On A Search for Success

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Local secondary school students after receiving their ‘O’ Level results. Source.

Friday was a harrowing day for a large swathe of students across the island. The release of examination results for the candidates of the 2016 Singapore-Cambridge GCE Advanced Level (often just called ‘A’ Levels for short) would undoubtedly represent a momentous closure for many students after the typical 12 years of formal education one typically undergoes in the local education system. And this could be momentous for better or for worse. Having friends who went through that moment yesterday – and having undergone a similar one myself – made me deeply aware of how significant it was to so many young people across the country.

I had been far from composed. The back of the school hall was lined with teachers standing behind identical plastic desks, ready to hand out sealed envelopes to students one by one. Each envelope contained a few sheets of paper printed with numbers that were simultaneously inconsequential and important. People laughed, cried, screamed, hugged, posed for pictures, shook hands. I was both comforted and overjoyed by my own results. It was feeling like the final step in a flight of stairs had been laid to a series of doors I could access. I felt like they were something I deserved; accessories to my expected set of achievements. It was giddying, and at the same time frightening to realise how much my results mattered to me personally.

But I have friends who weren’t as lucky. And in a system where one’s academic achievement can seem to make or break your chances at a good future, it must have been crushing to know you had achieved less. And it must have been an equally momentous moment for them to feel those same doors shut off to them for just a different set of numbers.

It is hard to discuss the life of a Singaporean, I feel, without touching upon the climate fostered by the local education system. The notoriously competitive education system here has been the subject of both admiration from abroad and acrimony from within. It has indirectly resulted in mothers placing reservations for places in top-ranked primary schools upon the birth of their children, four-year-olds being placed in after-school tuition centres, and an eleven-year-old plunging to his death for fear of academic failure. It has produced batches of students who perform above the world average in standardised assessments, and for many, a set of expectations they have felt pressured to fulfil. The average student tries to go to a junior college and aim for the Science stream to do well enough to become a doctor or engineer. Or they try to become a lawyer. Or they try to get past the prying questions of family on how they are going to get a life with any other job – god forbid, an arts-related one.

Perhaps some of what I’ve mentioned above is exaggeration. But from the stifling effects of the local education system seem to have made themselves clear to others. I recently read a comment by a user on a college-related forum commenting on how Singaporean university students were ‘uninteresting’ and advising another user not to go there for further studies due to a ‘general lack of spontaneity’ on local campuses. It saddens as much as sobers me. From what I know of my peers, I don’t deny that the average Singaporean high-school-age student may have a tendency to put their studies over many other aspects of their social and emotional well-being (many of my classmates survived their last year of junior college on 2 hours of sleep a night). There are exceptions to this stereotype, and I’m glad to have met many people who were capable of both working and playing hard. But it is still upsetting that we should all be collectively seen as a bunch of dullards. Characterised, for all our academic achievement, as a stagnant learning environment.

Would this environment have the potential to only lead to a cold, career-driven urban society? I’ve heard of numerous parents who take their children out of the country to escape the rigours of Singaporean testing, and other students who express serious thoughts about migrating out because ‘Singaporeans are so square’. This kindled my desire to create my blog. I wanted to try to show them that they were wrong, by searching out and finding things to love about this island I call home. But at the same time, I know that true change can only come from within the individual, and can only blossom slowly throughout society.

It will take a long time before a results-oriented culture can be tempered in the education system. Efforts have been made to change the way in which achievements are recognised by student troupes competing in the Singapore Youth Festival, as well as to stop revealing the top scorers for each of the national school-leaving examinations to prevent an unhealthy emphasis on exam results. It hasn’t led to a significant shift in attitudes, because many students and parents fundamentally believe in figuring out where they (or their children) stand in the pecking order both on academic and non-academic fronts. But in order for the academic environment to be revamped, a more holistic assessment of every student’s strengths has to be made.

One of my classmates once remarked that some of her cousins were ‘under-achievers’ because they ‘didn’t even go to junior college’. By what measure is an under-achiever? Who says that you have to take the most prestigious-sounding route in the system in order to succeed? Is it really for everyone? I have met some peers who had been coerced into taking certain subjects because of the assurance that it was their route to success, only to perform below expectations. And there are still others who have gone to the sometimes-vilified polytechnics and vocational institutes and managed to become successful in their own right.

I hope that those students who have been crushed by their results will not be made to inferior just because of a bad grade. They may feel trapped between re-taking the exams within a system that frustrates them, or having to face what they might feel is a despondent future. Sometimes, society can blind us to other routes of achieving our potential.

But there are routes outside of the system – they may be unorthodox, but they have worked for many. And I hope that they will be able to find and embrace other forms of achievement – quality time with family, loving and supporting friends, a healthy spirituality. Or even  just the sheer potential that comes from being young and alive. They can mean a lot more than a bunch of numbers on a results slip.

Preparing.

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A sketch I made of volunteers chatting over a meal at Willing Hearts’ dining area.

“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.”

8 a.m. on a Monday morning. A merciless downpour was raging outside. Rain lashed against the fence of the small vegetable garden and howled over the concrete walls forming the walkway that led to the food preparation area. It was a small grey courtyard scattered with long tables and plastic stools. The former were almost perpetually covered in newspapers and laden with massive plastic baskets of vegetables. Today it was celery. The previous days had seen onions, chye sim and milk cabbage cross the floor. The few brave souls who had weathered the storm to turn up for duty set to work – hauling out bundles of leaves, chopping up stems, arranging the empty baskets – with wordless determination.

