MUSE SG – On soya sauce and its flavourful heritage

MUSE SG is a collaborative effort between the National Heritage Board and NUS History Society. Every semester, students in the History community are given the chance to research on a selected topic and thereafter contribute an article to the publication.

In this series, we interview writers of MUSE SG Volume 13 – The Intangible Cultural Heritage Issue – and find out what it’s like to be part of this project!

Hong Kai is a History undergraduate at NUS. In this volume, he uncovers the art of making soya sauce. Check out his article here!

What have you written about in this issue of MUSE SG? Could you briefly share some of your findings?

In this issue of MUSE, I chose to write an article on the making of soya sauce in Singapore. Soya sauce is basically made from fermenting soya beans for many months. In this article, I briefly outlined the long history of soya sauce in Asian food culture, and how the food item (and along with it the fermentation method) was imported into Southeast Asia through shifting trade winds. In fact, the first mention of soy that I could find in the Singaporean archives would be in John Crawfurd’s listing and description of the island’s exports way back in the 1820s! 

Why did you choose this topic? What fascinated you most about the topic?

When picking from the list of available topics, soya sauce making jumped out at me – it was something familiar and everyday, and I was interested in the stories this unassuming bottle at the back of our kitchen cupboards could tell. Often, we do not think about the origins of the everyday items that we use and encounter, and I think this topic gave me the opportunity to look at history and heritage from a unique perspective. What fascinated me most was really listening and reading about stories of the close family ties that keep these time-honoured family businesses and traditions running! 

What have you gained through this writing experience? Could you share about your research journey?

I have gained new perspectives on the everyday, mundane practices that are around me – even the smallest of items may have a story to tell! It was really exciting to be given a degree of free reign on the project in crafting my story angle, and what I wanted to say regarding the issue. This was especially so when I had certain breakthroughs like finding a relevant quote from a source, or diving deep into the research rabbit hole looking at issues marginally related to my topic.

As my article was mainly meant to be a general introduction into the tradition and industry, I regret being unable to squeeze in many of these intricate details from the stories that my interviewee shared with me about his challenges dealing with the balance between change and continuity, and working closely with his family members as well. However, I felt very honoured to have had the opportunity to have heard very candid and heartfelt stories in the process of my research, and I think that was really a highlight of my research journey. 

Who would you recommend MUSE SG to?

Anyone and everyone with the slightest interest in our everyday histories and heritage. MUSE SG is meant to be an accessible and easy read to all, so do pick up a copy if you’re interested in Singapore’s history and heritage in any way!

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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