Food

Scott's Emulsion: The Journey Of The Man With A Fish On His Back

by Ho San Yu Kimberly (Yale-NUS College)

In the mid-20th century, tuberculosis and infant mortality were rampant in Singapore. In the search of a remedy, Singaporeans were introduced to a liquid vitamin — Scott’s Emulsion. This essay aims to show how despite its foul taste, Scott’s Emulsion wormed its way into the hearts and subconscious minds of Singaporeans.

Scotts Emulsion
“A liquid that looks as innocent as milk but with the flavour of an entire wet market.”
Scotts Emulsion

An advertisement for Scott’s Emulsion featuring the Man with A Fish on his Back, Mid-20th century. Image from Remember Singapore (https://remembersingapore.org/2019/02/24/selling-dreams-early-advertising-in-singapore/).

In the mid-20th century, tuberculosis and infant mortality were rampant in Singapore. People sought comfort in the magic of supplements, ointments and foreign remedies. One of such remedies was the liquid vitamin — Scott’s Emulsion.

Despite its foul taste, Scott’s Emulsion managed to worm its way into the hearts of Singaporeans, entering the subconscious of many households.

Advertisements were mainly targeted at mothers as they would feed Scott's Emulsion to their children to boost their immunity.

Scotts Emulsion

An advertisement for Scott’s Emulsion found in a school magazine, 1959. Image from St. Andrew’s School Magazine (https://standrewssec.moe.edu.sg/qql/slot/u181/1959magazine.pdf).

Scotts Emulsion

A traditional Chinese calendar with a Scott’s Emulsion advertisement, 1968. Image from s/pores (http://s-pores.com/2014/03/objectum-an-exhibition-on-the-shifting-meanings-of-daily-life-museum-objects-by-wong-lee-min/).

My mother still fondly remembers the jingle of the commercial from the 1980s.

Like the child on the commercial, she sang the mandarin tune, “司各脱鳘鱼肝油陪伴我一起成长” (Scott’s Cod Liver Oil follows me as I grow).

Maybe this is what inspired her to raise me with Scott's Emulsion.

Scotts Emulsion

The ending frame of a Mandarin Scott’s Emulsion television commercial, 1980s. Image credits: WP Productions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IZ2mpkoWlo&ab_channel=WPProductions).

Scotts Emulsion

The ending frame of an English Scott’s Emulsion television commercial, 1980s, Image from The Reel Thing (https://vimeo.com/54505588).

I remember up until I was 12 years old, drinking a tablespoon of Scott’s Emulsion was my twice daily ritual.

With a slew of toys, bottles and even a mascot, Scott’s has become a brand synonymous with children’s health. But ask anyone who grew up with Scott’s Emulsion, and they will most likely tell you:

“My mother made me drink it.”
“I don’t really know if there are any benefits, but I drank it anyway.”

These are some of the things my friends have told me about their experiences with Scott’s Emulsion.

Despite not knowing the real benefits of Scott’s Emulsion, its existence is actively present in the memories of many. And as I wander around supermarkets, I still see young mothers pick it off the shelves, raising a new generation of children growing up with it.

Scotts Emulsion

The Scott’s Emulsion packaging featuring illustrated children, 2013. Image from The Wacky Duo (https://www.thewackyduo.com/2013/03/scotts-emulsion-cod-liver-oil.html).

Scotts Emulsion

The Scott’s Emulsion mascot, 2017. Image credit: cre8tone (http://www.cre8tone.com/2017/10/scotts-champions-childrens-curiosity.html).

Walking down the streets of Bugis, I chanced upon a small flea market with some booths of local artists selling their crafts. I was shocked to see stickers of the iconic Scott’s Emulsion man with a fish on his back.

In that moment, I was hit with an immense wave of nostalgia.

Although a mundane, and some might even say insignificant, part of many Singaporean households, the collective memory of Scott’s Emulsion remains. Even 150 years after his arrival, it seems that the man with a fish on his back has yet to retire.

Scotts Emulsion

Different Scott’s Emulsion products being sold in a supermarket, 2020. Photo by Author.

Scotts Emulsion

Stickers of the Scott’s Emulsion ‘man with a fish on his back’ created by a local artist, 2020. Photo by Author.

Ho San Yu Kimberly (Yale-NUS College)

Kimberly is a third-year Environmental Studies student at Yale-NUS College. She hopes that through her work, she can help people feel more connected with their products.

Established in 2011, through a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS College is a leading liberal arts and sciences college in Asia, with a residential programme that integrates living and learning. Drawing on the resources and traditions of its founding universities, a Yale-NUS education promotes broad-based interdisciplinary learning across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities complemented by depth of expertise in one’s major.

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