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Call for UNESCO recognition of Singapore's Yusheng sparks debate

Fighting over food

Published on 30 January 2012

Author(s): Sin Chew/Asia News Network

Type:  News

Singapore professor set up his Facebook dedicated to the inclusion of the island republic's food culture in the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage

After Japan recently declared that it wanted to fight for the inclusion of the Japanese cuisine in the list of Unesco's intangible cultural heritage, a Singapore professor also proposed on Facebook that Unesco include Singapore's local cuisine in the list. The proposal has since sparked a war of words between gluttons on both sides of the Johor Causeway for the patenting of yee sang (yusheng), just as Chinese people across the region were preparing to usher in the Year of the Dragon.

The Singapore professor later set up a special site on his Facebook dedicated to the inclusion of the island republic's food culture in he Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage, with several gourmet foods being cited as potential candidates, including yee sang that many Chinese Malaysians must gobble down during the lunar new year celebrations. This is not the first time the two countries have been fighting tooth and nail over food patenting. Back in 2009, gluttons on both sides of the Causeway have engaged themselves in tussles over the patenting of things like bakuteh, Hainanese chicken rice and chilli crab.

To many Malaysians, bringing up the patenting issue of yee sang by Singaporeans has been seen as an act of "deliberate violation of rights". When approached by Guang Ming Daily, local gluttons and industry players claim that yee sang should constitute a part of the country's cultural heritage, citing the existence of this auspicious food way before the Lion City was separated from Malaysia half a century ago.

Nevertheless, they agree Singapore has done a lot to popularise yee sang vis-a-vis the inaction on the part of the Malaysian government in promoting the food and the lack of solid evidence to prove its origins. However, the interviewees fundamentally agree that clear lines should not be drawn where great foods are concerned, especially those that exist in both Malaysia and Singapore as it is often hard to trace their roots.

As a result, instead of squandering precious time fighting over the patenting of these foods, we should focus our attention on improving and popularising them. French, Mexican, Mediterranean (Spanish, Italian, Greek and Moroccan) cuisines have recently made it to the list of Unesco's intangible cultural heritage.

Origins traced back from Canton

The colourful shreds of pickles with a few slices of raw fish meat drenched in a concoction of sweetened sauces on a big round plate makes a perfect start for many a CNY feast.
A Cantonese custom, yee sang used to be taken only on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, or Ren Ri, the common man's birthday. It was said that this auspicious dish was brought into Malaya during the 1940s or 50s, and later started to gain popularity in Kuala Lumpur and Melaka.

Chinese food yu_sheng.jpg
Yu Sheng. Phot by Tunglok Group

Despite its origins in Canton, yee sang has been given the polishing touch by Chinese Malaysians, making it very much different from its original version in China, including the ingredients and how the food is served. Today, the Malaysian yee sang comes with a score of accompaniments, and some families even make yee sang the introductory dish for their reunion dinners.

In addition, auspicious phrases are also shouted with enthusiasm when diners lou sang (stir the mixture of shredded vegetables, raw fish in sweet condiments with chopsticks), unlike in the olden days when the mixture was lightly stirred and quietly enjoyed.

National cultural heritage

The Malaysian government put yee sang into the list of national cultural heritage under the category of national cultural cuisine back in 2009, along with moon cake, Penang fried koay tiao and yong tau fu. Other local delicacies that have also made it to the list include nasi lemak, glutinous rice, rendang chicken, ikan bakar, satay, teh tarik, otak otak, roti canai, cendol and goreng pisang.

Patenting of foods irrelevant Former Bar Council Chairman Yeo Yang Poh said he was amused by Singapore's act of applying for food patent. He said there was nothing like food patenting although food vendors could apply for copyrights of their brands when selling the food. He cited the examples of patent rights for KFC and McDonald's but not fried chicken or hamburgers. In other words, anyone can sell fried chicken or hamburgers so long as they do not use the names KFC or McDonald's.

The same goes with bakuteh, Hainanese chicken rice and yee sang. Yeo is not alone in thinking that food patenting is irrelevant, senior Singapore lawyer Lu Ping Chi also said it was very difficult for anyone to apply for patent rights of food. "Unless the food is elaborately prepared in very unique ways and then packaged and trademarked, it would be almost impossible to apply for patent rights for traditional foods, as they are cooked in more or less the same way.