I had been assigned to wash several kilograms of celery that day. I hoisted each basket out onto the edge of the massive sink that sat the edge of the room. They had sharp edges, and occassionally my fingertips would prickle as I cut myself yet again. Massive bundles of celery tumbled out and I plunged my hands between them, trying as much as I could to scrub away the slime that clung to each stem. Just earlier this morning, they had come festering in plastic bags, many with wilting leaves or stems that had liquefied into masses of orange mush. Under the diligent hands of volunteers, they had been trimmed and cut to edible standards. I was another cog in this menial, yet vital, process to turn leftovers into food that could possibly support an entire housing estate.

Standing next to me was Mr Tay. He was one of the mainstays in the team of tireless volunteers manning the operation – repeating instructions on how to slice the celery stems properly, turning around to delegate individuals to the delivery department, and going back to carry more baskets of celery to the giant blue walk-in freezer. That morning, he had pointed the letters mounted on the wall out to me. He told me how it all began.

“Soup is for cold countries where they also serve out potatoes and bread. It’s an American term. Tony – the short guy? You’ve seen him? – was the one who started this with a group of volunteers with his church. They started by giving out bread, then they moved on to canned food before it became this. We’ve moved locations 5 already.”

Five years ago, I had visited Willing Hearts’ old premises at Geylang (thankfully, there are pockets of the area that weren’t converted into a red-light district). It had definitely been smaller, without its own vegetable garden and the preparation area being consigned to an offshoot of the kitchen. But that hadn’t helped me learn how much the organisation had come, and how much it had to go.

“This kitchen is always busy. We are open 365 days a year, even Christmas and Chinese New Year. We don’t really have special meal plans for Chinese New Year, but sometimes we get donated food. Mostly wholesalers supply to us; the celery was from the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Market. The meats are mostly chicken and fish; mostly from frozen food. Some of them give us their leftovers at the end of the day, and others just want to throw them away because they know it can’t sell.”

Willing Hearts is one of the country’s more established charities, with no shortage of volunteers. And yet, looking at the meagre assembly that had arrived that stormy morning to cut and peel vegetables, I knew that this stream of volunteers was not so much a blessing as it was a necessity. It was an unfortunate reality that the best of intentions could not always guarantee the best of support or resources. The volunteers might have been eager, but not all of them were equally equipped to handle their tasks (there were two people that day who fainted after accidentally cutting their fingers), and the sorry quality of the meat and vegetables the kitchen had to make do with made it a daily race to process the ingredients in time so that Willing Hearts’ beneficiaries all over the country could get possibly the only hot meals they would have that day.

And yet, the variety of volunteers I had seen was surprising. Children as young as six were packing food alongside teen-aged schoolgirls and septuagenarians. There was even a group of old housewives who would come without fail every morning to help out while their husbands were out working. A whole spectrum of Singaporeans were willing to devote a little bit of their lives each day to contribute to this cause. And as long as there are people willing to help, this operation would be able to survive.

In that stormy morning, I felt I learned a little about hope.

Through the Lens of Ice Cream

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Whenever I stroll around the Botanic Gardens, my feet will always take me back to one particular location. They bring me around the neat wooden tables, thronging with expatriate families and their dogs, crowding the outside of the Da Paulo bistro next to the train station. They take me past glass-fronted wineries and décor shops, through a tire repair shop with waves of heat roaring off car exhaust pipes. And every single time, they stop at Island Creamery.

I never learned if the specific Island Creamery branch I visit was their flagship branch. But even though it has expanded into a chain that can be found in shopping centres around the island, the store tucked away at the corner of Serene Centre will always be the one that holds the most character—and memories—for me. The checquered tiles (ever so subtly faded), round marble tables and diner-style menu hanging from the ceiling have hardly changed in the six years I have visited this ice cream parlour. A jaunty striped parasol stands behind the coffee roaster and water dispenser, and porcelain cups and saucers etched with dark green floral designs sit on top of a red Simonelli grinder. Visitors come and go at odd hours, inspired by sudden a sweet tooth—or perhaps just by the simple circumstance of habit, like in my case.

The first thing any visitor does is press themselves up against the glass covers enshrining the rectangular tubs that hold the day’s flavours for sale. They range from the mundane (Burnt Caramel and Cookies & Cream) to the inventive (Black Sesame Oreo and Tiger Sorbet) to the unabashedly local (Teh Tarik and Ping Pong Milo, the latter of which is ice cream flavoured after the chocolate malt drink that is so popular in Singapore and studded with tiny marshmallows). My eyes will always scan the multi-coloured crevasses for Fresh Banana. It was the flavour I had tried on my first visit to the store as a shy thirteen-year-old in an over-sized school uniform that hung off my shoulders. I have been hooked onto it ever since. Over the years my taste in ice cream might have expanded – I might order a Red Bean, and lately the alluring rose aroma of their new Isfahan flavour has made that another staple of mine – but at the end of the day, I come back to Fresh Banana. And it was that flavour I chose as my accompaniment to a lazy Friday afternoon, with a glass of Coke thrown in for good measure.

