The Rise and Fall of Vesop: MSG and the Making of a Nation

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Last updated 2015-01-22 12:13:39 SGT

Prelude

Although I'm spending only one year here at Yale, I will confess to occasional seasons of food cravings punctuated by brief sessions of frantic comfort-food cookery. One of these comfort foods that I ended up making1 was fried carrot cake (chai dao kueh), with mixed success.

Picture of glorious Singaporean food laid out in Yale cutlery

Unfortunately, I probably won't ever be able to remember how to make carrot cake offhand (despite watching my mother do so quite a few times as a child), so the natural thing for me to do was to ask my sister to ask my mother for her carrot cake recipe2.

Recipe book from the 70's

A few things about this recipe are striking, though. First, the recipe calls for rice to be ground into flour just before being used to make the carrot cake proper; ready-made rice flour is apparently not very common at this point. Secondly, the recipe calls for char siu (叉烧) using some rather formal phrasing (熏肉), which is translated into English as “bacon”. While not altogether inaccurate, it seems pretty indicative that the recipe book was primarily written in Chinese before being translated into English, instead of the reversed workflow that would probably befall bilingual cookbooks today.

One more thing about this recipe: it calls for enough aromatic ingredients like pork (char siu), Chinese sausage and shrimp paste (hae bi, 虾米) that the author feels comfortable prescribing the finished steamed carrot cake to be served either immediately (which seems traditional) or else reheated by refrying with oil. As my contemporary Singaporeans can attest to, these days it's more common to see them fried with egg and optionally dark soy sauce (and even more optionally other ingredients like seafood), particularly in hawker centres, without the benefit of having delicious tidbits literally cooked into them. I'm not sure if this is indicative of broader changes in how people expect chai dao kueh to be served, or if it reflects the industrialisation of chai dao kueh by big vendors with high turnover3, or if this is simply an improvisation to the recipe courtesy of the recipe author. Perhaps some combination of these.

More curious, however, is the inclusion of a mysterious ingredient Vesop in the recipe, listed in the Chinese version as 味素粉. I chalked this up to an either obscure or archaic synonym for MSG (味精) and moved on; when I Skyped my mother a week later she confirmed that this was indeed the case … except she called it Aji-no-moto (味の素). I guess it speaks of a well-executed advertising campaign that the two are synonymous to her. As to why it was listed as Vesop in the English version of the recipe, she did not say.

What the hell is Vesop anyway?

What is this thing

This is basically the Singapore Story of MSG, commercialised Chinese food's dirty secret. Short of actually spending money on delicious mushrooms4, which contain glutamate things that tell your mouth “you are eating deliciousness, now be happy”, MSG is a biochemical shortcut that achieves the same effect for a fraction of the cost. You can imagine that this would make it ludicrously lucrative (instant deliciousness!) but unfortunately its close association with Asian foods (the curse of the early adopter) made it extremely easy for the Western media to demonise. This will become relevant later.

As for the historical context of this whole narrative, I'm going to quote from some white paper I found online5:

For more than 40 years from the end of WWII to 1990’s, leaders in the industry, including Ajinomoto, all eyed Southeast Asia as the major springboard for expanding abroad. Countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia were the most favoured.

In particular, Ajinomoto Co. Inc. opened a representative office in Singapore in 1954, concurrent with the establishment of similar offices in Paris, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Brazil. Moreover, it set up manufacturing operations in the Philippines (1958), Thailand (1960) and Malaysia (1963).

What is strange about its operations in Malaya (and then Malaysia) is, however, the convenient timing, shortly after the beginning of work on the Kuala Lumpur MSG factory in 1963, of the establishment of an MSG factory in Singapore not operated by Ajinomoto Co. Inc6. Whereas on one hand important movers and shakers in UMNO (including the Secretary-General) had vested financial interests in ensuring a continued stream of FDI from a rich Japanese company literally paying 99.6% of the bill in its joint venture with the Malayan government, a rival firm, Federal Chemical Industries Ltd., received protected pioneer industry status in Singapore via the introduction of import tariffs (into Singapore) on MSG7.

At this point, merger hadn't happened yet; through the muddy waters of history I would interpret this as either the Singapore government retaliating to a perceived snub8 or keeping up with the Joneses, or perhaps some longwinded conspiracy to steal the secrets of deliciousness that the Japanese were surely adding to the basic MSG recipe or … something. I don't know, and honestly I'm not very interested, but something else from the Straits Times article pops out:

Estimated to cost $1 million, it will represent the first venture of its kind in the Commonwealth, and is being undertaken by the Federal Chemical Industries Ltd. which was incorporated in November 1961 with an authorised capital of $5 million.

