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Repurposing Food Packaging: The Role of the Consumer

30 Dec 2019
Vidya Murthy

Repurposing Food Packaging: The Role of the Consumer

Vidya Murthy | Curator, National Museum of Singapore

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to present a new exhibition on the world of food packaging in Singapore, titled Packaging Matters: Singapore’s Food Packaging Story from the Early 20th Century, which was held from 6 April to 15 September 2019. Drawing from the museum’s rich artefact collections, the exhibition traced the development of packaging technologies in the context of new retail spaces such as supermarkets, as well as the design identities of local food brands, and also explored the future of packaging.

The two tin containers featured in this post were selected for display in the exhibition, and are in the collection of the National Museum of Singapore. At first glance, they appear ordinary, if not slightly beat-up, and there is nothing particularly distinct about these two tins.

On the image database, the first container is labelled “Cooking oil tin for steaming”. It was only when I viewed the physical object that I realised it was actually a cooking oil tin that was modified to serve as a steamer. Although the container does not seem to have been used for that purpose, the modifications are evident. The body was created by turning a “Forks and Spoons” brand vegetable ghee tin inwards. The bottom was made of a metal sheet and wooden handles were nailed on either side to possibly avoid burning one’s fingers, as well as to make the tin portable. A lid of sorts was created out of a flat metal sheet, to which four short cylindrical columns and a handle are attached. Small, even-looking holes have been punched into the lid, identifying its intended use as a steamer.

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Modified vegetable ghee tin used for steaming, 1970s, Gift of Tiang Toh Tiong
Vegetable ghee comprises of partially hydrogenated oils such as palm oil. This is a cheaper version of ghee, a type of clarified butter. Both are commonly used in Indian cuisines.

Steaming food is an old culinary practice and the appliances created for this purpose (see below for examples) are usually tiered. The perforated or slotted trays that hold food are set within a container filled with water. A lid covers the vessel, and the steam rising from the boiling water cooks the contents. The trays are placed in such a way that the food does not come in contact with water, and thus retains a moist texture without becoming soggy.

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Metal steamer, Mid-20th century

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Wooden steamer, 1990s

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Metal steamer, Early 20th century
This steamer is used to steam fermented dough to make the popular Indian savoury rice cake known as idlis. A thick dough (comprising of ground lentils and rice) is poured into the little wells on the plate shown here. These plates are stacked up in the container, which is then filled with water, closed and left to cook for about 15 to 20 minutes.

But the modified tin container appears to function differently, unless the entire tin with the perforated lid was meant to be placed inside another receptacle containing water. Or could it be that the food was only meant to be warmed by the rising steam – rather like our modern-day microwave ovens? Or did the modifier attempt to create a steamer, but abandoned it on realising he or she had made an error? Or is the object mislabelled and not even a steamer? If so, what is it? Despite all these questions and doubts, the fact remains that an entirely new object has been created by innovatively altering a ready-made food container.

The second container that I would like to examine here is a repurposed biscuit tin. While the lid and one side features the name of the local biscuit maker, the rest of the tin appears to be an assortment of metal parts put together. In addition, there is also a hand-written label in Chinese on one side indicating that the tin was used to store sewing items. As with the first example, the user has transformed the biscuit container to create an entirely new object and put it to a different use. Both tins thus illustrate a crucial aspect of food packaging – the role of the consumer. Altered and repurposed, the tins bear the physical traces of the users’ intentions. In the process, the unknown users not only redefined the functions of the containers but also extended the lives of the objects.

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Repurposed biscuit tin with lid, 1970s
The lid shows a brand of cream crackers produced by a local company, Siong Hoe Biscuit Factory Ltd. The address on the side indicates that the factory was located in Toa Payoh, the first satellite town that had industrial estates and factories to provide employment in the 1960s. In line with the government’s drive towards industrialisation, the Toa Payoh region was developed to accommodate both big and small companies such as this biscuit manufacturer.

The cream cracker – a flat, square savoury biscuit − was first manufactured in 1885 by William Jacob in Ireland. Since then, it has been popular all over the world, especially in South East Asia including Singapore. The trademark iconic visual of Jacob’s crackers – a light blue colour with wheat sheaves – is a familiar one. In adopting this established visual, the local manufacturer has attempted to ride on the links between the brand and their own product.

The National Museum’s extensive collections include a wide variety of objects − big and small; rare and common; expensive and cheap; old and new; handmade and mass-produced. There are objects made of different materials − from bottles and tins, to boxes, paper bags, and advertising plates – that illustrate the thriving local food industry, popular design, and consumption choices. In selecting objects for display in the Packaging Matters exhibition, I set aside tins that held oils, biscuits and chocolates, bottles that contained milk and carbonated drinks, as well as locally-manufactured containers bearing distinct trade names and logos.

The result of this selection process was a group of artefacts that evoke nostalgia. They are charming in a folksy manner but not unique or hand-crafted. Slightly weathered, these everyday objects are, for the most part, mass-produced. Other than a handful of late 19th-century archival photographs, the majority of my chosen objects were not glamorous, if not downright plain. Even with good photography, I was afraid that they were not going to attract readers or visitors – not unless one was attempting to elevate the ordinary into an aesthetic experience (which was not my objective).

But these two tins seem did not seem to need any explanations, least of all mine. They are unique, and certainly different from the rest. They are not just illustrations of food packaging or examples to show oil and biscuit industries in Singapore. Instead, they are social objects that say something about the material world with which we surround ourselves and interact. The two tins reveal the unknown person’s ingenuity in creating a new form out of a ready-made container, and show how the user understood the versatility of tin. The rigid, corrosion-resistant, enduring metal – long favoured by the packaging industry – is now imaginatively re-appropriated by the user.