Many types of Singaporeans, it seems, are drawn by the allure of the ice cream parlour. Two men in dress shirts and work pants sat down at a wooden side table and began conversing in low voices. A mother walked in with her young son, pressing him for his opinion as a clerk explained the different ice cream flavours. I looked down to sip from my Coke, and when I looked up again there was another mother with another young boy at her side. A gaggle of young women, all with hair dyed strawberry blonde and toting plastic takeaway cups of milk tea, strolled in. And then there are, of course, the groups of secondary school students who would fill the shop with peals of laughter. But the sight that struck me most was of the middle-aged woman sitting alone in the middle of the store, a waffle cone of strawberry sorbet in her hand. A grown adult indulging, for that moment, in what must have been a little scoop of innocence.

Perhaps it’s this shared experience of sweetness that draws so many groups of people to this one shop. And yet, paradoxically, it can also be a site of transience. The employees are never the same. And I hardly see the same group of visitors twice – though, I am sure, they return to the store at other times. The students are drawn from a range of schools all over the Bukit Timah area where Serene Centre is situated (and sometimes even further), and there are those who simply stray into the shop one day and leave as quietly as they came. But maybe it’s the ability of this place to bring people together, even momentarily, that makes Island Creamery have an influence beyond being an ice cream chain. A corkboard near the back of the store bears letters from grateful community beneficiaries – a junior college that had managed to fund a charity kayaking marathon, a message from the Singapore Armed Forces on how the chain had organised an appreciation event for their servicemen. All of these were proud badges of ice cream’s unexpected ability to not just delight, but even inspire.

I finish licking the watery ice-cream melt from the inside of my cup and leaned back into the plush blue sofa I had chosen near the window. Sitting in this store and watching the world go by had an oddly soothing effect – it made me feel, for even just a fleeting moment, that my world was at peace. And as I walked out the store, I knew it would be waiting another day, receiving visitors with open arms and a little scoop of childhood.

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The inside of the store at 1 p.m. on a Friday.

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A snippet of the ‘Our Community’ board at the back of the store.

Poetry at Booktique

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A small indie local bookstore in the heart of the Central Business District. Something of an ignominy that, at the same time, makes Booktique all the more valuable a discovery amid the glitzy retailers of City Link Mall. After traversing glaring storefronts for Levi’s and Cotton-On in Singapore’s largest subterranean shopping mall, my eyes caught a sudden splash of colour – the warm glow of the wooden counters and shelves that pulsed subtly past the harsh fluorescent of the rest of the mall. It felt like a quaint refuge shielded from the throbbing commercial bustle around it – after all, it was where writers, some of society’s most imaginative and often unintentionally isolated people, shop.

Already, a small crowd had gathered near the front of the store for a spoken word performance. The poet was Ng Yi Sheng – a queer poet, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, and one of the country’s more quixotic artists. There were well-heeled middle-aged women next to enraptured schoolgirls and young men in T-shirts and slacks: a rare segment of the more artistically-inclined, I presume, who only revealed their inclinations through their presence at this event. I drew nearer, and was approached by a slight man with large round glasses that gave him a mouse-ish appearance. “Are you here for the event?” he had asked timidly, and when I nodded he retreated into a hidden storeroom to retrieve an extra chair. He was Anthony, the owner of its store and its only employee, and seemed to blend into the backdrop as much as the books he was selling.

Yi Sheng’s poetry drew me in. When I arrived, he had begun on a poem about the sex scandals throughout modern Singaporean history – with all the words that had been blacked-out in its original publication now freely spoken to the public. A galumphing chorus, dovetailing into singsong, echoed sharply into the space. What followed was an eager wave of applause. After several swigs from a water bottle and riffling through manuscripts, he began to intone another poem – the slow, ominous lines from ‘外婆’ (‘Grandmother’ in Mandarin), detailing stories of his grandmother’s life until her passing, sinking to his knees as he recalled the ‘sons and daughters / growing in her belly’. The ominous became the hysterical as he started another poem on the national pledge while screaming with a pen in his mouth, and climaxed in the aptly-named ‘Loud Poem’ involving him hitting himself over the head with the aforementioned bottle. (“I usually use a smaller one,” he confessed to concerned viewers). As scandalous as some of these poems would have been to a general audience, I couldn’t help but have the feeling that they offered a peek into the psyche of a special subset of locals – one that is hardly ever expressed except behind closed doors.

He thanked the audience for coming. Everyone burst into a final, enthusiastic round of applause. The crowd broke up around the bookstore, and in his white shirt and jeans the rapturous poet now looked just like any other patron. My fingers flew over the cover of a newly-minted lifestyle magazine (‘GENDER: A CHANGING ROLE’), the burgundy cover of a poetry anthology by an Australian Sikh convert, and the shiny yellow paperback of the story of the Indian man of the untouchable caste who cycled across eight countries to meet his beloved in Switzerland.

They came to rest on a mural at the side of the counter, depicting Anthony as a penguin in his journey to set up the store. “He suffered from depression,” he told me quietly about the artist. “When he was depressed he would draw in lines, and the lines would come together to form a circle. So he drew the circle into a penguin to tell his story in a cute way. It’s not so much a motif; more like an inspiration.” He passed me a worn picture book: ‘The Black Box’, featuring the same penguin on its cover.

