Mention ‘Heng Hua’ and you may associate it with the restaurant Putien. While Heng Hua is minority dialect group in Singapore, with only about 25,000 people counted at the last census, the community is also known for a few things. Here’s a rundown on the Heng Hua heritage.
The Heng Hua language sounds like Hokkien
The Heng Hua dialect is also known as Xinghua or Puxian Min, and sounds similar to Hokkien because Heng Hua people originated from Putian, which is a part of the Fujian province where Hokkien speakers dominate.
Mandarin speakers may be tickled by certain words, like “wife” which is lao ma, which sounds like “old mother.” Conversely, Heng Hua speakers may be slightly uneasy with the Mandarin word for “old chicken”, which sounds like the word which describes female genitalia.
Much like other Chinese speakers in Malaysia and Singapore, Heng Hua speakers in this part of the world borrow words from Hokkien and Malay.
Jalan Besar is a Heng Hua enclave
The migration of Heng Huas to Malaysia and Singapore began in the late 19th century. Early migrants to Singapore settled in the area around the Jalan Besar-Rochor area – including Rochor Canal Road, Sungei Road, Arab Street, and Queen Street.
The area still boasts a few restaurants serving Heng Hua food – including the flagship Putien store and Ming Chung.
The oldest Heng Hua organisation in Singapore is the Hinghwa Methodist Church, currently located on Kitchener Road. Founded by a Christian missionary from Fujian in 1911, it served the Heng Hua-speaking community from its first proper residence in a shophouse along Sam Leong Road before moving to Kitchener in 1941.
There are also a number of Heng Hua temples spread across Singapore. The oldest of which is Cheow Leng Beo, which began as a small altar in the mid-1800s in the coolie quarters for Heng Hua migrants in the Jalan Besar area. The temple’s current home is in Yishun.
Heng Huas are associated with bicycles
Ask anyone old enough, and they’ll tell you that the Heng Huas are popularly associated with bicycle shops. This is because when they first arrived (they were relatively late immigrants to Singapore, with many arriving from the late 19th century onwards), Heng Huas took up jobs as rickshaw pullers before they eventually operated trishaws once the former became outlawed. From there, their association with bicycles – and the transport industry – began.
By the 1950s, Heng Huas were associated with taxi companies, bus companies, bicycle repair shops, tyre companies, and auto spare parts shops in both Singapore and Malaysia. To this day, many people running these types of companies have Heng Hua ancestry.
Heng Hua food is light and flavourful
Since Putian is located near the sea, ingredients like oysters, clams, seaweed, and other seafood feature prominently in Heng Hua cuisine – with noodle-based dishes being very common. Much like Fujian cuisine, it’s light but flavourful, with particular emphasis on retaining the original flavour of the main ingredients. Some iconic dishes include (just add ‘Heng Hua’ or ‘Xing Hua’ or ‘Putian’ in front of the dish names):
White Lor Mee (Putian Lor Mee, Pah Mee): a soupy, white version of the Hokkien dish. The noodles are simmered in thick, cloudy seafood broth and generously topped with lala, prawns, pork belly, and vegetables. The dish used to be the go-to meal for rickshaw riders, who ate a simplified version called ‘Rickshaw Noodles’.
Bee Hoon: This staple bee hoon dish is braised in a milky pork bone (and sometimes with chicken) stock, which is then fried with prawns and clams. It’s often topped with fried peanuts and crispy seaweed, which is another classic Putian ingredient.
Mee Sua: This dish is traditionally eaten during festivities like the eve of Lunar New Year because it’s incredibly long, which translates to ‘longevity’. The noodles are braised in a rich gravy flavoured with pork or chicken broth and dried seafood (clams, scallops) before prawns and shredded omelette are added. It’s also garnished with peanuts and seaweed.
Lychee Pork: A typical Putian dish, the ones you get in Singapore are like sweet and sour pork but with lychee instead of pineapple. The result is that it leaves a sweet aftertaste. The original Lychee Pork has no lychee – it’s deep-fried pieces of pork and water chestnut that resemble lychees when they’re cooked, and served in a sweet and sour sauce.
Stir-Fried Yam: This classic Heng Hua dish is bite-sized piece of yam coated in a sweet-savoury sauce and then deep-fried. The crispy outer skin will reveal a fluffy texture within.
Famous Heng Hua people in Singapore
Despite being a small community in Singapore, there are a few notable personalities of Heng Hua descent. They include Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen, real estate tycoon Ng Teng Fong (yes, the one with the hospital named after him), and actor Moses Lim.