Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Restaurants in Little India, Singapore: A Study of Spatial Organization and Pragmatic Cultural Change

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Restaurants in Little India, Singapore: A Study of Spatial Organization and Pragmatic Cultural Change

Article excerpt

Food has an array of representations that make it far from being culturally neutral, even though it may appear otherwise. It is strongly associated with identity, prestige, social place, and symbolic meanings (Narayan 1997). Frequently, food possesses inherent characteristics that are a habitually accumulated outcome of a long social process. As a social and cultural product, food can thus be domesticated as ethnic cuisine through which representation is established and fully inscribed with ethnicity (Chua and Rajah 1996). Hence, when food is represented symbolically as part of the cultural traits of an ethnic community, it carries a collectivized identity.

Nevertheless, food being a basic commodity for public consumption, has always been commercialized and has a spatial setting as well. In this way, ethnic cuisine or style of cooking is highly vulnerable and adaptable to change in new environments, in particular when it becomes an object imposed by exogenous sources with varied set objectives. In Singapore, food is officially perceived to have an ethnic representation, and as such is regarded by the government as a symbol of its multicultural society that is essential to social and racial harmony. As multiculturalism implies to an extent cultural equality, it has become a social investment officially promoted for "political and ideological returns" in the city-state (Chua 1997). The official promotion of multiculturalism helps to calm the fear of subordination of ethnic minority groups (Humik 1991). Ethnic representation is a complex issue when it involves the Indian community of Singapore because of their diverse origins from the Indian sub-continent.(1) Yet, for pragmatic reasons and ease of presentation to consumers, particularly foreign visitors, Indian cuisine has been broadly classified as one marketable entity when it is publicized in commercialized pamphlets.

This paper assesses the changes that have occurred in Little India under the impact of three key players: the Urban Redevelopment Authority(2) (URA), which earmarked Little India as a conservation area in 1989; the Singapore Tourism Board (STB); and finally the private entrepreneurs and food consumers. Each of them has a differentiated sense of attachment to Little India as a place. More specifically, the URA's role has been to ensure spatial representation of Singapore's broadly defined principal ethnic groups (Chinese, Malay, and Indian). Safeguarding Little India as an ethnic enclave implies reassurance of official promotion of multiculturalism. For the STB, ethnic food is a choice commodity since the 1980s to promote tourism, in line with the government policy to bolster economic performance. Lastly, framed by Singapore's conventional practice of encouraging the free play of market forces, the private sector has a negotiating role in which business is operated and adapted. Usually, as expected, the negotiation would result in constant business adaptation and cuisine hybridization for survival. In the face of strong business competition then, the social construction of Little India as a representative ethnic entity or space of representation has been contested by groups with different interests and claims, and has been reoriented towards a more fluid and negotiable consequence. The outcome remains uncertain and it depends much on the power relations and interactions of players in the place (Norton 2000; Chang 2000a). Little India starts as a negotiated product and its future will be represented by more negotiated outcomes.

This paper examines, in particular, how the restaurant business in Little India has undergone physical change in the interplay of the three above-mentioned agents of change. The work is based on a personal survey of restaurants in the study area in April-May 1999. The study area is bounded by Kitchener Road in the north, Jalan Besar in the east, Sungei Road in the south, and Race Course Road to the west.

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Restaurants in Little India and Their Geographic Space

Little India is one of the three conservation areas in Singapore. …

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