Dr Khairudin Aljunied

Associate Professor of Intellectual and Society History of the Malay World

Coffeeshops in Colonial Singapore: Domains of Contentious Publics

This article is situated within the expanding literature on the role played by sites of sociability such as coffee-houses in the growth of publics and the public sphere. In the last few decades, historians of Europe, North America, the Arab World and South Asia have shown that coffee-houses served multiple functions in their respective historical contexts. They were places where people coming from different backgrounds gathered to socialize and to discuss about issues of their time, thereby gaining clarity about what was at stake for themselves and their societies. Coffee-houses were also spaces in which stories and slander about the state and its avatars were exchanged, just as they were sites where talk might be translated into popular protests. With coffee-houses and the introduction of coffee-drinking culture thus came new versions of publics and of subaltern politics, and the strengthening of old ones. These developments had a determining impact on ordinary people’s lives as state and citizenry struggled for influence not least through the use and, in some instances, abuse of coffee-houses.