As it turns out, the factory would end up costing more than $4.5 million due to cost overruns. However, the assertion about this factory being the first of its kind would be technically true, as the Kuala Lumpur factory would not open until late 1965, post-Separation. By the time it finally did, the construction costs would have risen to a $5 million capital investment by Ajinomoto Co. Inc., a sum equal to the entire startup capital of its rival9. This will become relevant later.

Five technical experts who will run it have already arrived from Formosa.

This will become relevant later.

Actually, scratch that, that's not the only interesting thing about the article:

In the initial stages the Federal Chemical Industries will manufacture only monosodium glutamate under the brand name of Vesop. As the factory progresses, other allied products will be produced.

Now we're getting somewhere! Vesop was not a synonym for MSG, it was a locally produced brand of it. I say “was” because I have never, ever heard of it being referred to as such, despite it being apparently either widely advertised or commonly used enough to have MSG referred to by that name in some random cookbook.

Why not?

The Politics of Food

Before we answer that question, it's interesting to examine the rhetoric in the Straits Times surrounding the Vesop factory. For example, it's apparent that not everyone agreed with the move to grant Federal Chemical Industries protected status; they were later forced to defend their application for protection before a commission. However, the unevenness of coverage to both sides of the dispute is striking, with only one paragraph afforded to an opposing viewpoint (to their credit, not making a straw man argument)10.

It's also interesting to examine the degree to which the press coverage (and indeed basically most discussions that left records I have access to now) was couched in the language of not merely job provision and infrastructure development, but actually nation-building:

The Vesop story has not ended — it has just begun. Chapters of progress will continue to be written — each chapter closely linked with the nation's development and the people's “better living”! 11

Even Dr. Goh Keng Swee joins in the fun:

On the occasion of the formal opening of this plant, I am struck by one thought concerning Indonesia's confrontation on Malaysia. We, who are being confronted, are improving our standard of living, and getting more enjoyment out of life, in which, of course, good eating is one important item … While we go from strength to strength, those who confront us and desire to bring about our ruin are themselves getting into dire trouble … In Indonesia, people do not think of using Monosodium Glutamate. They have been reduced to eating corn instead of rice.12

Such snark! More from the same speech:

Last month, the Singapore Industrial Research Unit conducted laboratory tests on seven brands of imported MSG and compared them with the product turned out by this Factory. You will be pleased to learn that only one of the imported brands measured up to the product of the Singapore factory, the other six being markedly inferior. The countries of origin of these imported products are America, Hong Kong, Formosa, Japan and Mainland China.

I'm not sure how exactly one quantifies quality of MSG (as opposed to, say, purity) but before this I'd never heard of the Industrial Research Unit (formerly part of EDB), which apparently did research before being renamed and then absorbed into the PSB13. More from the same speech:

Federal Chemical Industries are now in a position to supply our local market with a product of a quality equal to the best we get from outside. There is, therefore, no need to depend on imported MSG. For some time, the import of MSG has been subject to specific licensing and we allowed a quota of 100%. As from next month, I intend to reduce this imported quota to half. In due course, the Government will recommend to the Tariff Advisory Board that this product receives Common Market treatment so that it can have a protected market for the whole of Malaysia.

This will become relevant later.

Where did the soda go

So what of Vesop? After some initial hiccups, the factory finally began manufacturing at scale in 1964:

Announcing this yesterday, the managing director, Mr. Teo Ek Tjoe, said that initially the company's main product will be monosodium glutamate to be marketed under the trade name Vesop with a Beehive as its brand. 14 15

So far, so good. But then the Separation happened, killing off Federal Chemical's Common Market access. Then the Kuala Lumpur MSG factory opened, permitting Ajinomoto access to the same Common Market protectionism that had heretofore worked to Vesop's benefit, and from which it was now excluded.

Nonetheless, Vesop seems to have had a rather strong market presence for quite some time. Here's an ad for it from the 60's16 17:

Ad for Vesop from the 60's

And here's another from the 70's18:

Ad for Vesop from the 70's

Ultimately, though, as one might have gathered, there was a lot of protectionism going on. This was not sustainable, given extremely high demand, to the extent that people started smuggling MSG into the country19 20. Eventually, the import tariffs and licensing were dropped in late 1973; almost immediately prices fell, resulting almost certainly in immense loss of profits21. At the same time, some guy released a study claiming that MSG made baby mice retarded22, effectively destroying external demand for quite a while. A larger, richer company might have been able to weather this demand shock. Federal Chemical Industries had spent its entire existence recouping its startup capital.

After the 70's, Federal Chemical Industries (and with it, Vesop) seems to have faded into obscurity.

