Canteens and Communal Dining

Canteens and Communal Dining

These marvellous pictures of the communal dining spaces in Singaporean public housing reminded me of one of my favourite pieces of writing, I Dream Of Canteens by Rebecca May Johnson:

There is a space for everyone. A space, a glass of water, and a plug socket.* Chairs and tables and cleaned toilets. So many chairs so that no one is without one. Enough napkins to blow your nose or wipe your mouth. The chairs take different forms and there are chairs placed in designated areas (a praxis of positive discrimination). High and low chairs create a varied landscape and the opportunity to avoid eye contact if wished (privacy); low, brightly coloured plastic chairs are a good height for children; there is an area reserved for women who want to breastfeed without negotiating the uncomfortable gaze of uncomfortable men if they don’t want to.

It explores the political and social potentialities of mass catering in a truly delightful fashion. In Singapore the catering and the spaces seem disjoint—the food coming from 'hawker centres' (a particulary type of food court) and those shared dining spaces being on a 'void deck', an open community space on the bottom floor of the community housing blocks (which house ~80% of Singapore's population), and it seems like some of the communality is being drained. Lamentably, the communal dining spaces are "starting to disappear as HDB estates are refurbished and upgraded with new and more modern designs replacing the old".

Johnson's piece speaks of a similar vanishing; that of British Restaurants, a government initiative originating in the war years:

...when rationing was going on and there wasn’t enough food during the war the government set up ‘British Restaurants’ to serve cheap hot food for everyone so that people had enough to eat things like semolina and stew, she could just remember the smell. It was in the 1950s or 1960s. They were for workers and ordinary people and children, she said. She used to go when she was at school in Red Hill in Surrey, and they had died out by the time she went to secondary school.

She said yes, the food wasn’t too bad and they were really cheap. She was very keen to tell me about the British Restaurants, very excited; she remembered them fondly. I tried to imagine a British Restaurant now, a government-backed scheme to make sure all comers were fed as a matter of the greatest national importance: I couldn’t.

I find the vision of national, communal food provision to be a tremendously uplifting one—and something that should really be part of a future political programme. The whole of the essay is really worth your time.

Header picture © Jonathan Tan

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