"If we want to apply for the inclusion of a particular cuisine into the Unesco list, we must first provide historical evidences of the food's origins and how it has evolved over the years. However, this seems to be an impossible task, just like nobody actually knows since when omelette has been incorporated into the nasi lemak.

Common legacy

Huang Wen Shen, a gourmet columnist, agrees that yee sang is a common cultural legacy of this region, just like Hainanese chicken rice, and no one should claim that it belongs to a particular country through international legalisation. Another food specialist Ou Guo Hui said it was unbecoming for Singapore to claim its right over yee sang, as the food had existed in Southeast Asia long before the latter was separated from Malaysia.

"Good food knows no boundaries, especially in Malaysia and Singapore where many of their foods have been mutually influenced. We should enjoy our food legacy together instead of quarrelling over patent rights." Applying for food patents is an act of selfishness, he concluded. However, he feels that the Malaysian government should be responsible for such phenomenon, in particular the tourism ministry.

He said the government should equally promote the food culture of different races but unfortunately it often promotes only nasi lemak and satay during official promotional events, not the Chinese dishes. "When I was in Hong Kong recently, I saw frozen roti canai for sale in supermarkets, but on closer inspection, I saw 'Made in Singapore' tag. The same goes with packet bakuteh found in the territory. "Why does this happen? Our government should really think about it!"

He said the government should lend its full support to civil organisations to help promote our culinary culture and provide incentives to industry players to exploit oversea markets. Ou said yee sang had its origins in the Teochew area of China, and the food can be served whenever there is a family gathering, not necessarily during festive seasons. "Basically our yee sang is completely different from what is served in China in terms of ingredients. The most common ingredients here include raw fish, shredded lettuce, celery, carrot, ginger and groundnuts."

Japanese the earliest consumers of raw fish

Local writer cum Guang Ming Daily columnist Mei Shu Zhen was shocked by Singapore's intention of applying for yee sang patent. "If anyone were to be qualified to apply for the yee sang culture, it must be the Japanese, as they started consuming raw fish centuries ago." "As for the Chinese, raw fish is mainly consumed by the Cantonese and Hong Kongers in the form of raw fish porridge. So, step aside, Singaporeans! "Besides, the words lou sang are Cantonese, whereas the majority of Singapore Chinese are Hokkien. "If this dish indeed was invented in Singapore, it should have been called a different name!"

Mei nevertheless lamented that the Malaysian government had always been slow in recognising the historical values of food or heritage buildings. "As a matter of fact, I agree to the act of applying for Unesco listing for food, as this will boost a country's prestige and help enhance the status of our gourmet food." On this aspect, she regretted that Malaysia had not done enough owing to political factors, coupled with the absence of expertise in food research as well as actual historical documentation.

Long history

Oversea Restaurant group managing director Yu Soo Chye told Guang Ming Daily that yee sang had been in existence since the 1950s, long before Singapore was separated from Malaysia. After the separation, both Malaysia and Singapore have actively promoted the lou sang culture and therefore it is more apt to call it a Southeast Asian Chinese culinary culture than Singapore cuisine.

He said principally the Chinese foods in both Malaysia and Singapore took their origins in Mainland China and are modified here over time. It is therefore wrong to say that they were invented locally. Yu recalled the lou sang activities during colonial days: "The restaurants served yee sang only on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year back in those years, and the ingredients were also much simpler than what we have today.

"The raw fish was cut into very thin slices and laid neatly on the plate next to a sizzling pot. The raw fish would first be drenched in oil, lemon juice and sauce, and then stirred with a pair of chopsticks and eaten raw. Those unable to eat raw fish would first put the fish into the steaming porridge in the pot before enjoying it." He said yee sang began to be served at the beginning of the CNY celebrations only since the late 1960s, and then extended to the 15th day of CNY only after late 1970s, as the ingredients also became more and more diversified.
"It is up to experts to decide whether yee sang should be patented, but as a chef, the most important thing to me is to make the food as palatable as possible to the public."

Translated by Dominic Loh. The original article was published in Guang Ming

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