For all its cute illustrations, the story of this book was unnervingly, poignantly raw. Through thick, black lines and frank visuals, the artist made his struggle with depression unflinchingly clear. It was a story that is often difficult to relay to the public, let alone in a refreshingly direct way, but the artist had done it. The words from the second-last page echoed in my head: ‘I hope that more people will understand my story.’

“If you see this chart,” Anthony continued, pointing to the mural, “I’ve been working from 2007 to now. I’ve been working everyday since I started. Sometimes I get part-timers, but most of the time it’s just me. I’m closing the shop in six months. I’ll be closing for two years because I need a break, and then I’ll be opening a new shop somewhere else. Yeah, a break will definitely be good for me.”

The closure of this little nook will be something that is regretted. With its intimate setting and eclectic collection of books, the indie bookstore lends itself to a profusion of voices – the little-known writers, poets and dreamers among us. It was a rock pool for rare literary voices, and at the same time a vital ground for the discussion of social issues that would be too taboo for mainstream media. But with the competition arising from large-scale bookstore chains and the e-book market, shops like Anthony’s were inundated. He smiled and waved as I left. And I let my eyes travel back along the shelves, knowing that they would vanish before the end of the year.

Perhaps bookstore owners like him hope that more people understand their stories, too.

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Part of the mural depicting the owner, Anthony (as a penguin), in his journey to set up the bookstore since 2007.

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Salted Vegetable and Duck Soup

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Today is the seventh day of the Lunar New Year – particularly significant for being Ren Ri (人日), the Day of Humans. Traditionally marked as the day on which the Chinese folk goddess Nüwa created mankind, it will be observed locally through the tossing of special ‘seven-colour yusheng‘ (yusheng is a raw fish and vegetable salad consumed by Southeast Asian Chinese for the New Year) to usher in good luck for the incoming year. My mother will be cooking far less prosaic in her kitchen tonight: salted vegetable and duck soup.

Giam chye ark (咸菜鸭), as I’ve always known it by, is a quintessential New Year staple for the Teochew community. My mother belongs to the Hokkien dialect group. Though the Hokkiens originated from what is now Fujian Province while the Teochews hailed from Chaoshan in eastern Guangdong Province, the dialects they speak sound very similar. The subtle differences are audible in the way the cadences of my father’s voice shift as he goes between the two: the louder, harsher-sounding tones of the Hokkien he uses to speak to my mother changing to the flatter, nasal sounds of Teochew among his relatives. They can also be tasted in their food. My father always told me how the Teochews prided their cooking on elegant minimalism, with flavour being drawn from within the ingredients themselves. It can be found in the mildness of a bowl of Teochew-style rice porridge with fish, every grain still intact and submerged in a clear soup, or the gamey aroma of a plate of braised duck enhanced only with the mildest of chilli sauces.

This soup, however, is more elaborate than is typical of Teochew cuisine. Beyond the prerequisite whole duck and salted mustard greens a potpourri of sour plums, halved tomatoes, and white peppercorns is added to steep in the broth for hours, or even days. Variations on the recipe have made it more convoluted, with the inclusion of pig’s trotters, sea cucumbers and even brandy. And paradoxically, this is where I find myself appreciating the value of simplicity. With those five original ingredients alone, my mother can manage to produce an intense broth with a piquant pepperiness, balanced out with an alluring, smooth sourness. After marrying into my father’s family, my mother’s giam chye ark had become the crown jewel of the family reunion table.

“Last time Lao Gou’s giam chye ark used to be very popular,” she had told me, referring to my father’s grand-aunt who would welcome us every Chinese New Year with plates of steamed rabbitfish and a huge bowl of chicken curry. “After tasting it and seeing so many people eat it, I decided to make it myself. But lately I see the layer of oil floating on top of her soup; become too scared to eat. Now even Uncle Alvin doesn’t want to eat her soup. She got upset, like, disappointed and asked: ‘Why aren’t you all eating?’ Uncle Alvin and I looked at each other like, don’t know what to say. Actually I wanted to tell her, ‘My soup is not as watery and oily as yours,’ but of course I didn’t say it lah. She keeps her pots all stacked on top of one another, and she mops the floor by using her foot to move the towel around. I guess when you get old, you get less generous with ingredients. It’s like that, lah. Aunt Tracy said that giam chye ark is not healthy, so Aunt Jo stopped making it. She used to make giam chye ark too. The first time I made it, she asked me if I used half a duck. I told her I used one whole duck. This time I used two ducks. Duck is very expensive, one is about $30. The soup will be about $70, and with the huo (fire) and gas and my workmanship it will add up to about $100 already.”

Having come from an era where the worth of a housewife was found to be tasted in her cooking, my mother had developed a series of intricate rules around the kitchen. For one, we were not allowed to talk about food in the pots or the oven while it was still in the process of being made. This was especially so for baked goods, which my mother believed would not rise properly if any remark were to be directed at their person. This was just one offshoot of a series of little traditional superstitions that would come to the forefront and govern our celebrations. Cool and dark colours were not to be worn when visiting relatives because those were ‘the colours of mourning’. Books were not to be brought into the houses of aunts with a penchant for gambling because the word for ‘book’ is a homophone with the word for ‘lose’ in Chinese. Gravestones of dead relatives should not be pointed at or spoken out loud unless you were a ‘safe distance’ away from the cemetery.

