The sight of a lion dancers’ van parked outside the outdoor car-park at the Ghim Moh Wholesale Market and Food Centre stopped me dead in my tracks. Continue reading
The sight of a lion dancers’ van parked outside the outdoor car-park at the Ghim Moh Wholesale Market and Food Centre stopped me dead in my tracks. Continue reading
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
“You see the sign on the wall? It says ‘Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen’. And we serve everything here except soup.” Continue reading
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.
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.