Hainanese community

The Hainanese in Singapore originated from Hainan province in China.1 According to the 2010 population census, the Hainanese community is the fifth-largest Chinese dialect group, and constitutes less than 7 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.3 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 Road, Bukit 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 Hokkien, Teochew, 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 their 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. A large number of Hainanese became seamen, and some worked on board as chefs. These circumstances probably explained 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 business during the Depression years, from the late 1920s to early ’30s, when rental rates for shophouses were low, and suitable premises became available. The post-World War II years saw the decline of the British and Peranakan families, and this resulted in more Hainanese moving into the hotel industry and setting 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 invariably associated with the food and beverage industry, and this is where they have found the most 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 kopitiams 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. Hans, 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 and 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 “excess” 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


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 2010. Statistical Release 1, Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion (Singapore: Dept. of Statistics, Ministry of Trade and Industry, 2011), 27–28. (Call no. RSING 304.6021095957 CEN)
3. Lai Chee Kien, “Multi-Ethnic Enclaves around Middle Road: An Examination of Early Urban Settlement in Singapore.” BiblioAsia, 2, no. 2 (July 2006): 4–11.
4. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 14.
5. M. T. Yap, “Hainanese in the Restaurant and Catering Business,” in Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades, ed. 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)
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 2005, 8; 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,” 4–11; Lin Wendan and Feng Qinglian 林文丹 and 冯清莲, 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,” 4–11.
13. Alessa Pang, “No Celebration Without Chicken,” Straits Times, 24 January 2009, 28. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2009 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.


Heritage and Culture