Up until recently, all I felt for these superstitions was resentment. All I thought about them was that they were inane and unnecessary, with their only purpose being to impose just more restrictions on us poor kids. Lately, however, I’ve begun to think of the role they could have in the celebration of the New Year in the first place. With every festival, there comes the expectation that its celebrants have of its commemoration: a wish for good luck, intra-family cohesion, and a smooth-sailing time. And perhaps like the giam chye ark that is only prepared at this specific time of year, these superstitions have a subconscious role in the celebrations. Perhaps they are just another gear in the carefully-calibrated cogs of practices and beliefs that work to enhance the meaning of this special time for its observers. And besides that, I’ve come to appreciate them as interesting cultural signifiers: some of them might be inane, but many are also unique to this part of the world.

And I have to admit, they did make the New Year feel just that little bit more important. In the same way that waking up to the intense flavour of a pot of salted vegetable and duck soup reminds me that the New Year is upon us once more.

 

 

Two Generations of Perfection

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A jar of kok zai.

Every Chinese New Year, my mother will transform the house into a pastry factory. Plastic boxes of deep orange pineapple paste would line the shelves of the fridge, stacked high in preparation to be turned into thousands of pineapple tarts. For afternoons on end, she would sit in the living room over trays of shortcrust dough, meticulously wrapping them over the pineapple paste into little balls to be coated with brushstrokes of egg yolk. One of the things that excites me about Chinese New Year is the array of special foods that only appear at this time of year, and my mother is one of the few that still keep alive the practice of making their own New Year treats from scratch.

Now, it’s easy to find racks of kueh bangkit (crumbly flower-shaped coconut biscuits), kueh bahulu (oblong fluffy golden-brown cakes) and tiny sugee cakes in any local supermarket leading up to the occassion. However, there was a time when these special goodies were mostly produced by individuals and given out to loved ones. My father recounts a time when his family used to make their own ‘love letters’ – thin egg rolls curled into slender tubes – as a family operation, with brothers and cousins involved in specific steps of the process. “When I got old enough, I was upgraded from mould-pressing to rolling,” he’d once proudly told us, referring to the different stages of production when the batter is poured into a hot iron mould to solidify before being rolled into its characteristic shape. The direct precursor to my mother’s own baking tradition, though, would have to be the far more painstaking process my grandmother used to go through to make kok zai every year.

“Ah Ma used to make them to give to people,” she had explained. A New Year snack that is a signature of the Cantonese community, kok zai are puff pastries that vaguely resemble curry puffs but are filled with candied peanuts instead. I have never tried them due to my allergies, but I found them tempting regardless. “Last time me, Aunt Anne, Aunt Eileen and Ah Ma used to make it together. Ah Ma would scold all of us for not folding it properly, because then the dough will come apart when you fry it. The peanuts will float to the surface, and you know when you burn sugar it becomes black, so the kok zai will also end up having black spots.”

“Aunt Anne used to be in charge of rolling the dough. She used to roll it until her arms ache like crazy. At the time we had no roller, so you know what we use? Glass bottle. We didn’t have a food processor back then so we just use all these things lying around the house. We would roll and roll and roll. Then we had to cut the dough out; didn’t have cookie cutters so we used glass cups to make circular shapes. Then we would peel the groundnut and blow the shell off while Ah Ma mixed the dough. No mixer, so she used her hands as the mixer. She’ll add flour, eggs, something-else-I-don’t-know, and mix the dough like she was washing clothes. It’s very thick so she had to pull very hard. Then after that, Ah Ma would fry everything. It’s very tasty, because the peanuts have a nice smell when you fry them, plus the sugar makes it so fragrant.”

Thankfully, the advent of kitchen technology has made the process of baking New Year treats a lot less arduous. Nevertheless, my mother still insists on making her own pineapple paste, and she would sit on the kitchen floor with a massive cleaver to skin fresh pineapples. Occassionally they would result in nasty cuts, but more often in hours of hard work and waves of exhaustion. She would rarely allow me to help her with rolling the dough for the tarts, because every tart has to be exactly the same size and shape. Having vastly expanded her baking repertoire to include cakes, jellies, macarons and even fondant art, her efforts have only multiplied as she applies the same rigour to various other kinds of food. This year, she has made four massive carp out of coconut jelly. Each one of them is coloured with different shades of orange to make it look three-dimensional and strips of coconut flesh set in patterns within its body.

The types of snacks my family bakes have changed with time. My grandmother stopped making her own kok zai after my grandfather’s death four decades ago, and there might be a time when my mother will stop making her own tarts too. But what has, and will continue to remain, a time-honoured tradition will be that of perfection. My mother applies the same merciless precision to the shape of her tarts as my grandmother did to the folds of each of her puff pastries. And it is a mercilessness born for the love of the craft, of tradition, and of the friends and family whose stomachs these treats would go on to warm.

