Rooster Bowls in Southeast Asia
Rooster bowls are synonymous with the history of Chinese immigrants in Southeast Asia. The colourful rooster painting on the bowls are well loved and we cannot deny that it evokes fond memories of delicious food from the past.
As a Singaporean,Indonesian,Malaysian or Thai, you’re bound to have seen the rooster bowl at food stalls or at your grandma’s. The infamous bowl is often used to served both rice and noodles dishes. Little did I know, this bowl is widely known even up to Hong Kong and we all share the same memories of the rooster bowl where delicious local specialities are served in. Although less common than before, rooster bowls are sometimes used nowadays in food courts.
For example, you'll see these bowls at noodle or chicken rice stalls in Singapore. However, the rooster bowls of today are usually plastic imitations for the sake of preserving the nostalgic design. It is rare to find an authentic porcelain rooster bowl these days and they have even been regarded as collector’s items. Mr. Lee from Ipoh, Malaysia is one of the many collectors who has always loved finding ceramics with this distinctive pattern since he was 9 years old.
What makes this rooster design so special?
The first rooster bowls originated in China. They were made by Hakka people around the Guangdong Province over a hundred years ago, who drew the design onto white bowls. Each bowl had a black-tailed rooster with a red neck and trunk, walking on green grass. Red or purple peonies and green banana leaves were often drawn on other sides of the bowl.
Peonies symbolize richness and high social class. As for banana leaves, they signify fortune and luck. Just like most Chinese decorations, they all represent the goodness in life! The choice of having a rooster compared to a hen also speaks of the favoritism for male in the society back in those days.
First introduced in Thailand
Although the Guangdong Hakka may have first come up with the concept of rooster bowls, it is the Thai Hakka that first manufactured them. Before the second World War, Chinese merchants in Bangkok would order the rooster bowls to sell because they were very cheap. Supplies ran short and prices rose during the war.
After the war ended, the manufacturers in Bangkok produced more bowls, which soon became well-known utensils everywhere thanks to their durability. 1957 marked the start of a new rooster bowl factory in Lampang Province, Thailand. Hong Kong street food in particular made extensive use of these rooster bowls, becoming a piece of many people’s memories.
There are a number of variations of the rooster bowl design. The very first rooster bowls were hand-painted, thus making every bowl unique. When the bowls started to be manufactured, the design became standardised, consisting of a rooster, peony flower and banana tree. While the original rooster was red and black, the colours were later modified in 1962 to green with a blue tail. Some bowls which are from the Chinese province, Hunan, are slightly different as they are painted in blue with finer strokes.
A common bowl in Chinese households
Rooster bowls at that time were known for their above-average quality, an affordable alternative for those who could not afford the bowls of the upper class. The reason for a rooster design is probably because ‘rooster’ sounds the same as ‘family’ or ‘home’ in Hokkien. As such, people felt that when they ate out of a rooster bowl, they were wishing their household prosperity. Additionally, the peony flowers painted on the bowls represent a common Chinese saying – “花开富贵”, meaning that the flowers blossom with richness or prosperity.
In the 1960s, rooster bowls sold for ten cents apiece. Thus, they were very common in every household. Sitting down to eat as a family and community meant a lot to the Chinese. Whenever they served their guests, they would use rooster bowls as a means to wish their guests prosperity and good fortune. Be it rice, soup or alcohol, they always use the rooster bowl.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of these bowls is the trademark rooster on their sides, but rooster bowls are also unlike regular rice bowls in that they are fairly shallow, with a wide mouth and small base. Part of their popularity can be attributed to the ease of eating out of them with chopsticks, which made them very widely used after the Second World War. The authentic bowls are very durable, another feature that caused them to be well-received.
Rooster bowls throughout Southeast Asia
As culture matured and the Hakka people migrated all over Southeast Asia, they brought their rooster bowls with them. Naturally, it was picked up by Chinese immigrants of other dialects. Rooster bowls became widespread all over the region of Southeast Asia, and today, the rooster design can still be found on many imitations.
However, the art of making such a bowl in all its authenticity remains in Lampang, the origin of its manufacture and the only province that still continues to produce rooster bowls today. Although, a company in Indonesia claimed the trademark of the well known rooster print. One can be fined up to RP 2 billion (ca. 137,000 USD and/or jailed up to 5 years! If you’re looking for the bowls that came along with the Chinese immigrants, tough luck! It is difficult to find an artisan that can craft an original rooster bowl, turning the authentic bowls into collectibles.
Screenshot from https://www.chairish.com
Despite the mass-production of rooster bowls today, somewhat reducing their commercial value, it remains heartwarming to see this legacy being carried on from its humble roots in Guangdong. Many Southeast Asians grew up using these bowls, and their sentimental value is definitely not compromised. Rooster bowls are used in a number of Chinese media productions, such as Stephen Chow’s movies or TVB (Hong Kong television company) series. They are perhaps a symbolic representation of an important piece of our Chinese culture and heritage.
If you pay a visit to Southeast Asia sometime, be sure to visit a local food court or street food stalls and keep an eye out for this unique rooster design.
Published: May 23, 2019