap, “Hainanese in the Restaurant and Catering Business,” in Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Tradesed. Thomas Tsu-Wee Tan (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 78–79 (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI); The Hainanese Family Business: A Legacy of the Heart (Singapore: MediaCorp Pte Ltd, 2015), 2–3. (Call no. RSING 338.708995105957 HAI)
6. Yap, “Hainanese in the Restaurant and Catering Business,” 79–80; Hainanese Family Business, 2–3.
7. Yap, “Hainanese in the Restaurant and Catering Business,” 80–81.
8. June Cheong, Teo Cheng Wee and Mak Mun San, “Kopi Connection,” Straits Times, 20 May 2007, 55. (From NewspaperSG); Chia, Caroline, Forgotten Heritage: Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets (Singapore : Basheer Graphic Books, 2022), 83. (Call no. RCLOS 791.53095957 CHI)
9. Lai, “Multi-Ethnic Enclaves around Middle Road,” 4–11.
10. Sarah Ng, “Now Who's the Toast of the Town?” Straits Times, 22 May 20058; Mathew Phan, “Lost in Translation,” Business Times, 25 April 2006, 15; Janice Heng, “All Hans on Deck,” Straits Times, 23 August 2009, 63. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Lai, “Multi-Ethnic Enclaves around Middle Road”; Lin Wendan and Feng Qinglian, eds., Xinjiapo zong xiang hui guan shi lue 新加坡宗乡会馆史略 [History of clan associations in Singapore], vol. 1 (Singapore: Singapore Clan Association Federation, 2005), 243–46. (Call no. Chinese RSING q369.25957 HIS)
12. Lai, “Multi-Ethnic Enclaves around Middle Road.”
13. Alessa Pang, “No Celebration Without Chicken,” Straits Times, 24 January 2009, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Lea Wee, “How did Its Chicken Rice Come About?” Straits Times, 15 February 2001, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Chia, Caroline, Forgotten Heritage: Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets (Singapore: Basheer Graphic Books, 2022), 79. (Call no. RCLOS 791.53095957 CHI)
16. Chia, Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets, 75.
17. Chia, Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets, 79.
18. Chia, Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets, 79.
19. Abigail Ng, “Youth Camps Keep Hainanese Alive,” Straits Times, 23 March 2017, 8. (From NewspaperSG); Chia, Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets, 83.
20. Chia, Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets, 87.
21. Chia, Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets, 87.
22. Ng, “Youth Camps Keep Hainanese Alive”; Chia, Uncovering Singapore’s Traditional Chinese Puppets, 83.

The information in this article is valid as of December 2023 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



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