I doubt I will ever be able to bake half as well as my mother or grandmother. My fingers are far too clumsy for the dextrous cuts my mother makes in each lump of pastry that she will turn into lively hedeghog-shaped tarts. Neither are they nimble enough to make the miniscule, neat, regular folds that characterise my grandmother’s kok zai. Yet it is my aim to preserve these practices however I can. Whatever my expression of ‘perfection’ will be, I hope that one day I will be carry on the spirit in which these pastries will painfully and lovingly made.

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After the Rain

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The series of torrential downpours the island has been receiving has, unexpectedly, brought a burst of colour to my doorstep. I was alerted to this beautiful male brown-throated sunbird by a brilliant flash of iridescence from behind a window. He flitted away from a ginger blossom to land on the branches of a frangipani tree. As he leaned back to preen his tail feathers the light caught his brilliant head plumage – deep azure turquoise ending in a flourish of deep purple, contrasting perfectly his bright yellow belly and the leafy green of his surroundings. This was the first time I had been able to see the colour of its plumage in full view – perhaps the bird was my proverbial rainbow at the end of the storm.

For most of the past few days, the birds had ceased their cries as they were forced to take cover from the persistent rain. I would see a sodden myna crouch despondently under a shrub and staring out at the showers pounding upon the grass, or the silhouettes of sparrows winging desperately towards shelter. Without any access to brollies or raincoats, the birds are forced to cease their daily foraging and wait for the rain to stop, wasting what for many must be precious daylight hours. When left with little choice, some birds that normally keep a wide berth from humans will take cover near their settlements. I saw a pair of oriental magpie-robins sitting rather listlessly on a length of rope that happened to be dangling under the eaves of the roof. One of them was twittering repeatedly, as if anxiously wishing for the rain to let up.

Examining their plumage, I saw that they were of opposite genders – a couple, perhaps? I’m not sure if these birds are monogamous, but the way they idled in such close proximity to each other made me entertain the notions of their having travelled together, although magpie-robins only begin the courtship season in March. But what struck me was the chance I got to observe them in a closer way than I had ever done. There’s something odd about seeing animals that are normally so mobile and active sit still, engaged in no other act but the odd preening of their feathers. And yet it afforded me a rare chance to gain more than what are usually elusive glances of these pretty creatures.

The rain, despite having temporarily put a stop to the birds’ activities, was not without its perks. It’s well-known that earthworms and snails will emerge after wet weather, providing easy pickings for many a hungry beak. And the birds’ songs themselves are also signs of the end of another burst of inclement weather, as they are free to roam the skies again. Like the birds, perhaps we can let ourselves be assured of the better times that will lie at the end of any proverbial storm. And after the rain, another lesson that Nature can teach us is of how to seize the day – for oppurtunities, like worms for hungry birds, can pop up where you would least expect them.

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A female magpie-robin waiting amid some branches.

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Close-up of a male magpie-robin

Beats at The Beast

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Night seems to be the time when some people, like certain species of nocturnal wildlife, wake up and crawl out from within their shells. I found myself pounding down North Bridge Road as the late afternoon sunk into the pallid violet of evening. Rows of halal eateries gave way to kitschy cafés and galleries in narrow sidestreets, and then spread out to reveal a white square building surrounded by long wooden tables peopled with lively well-heeled millenials chatting over hand-made burgers and fries. I sat in the restaurant and watched as the fall of darkness intensified the amber glow of the woodwork and drew a new sort of crowd past its doors.

The Beast, sitting right across from the arty Aliwal Street, is one of the many establishments that had indirectly been fed by Singapore’s growing upper crust. It was made to resemble an all-American saloon with walls imitating wooden panelling, a bourbon bar stretching half the length of the restaurant, and wait staff in identical red flannel shirts. Before evening fell, the only other customers besides myself were an American family of three playing Uno over plates of fried chicken and a pair of British men talking in low voices. And at the end of the restaurant was a small stage with a microphone and a tiny speaker. I ordered a mac-and-cheese, sat down, and waited for night to fall.

A large man with a shaggy beard quietly stepped onto the stage. He slung his guitar across his shoulder and began to strum a few slow bars. “My name is Shaq,” he announced with a laconic drawl. “If any of you wanna play you can use my guitar. After I’m done usin’ it, of course. I’ll just keep playing songs until then, yeah.” His presence grew behind the mic. A strident voice echoed off the woodwork, playing soulful acoustic covers of pop songs ranging from Corrine Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl Put Your Records On’ to Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. Everyone craned forward to listen and sway in time to the music. Shaq was quick to shrug off the waves of staccato applause that came with each song. “Please lah, I’m just playing music.” It was, as the regulars would later mention, ‘a quiet night’, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Immersed in his music, he continued playing to a tiny crowd, steeping the room in the poignant melancholy of his music.

As he played, more characters seemed to step into the restaurant, as if they had materialised from the thick of the night outside. A tall slender woman with a curly bob flounced in, followed by a man in a pastel blue dress shirt. While one of them sang along and whooped at Shaq’s playing, the other had a pen in hand and was busily sketching the musician’s face onto a brown napkin. “Oh are you alone?” she asked, sweeping me over to the high stools where they sat. They introduced themselves as Jocelyn and James – one, the organiser of the weekly open mics, and the other a friend who happened to be tagging along. “We do all sorts of crazy things!”  James exclaimed. “Jocelyn writes poetry and she will sing randomly on the street. She’s also a nurse. I like to sign up for different courses, like white-water rafting.” Looking at how free-spirited both seemed to be, the thought of their having mundane day jobs seemed almost incredulous. I felt like I was being ushered into another world: one darker, and more mysterious, than the one we roamed in during the day.

