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8 THE KOPITIAM IN SINGAPORE An Evolving Story about Migration and Cultural Diversity LAI Ah Eng INTRODUCTION Hundreds of kopitiam (coffee shop in Chinese dialects) are found throughout Singapore, with the majority located in the HDB (Housing and Development Board) public housing estates in which 83 per cent of Singapore’s population live. Often viewed as a quintessential feature of Singapore public culture and everyday life, the kopitiam is one among several institutions and spaces within which are embedded dynamic aspects and processes of migration and social-cultural diversity, set within the larger contexts of change and globalization throughout Singapore’s history. In origin a small-scale enterprise serving drinks and foods during the colonial period of mass immigration, the kopitiam has since evolved and experienced much change over several distinct broad periods: pre-World War II until the early 1970s, massive resettlement of local communities into HDB public housing estates in the 1970s and 1980s, and rapid urbanization and globalization since the early 1990s. I examine the kopitiam’s evolution 08 Migration_Diversity.indd 209 9/24/12 12:09:34 PM 210 Lai Ah Eng of its social-cultural distinctiveness and diversity through its foods, peoples, community and heritage.1 I show how the kopitiam evolved from a monocultural into the multicultural community site2 as part of a migrationdiversity story which continues to dynamically unfold, and examine some interconnected dimensions of its history, heritage and multiculturalism. Migration and Globalization, Local-Global Nexus This paper is mainly empirical in substance, with several thematic foci broadly framing its discussion and its anthropological focus: a historical perspective on migration, local-global nexus, the significance of migration to the cultural and social life of local community, and the social and cultural dimensions of multiculturalism constructed historically through migration, settlement and adaptation. In the Singapore context, a longue durée historical perspective on migration necessarily looks at mobility and settlement over the last 700 years in different eras of globalization (Tan, Heng and Kwa 2009). This paper however focuses on the two periods of mass migration throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of British imperialism and since the 1980s. British colonialism brought diverse peoples, mainly from China, India and the Malay Archipelago, to Singapore and Malaya to work and live in the ports, mines, plantations and emergent villages and towns. As Singapore received massive waves of immigrants, it grew rapidly from an entrepot trading port to a settlement with rich hinterlands in Malaya and Southeast Asia. These immigration flows stopped only just before the Second World War. Migration to Singapore since the mid-1980s takes place in a new era of post-colonial economic globalization. Coming in more varied forms and levels of skills, immigrant settlers and transient workers now originate from varied Asian sources such as China, India and Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar, and from countries and regions further afar, such as Australia, Europe and North America. These workers occupy jobs at all levels in various industries and fields in the manufacturing, services, construction and communications sectors that have fuelled Singapore’s post-colonial economic growth. Against this historical background of labour migration, “immigrant” society, roots and cultures are foundational or common themes in various 08 Migration_Diversity.indd 210 9/24/12 12:09:34 PM The Kopitiam in Singapore 211 narratives on Singapore. In scholarly works on various colonial and postcolonial nation-building state and social projects, the place of immigration and its multivaried dimensions appear either as explicit subjects or assume implicit presence. My focus is on how migration flows and settlements, through diverse groups and their cultural inputs and interactions, have historically and socially shaped the kopitiam’s evolution. The kopitiam’s migration-diversity story also tells much about the localglobal nexus which characterize how spaces, places and communities are drawn into the processes of globalization. In Singapore, the kopitiam stands out as a unique institution with its particular local-global nexus of economic, social and cultural ingredients and infusions, through the generations of diverse peoples who inhabit it and through the foods (Mintz 2009) and activities that they bring and partake of. This uniqueness and its neighbourhood location and public-ness provide multifaceted insights into the local through its everyday life which tends to be taken for granted. Everyday life can be conceived as “reality par excellence” in which tension and demand on an individual’s consciousness is highest (Berger and Luckmann 1966). It is the arena that provides the...


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