Where are they now?

I haven't been able to locate anything about the aforementioned Mr. Teo Ek Tjoe. In any case, he'd be at least 80 years old by now, and no longer in any capacity to work as a managing director of a chemical factory.

One name that did appear prominently was that of a certain Professor Bah Han-Shie, who did biochemistry and was instrumental in setting up the factory. There do exist records of an academic by that name working in Taiwan, but nothing conclusive. 23

Vesop itself seems to have vanished from Singapore's culinary scene, as far as I can tell24. Weirdly enough, though, the domain vesop.com seems occupied by a domain squatter. The domain is listed in association with Federal Chemical Marketing (Singapore) Pte. Ltd.; a WHOIS lookup agrees that the domain is registered to Federal Chemical Marketing (S) Pte. Ltd. which somehow shares the same premises as Federal Food Marketing (S) Pte Ltd25, indicating two consecutive (and not particularly well-publicised) name changes. Their new(er) website seems dead; the trail ends there26.

As for the factory, erstwhile symbol of the progress of two nations, victim of 300% cost overruns, devourer of startup capital: today it is gone.27

Conclusion

It's pretty cool how the Chinese version of my mother's recipe used a direct transcription of the Japanese characters for Ajinomoto (味の素→味素粉) for MSG, while the English version referred to it by the brand name of a competing product. That's Singapore for you.

This essay was the result of procrastinating on my essay on Chinese foodways in Singapore. Back to work I go.28

EDIT 21/1/2015: Vesop lives yet! (see page 16)

EDIT 20/4/2015: I adapted this blog post into a history paper and submitted it for academic credit at Yale.


  1. For some value of “make”. Hey, at least I tried 

  2. What do you mean, I could just ask my mother myself? Why would I ever do that? 

  3. Kopitiam Group, I'm looking at you 

  4. or meat, or seaweed, or basically anything tasty 

  5. I got this from http://media.abnnewswire.net/media/en/docs/62116-ABNEN62116.pdf 

  6. Hiroshi, S., & Hitoshi, H. (1999). Japan and Singapore in the World Economy. pp. 175-176 

  7. "Protection For New Singapore Factory" The Straits Times [Singapore] 25 Jan. 1963: 10. Print. 

  8. ajinomoto y u no build factory in singapore we h8 u nao 

  9. "Ajinomoto (Malaysia) Ltd. FACTORY OPENING ' Landmark in field of co-operation" The Straits Times [Singapore] 3 Sep. 1965: 11. Print. 

  10. "Singapore's 'diehards'" The Straits Times [Singapore] 15 Mar. 1963: 12. Print. 

  11. "Vesop – Story Of Faith In Nation's Stability" The Straits Times [Singapore] 28 Oct. 1964: 19. Print. 

  12. Goh, K. S. (1964, April 23). Speech by the Minister of Finance, Dr. Goh Keng Swee, at the Opening Ceremony of Federal Chemical Industries (Singapore) Ltd. 

  13. We sure love our three-letter acronyms don't we 

  14. "Chemical Plant Ready to Start." The Straits Times [Singapore] 21 Apr. 1964: 18. Print. 

  15. As an aside, I find it fascinating how much technical detail was included in these older newspaper articles. 

  16. "Advertisements" The Straits Times [Singapore] 8 Oct. 1967: 10. Print. 

  17. I'm pretty sure the one below it is an ad for pre-Viagra sex pills 

  18. "Advertisements" The Straits Times [Singapore] 23 Jan. 1975: 8. Print. 

  19. "Gourmets' powder: Smuggling hampers production" The Straits Times [Singapore] 14 Jul. 1966: 4. Print. 

  20. "Illegal gourmet powder" The Straits Times [Singapore] 25 Mar. 1971: 5. Print. 

  21. "$1 a lb drop in price of gourmet powder" The Straits Times [Singapore] 20 Nov. 1973: 9. Print. 

  22. Compare that with this quote: “Recent research into nutrition has indicated that glutamic acid is an important nutritional factor for the development and nourishing of the brain. So, Vesop not only improves the flavour of food, but makes it more nourishing too.” If there's anything that hasn't changed through the years, it's food science reporting, I suppose. 

  23. There appears to be a YouTube video of some old guy by that name. I'm not sure how relevant this is to our present discussion. 

  24. That is to say, as far as I can remember, since I can't really tell right now because I am at Yale 

  25. See here and here 

  26. Unless one of my friends back home is interested enough to give them a phone call and find out more, I guess. 

  27. See https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/tag/vesop-factory/ 

  28. Actually, it is late. Off to bed I go. 


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