We stepped outside for Jocelyn to have a smoke. A solitary star twinkled above the roar of traffic along Victoria Street and the strobing city lights. “Jocelyn, that’s Venus, isn’t it,” James remarked, before introducing me to the other hidden constellations in the sky: Pisces and Altair were lurking, unseen. The same could be said of the deeper, more reflective sides of these bar-goers I met that night. Below is some of the conversation I had with James:

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Jocelyn and James

“I draw on napkins because I don’t bring my sketchbook with me everywhere. In my work there aren’t many opportunities to sit down and sketch. My job may sound interesting, but the pay is low. But it’s still enough to cover my bills, until I switch to my next job. On Fridays I like to go art jamming just across the street. You just go there to paint, and the proceeds go to some needy people. I forgot to get my brother a housewarming gift, so I painted him something. Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. Another, I would say, is Rene Magritte. He’s a French Surrealist artist. I don’t really follow certain artists, but look at the brushstrokes and the way they use colour. Drawing is just a hobby for me. You have to know when to keep your hobby separate from your job, otherwise it will consume you.”

“Jocelyn and I have been friends for eight years. We were in a musical together. I was her co-actor. I think it’s important to try out new things. Of course that doesn’t mean doing something like this,” and here he pointed to Jocelyn who had a plume of cigarette smoke wafting from her lips. “I get a different sort of high from rock-climbing. I’ve done six of the thirty-six things I have on my list. When I was younger I was afraid of trying new things, until one of my university lecturers used to reminds us, ‘Don’t try, don’t know. Don’t try, don’t know.’ During my university days I went on a trip to Hanoi. Then I went to Macau, and began skydiving in 2015. Jocelyn, you know I have a health condition that impedes my flexibility and physical movements. But I don’t let it stop me.”

“During N.S. I received many rejections by universities. Australian Royal University, they accepted me. Jocelyn was the valedictorian! I still remember her graduation speech: ‘The world is your oyster’. My advice I can give to you for life is: say as many ‘I love you’s as you want, hug as many people as you want, say as many ‘Thank you’s as you want. Just remember that if things don’t work out, always remember to let go.”

Sometimes, it appears that the privilege of unwinding that the night affords individuals can bring out the musicians and artists that lie dormant in them, yearning to be expressed. I looked at James’ napkin drawings and the little notebook – ‘an existentialist’s guide to the universe’ – that Jocelyn had left on the table in front of her. During the clamour of their day jobs, these would be dismissed as nothing more than curiosities. Now, however, they sat as intriguing symbols of the inner lives of their owners. But as I walked away from the restaurant into the flooding light of the streetlamps, I could feel the memories of the night slip away – for I seemed to be slipping between worlds.

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Shaq with his guitar. “This is my only regular venue. I’ve been doing this for three years, since I was in army.”

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A Chinatown Market By Day

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Despite their transient nature, festive bazaars of any sort can always be distinguished every year by their unconscious regularity. There are the same stands of pussy willows, dyed in all sorts of colours, sitting behind pots of spiral-shaped bamboo coils and cut peach and plum tree branches. There is the same roasted-chestnut vendor standing before his glass-panelled roaster, sending the faint aroma of coffee wafting through the crowd. There are the same intricate red paper cuttings of auspicious Chinese characters, the same fabric plushies of zodiac animals, the same snaking queues for sweetmeats (better known by its Hokkien name bak kwa).

And then there are the details that you notice only after having regularly set foot along the same streets at the same time of year. Along Sago Street this afternoon, I witnessed the vendors kick into high gear at an unexpected visit. “The health department is here,” one old woman hollered, as men bustled out from behind their storefronts to take down the rope that they had used to extend the roof shelters over their stalls. I saw a woman peek out from under a massive blue tarp that had been pulled down from the eaves, iPhone pressed to ear as she kept watch down the street. I’d also begun noticing the gaggles of teenage students on school excursions traipsing behind teachers and tour guides. “I’m going to scare him to death,” one boy chuckled mischievously in Mandarin as he waved a wooden snake in a plastic bag. And then there were the tour groups: American, Taiwanese, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, standing out with their orderly clustering compared to the stream of local pedestrians who thread down the busy lanes with a single-minded focus.

It never gets old to me. Chinese New Year has always been one of the most special times of the year to me. Even as a young adult, I always find a certain childish glee in surveying rows of deep brown niangao at the Tai Chong Kok bakery, or going to the same Indonesian bamboo cake vendor year after year to enjoy the fluffy white rice flour tubes stuffed with warm palm sugar and buried in sweet coconut flakes and orange sugar. Like what Christmas does to many in other corners of the world, the colours and music and lively bustle that Chinese New Year brings to Singapore always excites me. And the riotous energy (and, sometimes, idiosyncrasies) of the Chinatown bazaars never fails to remind me of that.

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One of the many stalls selling Taiwanese fruit jellies. I’ve noticed that many of them seem to be manned by vigorous-looking young men.

