You’ve probably come across the rooster bowl, the Good Morning towel, the Papasan chair or even the red-white-blue bag at some point. These items have become so commonplace in our daily lives that we often overlook their significance. You may also find these iconic everyday items slowly gaining momentum as “luxury” pieces or sold at a much higher price than you’d imagine. Here’s some history behind some of Southeast Asia’s most beloved homeware.
Good Morning towel
The Good Morning Towel – a classic cotton towel emblazoned with the red words “Good Morning” and its equivalent translation in Chinese, “zhu jun zao an” – is traditionally a staple of hawkers, jeepney drivers, and labourers across Southeast Asia. They have thin blue lines on its edges, and the number accompanying the logo, with 96 being the most popular size (35cm x 75cm). It’s an iconic multipurpose Southeast Asian utility cloth.
Good Morning towels were originally widely used in tea shops and noodle houses in Hong Kong in the late 19th century. The English greeting was likely added to appeal to the British who were living there at the time. Fast forward to today, and the towels are still ubiquitous in Hong Kong – in fact, they’re the only towels allowed for use by inmates in prisons!
By the 1920s, the towel became a staple in Singapore, used by all manner of workers and labourers who helped build modern Singapore. They’re also pretty much everywhere in the Philippines: used by jeepney drivers, or cut-up into kitchen rags.
These days, you can buy them at any sundry shop for a few bucks for 5-10 pieces. If you want to get fancy, there are plenty of hipster shops selling the thicker versions (of course, they cost more).
Whether you’re in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia or Thailand, you’ve probably eaten noodles served in the iconic ceramic bowl painted with a distinctive rooster design. While most point its origin to Lampang Province in northern Thailand, the history of the bowl dates back several centuries… to Guangdong Province in China.
The bowls were made by the Hakka community. Each white bowl depicts a black-and-red rooster walking on green grass, probably because ‘rooster’ sounds like ‘family’ or ‘home’ in Hokkien. The bowls were also adorned with red or purple peonies (symbolising wealth) and green banana leaves which signify fortune and luck. As in most Chinese decorations, the drawings on the bowl represent the goodness in life.
As the Hakka community dispersed throughout Southeast Asia, they carried their cherished rooster bowls along. The bowl found its new home in Thailand, where it became more widespread with the discovery of white kaolin clay in Lampang.
While these bowls are mass produced (and cheap) today, the handpainted ones are highly cherished as collectors’ items. If you’re in Lampang, visit the Dhanabadee Museum where you can handpaint your very own rooster bowl!
These ubiquitous nylon bags, which originated in Hong Kong since the 1950s, have a reputation of being cheap and sturdy. The material – nylon canvas that reportedly came from Japan – is also often seen at construction sites, as temporary roofing, or protection for farmland. It wasn’t until a local tailor created a bag from this material that it became an icon. The bag can be seen everywhere from wet markets to train stations, often stuffed to the brim with daily necessities.
The material was reportedly originally blue and white, and red was added later to represent luck and fortune. After the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong, the sturdy bag became a symbol of the nation. Despite the cheapness of the material, its durability and adaptability represented Hong Kong people’s resilient spirit and hardship. It’s such an iconic bag that it’s not only used as art, but also sold as designer goods. Balenciaga’s Bazar bag (which costs thousands), from its FW16 women’s collection, is a take on the humble RWB bag.
Papasan or Mamasan chair
Growing up in Southeast Asia, you’ve probably seen an iconic Papasan chair around – a large round rattan chair, often with a large cushion padding. It’s also sometimes referred to as the Mamasan chair, which are usually larger. While no one really knows the true origin of the chair – some say it’s from the Philippines – it seemed that everyone across Southeast Asia had at least a piece in their homes in the 70s and 80s. In Malaysia, it’s simply known as kerusi rotan bulat, or round rattan chair.
The name ‘papasan‘ was given to the chair in a 1974 advertisement in the Philippines, and it stuck. During this time, American soldiers were credited for spreading papasan and mamasan chairs throughout Asia Pacific and the US.
While the trend died down in the 90s, these sturdy handmade chairs are seeing a resurgence in recent years thanks to their classic design and durability. These days, you can still get them straight from rattan makers – there’s only a couple of traditional rattan shops left in Singapore – or from larger furniture retailers.
The nostalgia of childhood
Nostalgia holds a special place in people’s hearts, reminding them of simpler times and cherished memories. Across Asia, numerous everyday items carry a profound nostalgic appeal, such as the papasan chair or Good Morning towels. These items evoke sentiments of childhood, cultural heritage, and a bygone era, making them ideal candidates for transformation into luxury keepsakes.
As this trend continues to grow, it showcases the enduring appeal of nostalgia and the innovative spirit of artisans and designers across Asia.