Hainanese Cuisine in South-East-Asia: Origin
Like many other forefathers of South East Asian Chinese, the Hainanese began emigrating to that part of the world in the 19th Century. However, even though Hainan Province (海南省), itself an island located in South China Sea, is geographically close to the subregion known today as South East Asia, they were relatively late migrants when compared with fellow compatriots such as Hokkien, from Fujian Province (福建省), and Cantonese, from Guangdong Province (廣東省).
One probably reason for the delayed migration for Hainanese, despite the fact that all three provinces were coastal, could be due to the late opening up the island to foreign trade- its port, Haikou (海口), was made a treaty port under the Treaty of Tianjin (天津條約) only in 1858, whereas ports in both Guangdong and Fujian provinces had been opened to foreign trades and seafaring activities much earlier.
As latecomers to British Malaya during the last decades of the 19th Century, the Hainanese found themselves discriminated against, as far as job opportunities were concerned. Most of the other lucrative positions or vocations were filled by earlier migrants and their fellow clansmen. The Hainanese were left to take up less desirable jobs in the service sectors, such as servants, cooks, and waiters.
In addition of being latecomers, the Hainanse community in Malaya was relatively small compared with other Chinese dialect groups.
The perceived consciousness of being the discriminated minority engendered the sense of self reliance among the Hainanese. The eagerness to strike out and be counted gave rise to waves of entrepreneurship Post-WWII during which employment prospects had dimmed as many Peranakan and British families returned to their home countries or engaged fewer domestic helpers.
With skillsets that they acquired while working in the upper and middle-class households as cooks and servants, as well as in service industries as chefs and waiters, it was natural that they would take on jobs in the food and beverage industry.
Many of the shop houses were vacant and reasonably affordable, either for rent or sale. A uniquely South-East Asian culinary culture was thus born- the Kopitiam, which will the subject of the next blog post.