British Hainan was started by avid vintage memorabilia collector, Frederick Puah, back in 2013. In an interview in March last year with Time Out Singapore, he shared about how his young family (wife, two newly-graduated daughters and a younger son) all pitched in to help run the eatery which offers Hainanese-Western food, one of Singapore’s “heritage cuisines”.
His restaurant was planned from the onset to display his eclectic collection of curios, most harking back to Singapore’s colonial-British past.
The Hainanese were the last of the Chinese to arrive in British Malaya & Singapore - by the time they came, all the mercantile trade was dominated by the Hokkiens/Fujianese. That was because the great sea-port of Quanzhou, Fujian, was a cosmopolitan trading centre since the 13th-century, with Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Japanese, Koreans, Siamese, Javanese, and other merchants from around Asia residing there. Consequently, Hokkien merchants and traders traded and settled as far south as Java since that period of time.
In Singapore, by virtue of their being the earliest settlers (mainly from Malacca), the Hokkiens gained a lion’s share in lucrative trades like commerce, banking, shipping, and manufacturing,
The rural Cantonese and Hakka emigrated en masse to British Malaya in the 19th-century to work as coolies in the tin mines and ports. Besides that, the urban Cantonese took on roles as bricklayers, carpenters, furniture-makers, woodcutters, goldsmiths and many other crafts-related professions, whereas the Hakkas chose to specialise in shoemaking, garment manufacturing, tailoring and the jewelry trade.
The Teochews dominated the farming industry, starting off with pepper and gambier, then onto sugarcane and other commercially viable agricultural products.
So, by the time the first Hainanese stepped ashore in the late 19th-century/early 20th-century, they were shut out from most professions and industries by the cliquish/tribal nature of the other Chinese dialect groups. But the Hainanese managed to carve out a niche for themselves by specialising in the service industry, especially with regards to servicing the colonial masters: the British, at the time. Hainanese chefs manned the kitchens and mess halls of the British armed forces. Soon, every naval vessel, and every train in British Malaya had Hainanese chefs feeding the hungry soldiers. Every colonial British governor, as well as high-ranking officers, would have Hainanese chefs heading the kitchens of their households.
Hainanese cuisine in British Malaya and Singapore took on its own unique characteristics, and wholly different from the cuisine on their home island, Hainan itself. The Hainanese began to adapt certain Western food items for their own consumption, but tweaked with the introduction of Chinese condiments, and some Chinese cooking techniques: hence the Hainanese baked shepherd’s pie, or the batter-fried chicken chop, served with potato wedges and peas, slathered with a brown sauce which, at first glance, looked British, but upon tasting, yielded soy sauce, star anise and clove flavours and scent.
Frederick Puah’s British Hainan celebrates this unique legacy of his Hainanese-Singaporean forefathers. Our dinner spread when we were there last week:
Curry with sliced baguette
Fish and chips
Hainanese pork chop
Braised lamb shank
Hainanese pasta with chicken chop
This place is a homage to the Hainanese culinary legacy of Singapore, and a testimony to the passion which Frederick Puah has in preserving the past for future generations of Singaporeans to savour and appreciate.
75 Carpmael Road, Singapore 429812
Tel: +65 6336 8122
Operating hours: 11am-3pm, 6pm-9.30pm Mon, Wed to Sun. Closed on Tuesdays.