The Kopitiam in Singapore: An Evolving Story about Migration and Cultural Diversity

Posted: 29 Nov 2010

See all articles by Ah Eng Lai

Ah Eng Lai

National University of Singapore (NUS)

Date Written: January 15, 2010


This paper tells the story of migration and diversity in Singapore through a particular feature of Singapore - the kopitiam (coffeeshop). Found mostly in the HDB (Housing and Development Board) public housing estates in which 85% of Singapore’s population live and in historical ethnic enclaves, the kopitiam may be viewed as a quintessential feature of Singapore everyday life and public culture, and is one among several institutions and spaces within which are embedded dynamic aspects and processes of migration and social-cultural diversity, set within the larger context of a rapidly changing and globalizing Singapore throughout its history.

In origin a small-scale set-up serving workers and residents cheap drinks, nibbles and sometimes meals, the kopitiam has constantly evolved and experienced much change over several broad periods: the colonial period of mass immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries, massive resettlement of local communities into HDB public housing estates and urban renewal in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, and rapid urbanization and globalization since the 1990s. This paper examines the kopitiam’s evolution in the following aspects of its cultural and social distinctiveness and diversity: 1) foods, 2) peoples - owners, stallholders and workers and customers, 3) social-cultural activities and politics, and 4) local and international economic competition and connections.In doing so, it explicates the historical, social and cultural evolution of the kopitiam as a site of Singaporean multiculturalism that is derived from the continuous inputs and interactions of generations of immigrants, entrepreneurs and customers over time.At the same time, it also shows some dimensions, expressions and meanings of multiculturalism and cultural change at the local level and in the local-global nexus.

Several theoretical parameters broadly frame this paper’s context and its anthropological focus on culture and cultural dimensions of social relations: a longue duree perspective on migration; local-global nexus, migration’s significance to the cultural and social life of a local community; and the social and cultural dimensions of multiculturalism constructed historically through migration, settlement and acculturation.

Research employed historical and anthropological approaches, with data drawn from historical, archival and media documents and from primary fieldwork based on conversational interviews and observations.

Keywords: Hainanese immigrants, HDB heartlands, kopitiam stalls, foreign workers, local community, everyday multiculturalism, kopitiam heritage

Suggested Citation

Lai, Ah Eng, The Kopitiam in Singapore: An Evolving Story about Migration and Cultural Diversity (January 15, 2010). Asia Research Institute Working Paper No. 132. Available at SSRN: or

Ah Eng Lai (Contact Author)

National University of Singapore (NUS) ( email )

Bukit Timah Road 469 G
Singapore, 117591

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