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The fire truck that had earlier caused a commotion among the vendors.

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A selection of dried fruit slices, often given out as candy at festive tables.

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A stall selling ‘bird’s nest water’, an iced drink made with fragments of the nest of edible-nest swiftlets. Bird’s nest is widely consumed as a tonic among the Chinese community.

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The stall from which we get our favourite Indonesian bamboo cakes.

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Rows of niangao at Tai Chong Kok’s Chinatown premises. As the words for ‘sticky’ (referring to the cake’s texture, being made of glutinous rice) and ‘year’ are homophones in Chinese, these cakes are eaten during the New Year to represent a wish for a fortunate year ahead.

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Serving.

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“It’ll be good for you to come along. Then you’ll see the reason why we do all this nonsense.”

A woman in her thirties standing next to me frowned. “No lah, this can’t be called nonsense.”

The man smirked. “Tony always calls this ‘nonsense’, so I just call it ‘nonsense’ too.”

The man who spoke was Mr Tay. He was a tall bespectacled man in his fifties, with a head of frizzy black hair and a general demeanour of whimsical belligerence. In front of us were a pair of white vans and one red Audi, their boots open and waiting. Stacks of styrofoam boxes lounged in big plastic bags on the floor, each labelled hastily in black marker with the names of various housing estates. From packing food the previous day, I had been placed on delivery duty. “Most of the volunteers today are children,” someone else had explained, and by virtue of being the next oldest (but not by a long stretch), I was their next candidate.

What he had called ‘nonsense’ was, in fact, the under-estimated task of making sure that the food the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen produced went to its recipients – each box contained a combination of rice, stir-fried vegetables and meat that had been cooked the previous day. Two other volunteers and I were assigned to distribute food to four destinations around Singapore: Jalan Kukoh, Chin Swee Road, York Hill and Banda Street. Some of the deliveries were needed urgently: after all, this would be the only way many of the recipients could obtain a meal at all. Armed with a lengthy set of verbal instructions from the seasoned volunteers, Google Maps and sheets of addresses, we set off in the Audi. The car was driven by the woman in her thirties. Her name was Hui Yi, and I noticed from the miniature statue suspended from her front-view mirror that she was a Buddhist. It was heartening that she had no qualms about volunteering with a Christian organisation – though the act of service itself could be said to transcend religious boundaries and unite us all in our human desire to do good.

Jalan Kukoh and Chin Swee were two of Singapore’s oldest housing estates. Unlike other more populated estates with their fresh coats of bright paint and publicised community gatherings, these estates looked largely like they had ten years ago. We toted bags of food boxes past speckled stone columns and grey tiled floors. A pair of old men, faces ruddy and bronzed, leaned back onto stone benches under a pavilion and smiled at us when they realised what we were here to do. When we left the first batch of boxes for the estates’ elderly at a distribution point, I saw them edge forward expectantly. Further ahead, a younger man lurked in an alleyway, shirtless, reeking of cigarette smoke.

After returning to the car for the next batch of boxes, we proceeded to the door-to-door deliveries. The elevators smelled musty, and we shuffled for space behind octogenarians in wheelchairs and a skimpily-dressed woman with her young child. I got out first, and stepped into a dark corridor.

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Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the landings were still shrouded in darkness. Dated Chinese New Year decorations, greyed at the edges, clung to the walls. A faded cross would appear on one worn pastel-yellow door, facing the remnants of burned-out incense sticks from tiny Taoist altars on the ground. Dried cat faeces sat at the foot of a flight of stairs and filled the air with a sharp odour. Sofas and chairs sat abandoned under spirals of dust motes caught in the sunlight filtering from windows in the side of each floor.

Many of those who answered the door were old men. Cursory peeks behind them into the front room of their apartment units showed bare beige floors, with often only a small shelf or an electric fan placed against the wall. Some would smile and thank us in low raspy voices, but many received their packages wordlessly. It was an all-too regular occurrence for them; one that they, unhappily, had no choice but to depend on. Sometimes it would be answered by a relative of the beneficiary. One was answered by a middle-aged woman, who smiled at me bracingly before turning to her mother, lying immobile on a mattress next to the door. Many of them had lost their jobs or were mired in debt, falling through the cracks.

One of them struck me more than the others. Another old man walked up to our car at our third destination. He moaned, gestured to his mouth, and shook his hands: no food. He fumbled in his wallet for his registration card, waving it before us imploringly. We pointed to the address sheets, asking him to identify his so that we could bring it to him. Again, he pointed to his card and grunted in some frustration. The employees of a nearby lumber shop watched with a benevolent exasperation, and told us about his situation. He was both deaf and mute, and lived alone.

In a bustling metropolis like Singapore, it can be easy to forget that there are very much still people who need our help. The poor, the destitute, the homeless. Even when we do interact with them – often in somewhat contrived settings, to satisfy ‘service hours’ or fulfil some corporate social responsibility component – it can be easy to ignore the humanity we share instead of viewing them as objects of our benefaction. But at the same time, it can be hard not to pain for those you have felt the suffering of.

We finished our shift beleaguered, but satisfied. On the drive back, we were no longer on a mission. Our shift was done, and the three of us now had other things to deal with and worry about.

If only the people we were serving had the luxury to do the same.

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