“Singaporeans” are more befittingly the colours of what they eat, rather than the colours of their skins. This is because food colours express what skin colours do not: shared history, intercultural exchanges, common understanding of tastes, and love for the same food. In this poster, which expresses the intimacy between people in Singapore using the colours of their foods, the introduction reads:
“People have been contemplating similarities and differences with one another based on the colours of their skins. What it means to be black, white, or yellow is derived not from the essence of these colours, but from the shifting relations between the people born with these colours. Even though the consequences of being one race and not another changes with time and space, skin colours stay the same and fail to reflect these realities. The colours of one’s food, however, are testimonies to these changing conditions. They bloom and fade with the rise and fall of the native eaters, and they transform as the foods plunge into a melting pot of other world’s cuisines. What we are looking at are the colours that connect the Chinese, Malay, Indians, and other races in Singapore. Their foods are predominantly red and brown in hues because of the mixing of immigrant and native cultures and ingredients—an intercourse brought about by necessity, but has since developed into a common love for soy sauce, rempah, and sambal. “Singaporeans” are more befittingly the colours of what they eat, rather than the colours of their skins.”
Idea & Process
This idea to colour code hawker dishes found in Singapore came about because I was curious if it was possible to make conclusive statements about Singapore hawker food based on their colours. Following the advise of a designer friend, Shanyang, who runs a visualisation design studio, I trawled through Instagram for pictures of hawker food. These pictures could be taken in Singapore, Malaysia, or Indonesia, and there was no way to determine unless the person who took the picture indicated so. Knowing that there are slight variations (in terms of ingredients and even garnishing) in some dishes in these three countries, I picked the ones that were most representative of the styles commonly seen in Singapore. For example, I chose a picture of a bowl of wanton mee that was visibly yellow, rather the ones doused in black sauce, a version popular in Kuala Lumpur. While I do have a personal preference for charred char siew and poached chicken rice, and I did choose pictures that piqued my appetite, it was not my intention to assert that the colours collected from these pictures were the most “accurate” or “representative” of hawker food in Singapore, if accuracy and a representation were even possible.
After gathering pictures of more than 50 hawker dishes, Shanyang wrote a programme to identify the colours and generated a colour chart (below) of each dish. The colour ratio was based on the proportions of the ingredients. However, because of the different lighting conditions under which these pictures were taken, this programme sometimes identified two or more shades on the same ingredient. For consistency, we manually removed the colours that did not look like what we saw in the pictures, so that one ingredient only had one colour in the chart. But of course, the ingredients could be so well mixed, like in epok epok, that there was only one colour for all the ingredients.
Rationalising the Colours
What I ended up having were 54 colour charts. I attempted to make sense by categorising them according to race and food types (eg. seafood VS meat or noodle VS rice), but in none of which a pattern emerged. Besides, to label satay “Malay” even though many satay uncles are Indian Muslims, and despite that the Chinese has their own version, simply did not sit well with me. So instead of seeking differences, I looked out for similarities. When I gave up classifying these foods, it became clear to me that their affinities were more revealing than their disparities. These foods are predominantly red and brown in hues, and it is because Singaporeans share a love for sambal, chilli, soy sauce as well as its derivatives like kecap manis.
This poster was the creativity and effort of Sher Chew, a Singaporean graphic designer whom I was fortunate to be acquainted with in New York. Because the colours were not supposed to state a fact but to inspire a perspective, Sher did not present them as an infographic. Instead, she came up with a design good to think with and also to be admired for its aesthetics. In the previous versions, the colours were presented in pie charts. But Sher thought the circles looked isolated, and they didn’t convey a sense of connection between the dishes — a message that we had wished to bring across. Hexagon, on the other hand, suggested possibility of unification. Yet, Sher left gaps between them, to remind that there is room for greater intimacy.