In Singapore, what comes to mind when one thinks of Chinese food? Is it Hainanese chicken rice and bak kut teh, or is it grilled fish and mala tang (麻辣烫, a spicy soup dish)?
A decade ago, Singaporeans were still unfamiliar with mala tang and sauerkraut fish (酸菜鱼). But today, these foods are commonly seen on dining tables. Much of this phenomenon can be attributed to the global expansion of China’s restaurant brands.
According to a Zaobao survey conducted on social media, over 70% of respondents have patronised Chinese restaurant chains from China. As the graphic above shows, these chain restaurants first emerged in the city centre near the central business district, before sprouting in Jurong in western Singapore, Changi in the east, and Yishun in the north. Now, chain restaurants from China offering diverse fare are widely found in shopping malls across the country.
Opening at a faster pace
Analysing the brand presence of 12 Chinese restaurant chains from China, Zaobao found that these restaurant chains’ outlets have increased annually since 2014. Although the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 put a spanner in the works, expansion swiftly resumed in 2021, when there were twice as many new outlets as the year before and two new restaurant brands made their debut in Singapore.
Based on Zaobao’s study of 12 Chinese restaurant chains from China, the earliest and most popular entrants to the Singapore market were hotpot restaurants.
Singapore’s favourable business environment and sizeable Chinese consumer base have helped to woo many Chinese companies to Singapore, with the food and beverage (F&B) sector being just a fraction of the whole. According to estimates by China’s commerce ministry, over 8,500 Chinese enterprises registered their businesses in Singapore in 2021, in fields such as technology and the internet, infrastructure, and finance.
Hotpot occupies a major share
Based on Zaobao’s study of 12 Chinese restaurant chains from China, the earliest and most popular entrants to the Singapore market were hotpot restaurants. Since 2014, 29 hotpot restaurants have opened in Singapore. Next in line are the grilled fish restaurants and mala tang restaurants, with each seeing ten new restaurant openings since 2014. Grilled fish and mala tang have their roots in Sichuan cuisine, which is among the eight culinary cuisines of China. Hotpot is also influenced by the spicy, fragrant and strong flavours of Sichuan cuisine. Observably, Sichuan cuisine, which is very popular in China, is also well-received in Singapore.
Many stores, no profits
Another finding from Zaobao’s study is that Haidilao outlets accounted for nearly one-third of all Chinese restaurant chains from China. Early in 2012, Haidilao took the lead, opening its first overseas branch in Singapore. Thereafter, grilled fish restaurants Riverside Grilled Fish and Tanyu, as well as other hotpot brands such as Xiao Long Kan entered Singapore one after another. At the same time, Haidilao continued expanding worldwide with Singapore as its base, becoming the third-largest Chinese restaurant brand in the international market.
Unfazed by the pandemic, Haidilao opened 22 new restaurants around the world in 2021. But opening new restaurants is a double-edged sword...
Unfazed by the pandemic, Haidilao opened 22 new restaurants around the world in 2021. But opening new restaurants is a double-edged sword — it can increase revenue but also disperse the diner flow. Early this year, Super Hi International, which focuses on expanding Haidilao’s international presence, was listed on the Main Board of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. While the prospectus of Super Hi International showed that the company’s revenue grew in 2021 compared to the previous two years, it could not keep up with the increase in costs and operated at a loss from 2019 to 2021.
Singapore an important bridgehead
It is actually rather difficult for China’s restaurant chains to go international. All things considered, Singapore is already a relatively easy global market to venture into.
Business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan analysed that Singapore ranks third in the world with a Chinese food industry market share of US$7.6 billion in 2021. But in terms of per capita Chinese food consumption, Singapore ranks first in the world at US$1,393. That is to say, Singaporeans spent an average of US$1,393 per person on Chinese food in 2021, far higher than other countries in the world.
Chinese restaurant brands chose Singapore due to its developed economy, massive Chinese population, high average food expenditure per person and relatively quick recovery from the pandemic. However, Singapore’s high labour and rental costs, stringent food safety standards, and diverse food choices are some challenges that Chinese restaurant brands face.
Singapore is the first stop for Chinese restaurant chains from China to go international, and even more so a gateway to Southeast Asia.
Low Jin Yong, regional vice-president of Greater China at Singapore Economic Development Board, told the media in China that multinational corporations come to Singapore not for the local market but for the 600 million-strong Southeast Asian market. Xiabu Xiabu, which opened its first outlet in Singapore earlier this year, already announced its plan to expand to Malaysia. High-end hotpot brand Coucou, which is under the same parent company as Xiabu Xiabu, will be opening its first outlet in Malaysia at the end of the year. Thus, Singapore is the first stop for Chinese restaurant chains from China to go international, and even more so a gateway to Southeast Asia.
Will the increasing number of Chinese restaurants affect the local food culture?
Dr Leslie Tay, the author of food website ieatishootipost, believes that the sustainability of the trend of Chinese restaurant chains from China remains to be seen, as Singapore is a food paradise and consumers have plenty of choices, so that the Chinese restaurant chains face significant competition pressure. Tay said to attract more local customers, China’s Chinese cuisine has to be adapted to local tastes. For example, most locals cannot handle the spiciness of authentic Sichuan cuisine.
Kom Hui Wen, a local food blogger who manages the social media account Foodiesg - Eating Tart, has visited many Chinese restaurant chains from China and often needs to make reservations in advance due to their popularity.
She said besides chain restaurants in shopping malls, there are also numerous snack shops and hawker stalls across the island selling northeastern Chinese cuisine and spicy hot pot, indicating that Chinese cuisine from China has become a trend in Singapore. However, she believes that Singapore’s diverse culinary landscape is not affected by the increasing number of Chinese restaurant chains from China; instead, the local food culture has been enriched.
Exploring changes in local food culture through changes in taste
Singapore’s early Chinese immigrants mostly came from China’s coastal regions. According to Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond edited by Malaysian scholar Professor Tan Chee-Beng, the food brought in by first-generation Chinese immigrants has long become integrated into local cuisine through the use of local ingredients, becoming well-known local traditional delicacies.
In the past 20 or 30 years, Singapore has welcomed many new immigrants from northern China — this has facilitated the spread of their regional cuisines, allowing these foods to take root and grow locally. For instance, in Chinatown, more than 60% of the Chinese restaurants listed on the official website of the Chinatown Business Association are run by new immigrants, showing that the culinary successes of new immigrants have not only enriched the diverse food culture but also opened up new gastronomic experiences for the locals.
French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” The “you” here can refer to an individual or a society — an inclusive society that embraces diverse culinary cultures.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “爱吃烤鱼、麻辣烫？这些年进军狮城的中国餐饮连锁”.
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