Archive | February 2017

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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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.