Attended this interesting talk on Saturday. Every Hainanese have some form of family links with the kopitiam. My maternal grandma used to run a koptiam at Jalan Besar which I visited till her death when I was around 12. Relatives on my paternal side used to be houseboys, who were the kopitiam pioneers.
Kopitiams, or coffee shops, in SG have Hainanese roots. The Hainanese were among the last of the major dialect groups to arrive in SG, and they found most occupations already taken up. As a result, they were compelled to work for the British as houseboys, which was considered undesirable and a lowly preoccupation among the local Chinese. They then picked up western ways of food preparation and a taste for coffee and western cuisine.
By the 1930s, the majie (female servants) from Guangdong Province arrived who immediately became more popular. The majie could look after children as though their own, and demand for lower wages as well. The Hainanese houseboys were forced to leave and they have by then accumulated some savings. They opened coffee-shops, or kopitiam, where they perhaps the first fusion cuisine in Singapore: among them, kopi, the Hainanese adapted version of coffee, and kaya toast, bread with jam made from local pandan leaves, coconut and eggs. Some even started serving rice with side-dishes for the poor and squatters in Chinatown, in what began to be known as "economy rice" or "mixed vegetable rice". In crowded, cramp Chinatown, kopitiams also became public spaces for the community, and were often stocked with free newspapers and Redifusion radio for those too poor to afford these.
In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the Hockchiew people, i.e., people from Fuzhou region of Fujian Province, started entering the kopitiam business and soon had more kopitiams than the Hainanese. There were also parallel development among the Mamak shops and Malay kedai kopi.
Drastic changes came in the 1960s. The government public housing and urban redevelopment programmes moved thousands into multi-ethnic public housing estates. Government hygiene policies also forced street hawkers indoors. The outcome was the appearance of kopitiams in every housing estate that serve a wide variety of ethnic cuisines. Kopitiams are now not only confirmed as food centres providing simple and low cost meals, but also intensely multi-ethnic as well.
In the last decade, we have seen the emergence of kopitiam chains who declare themselves as defenders of a traditional way of life and purveyors of nostalgia. There are, however, some doubts on whether the plastic corporate structure of these chains are mere artificial creations of a modern capitalistic age riding on nostalgic sentiments, instead of a slower, personal past where the kopitiam owner is a small local businessman in charge of his own destiny and providing a personalised service to the community. These chains are already outbidding the small businessmen in the housing estates, and with them, bring the same franchised hawker stall chains and their standardised taste everywhere. The unique local food stall in obscure corners of the island that use to draw patrons from afar is fast disappearing. The long hours of running a food outlet has also deterred locals. Kopitiams are increasingly employing migrant workers and new immigrants, which further change the dynamics and appearance of the industry.
The challenges of the 21st century will no doubt bring further changes to the kopitiam, an quinessential Singapore institution. Let's see where the new changes will bring the kopitiam.