Plaintive chirping has filled the air outside my bedroom window the past three days – unmistakable signs of a season of new beginnings and adventure, for a pair of yellow-vented bulbul fledglings are making their first forays out of the nest.
I have a junior college classmate who has invited her whole class down to her house to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month three years in a row. And every year I am amazed at the number of visitors that her family has thrown the doors wide open to – extended family from all walks of life, and ex-classmates and future schoolmates among others.
I’d written before on the captivating energy of the lion dance – as an outsider looking in, the clamour of the gongs and cymbals and the colour and vigour of the dancers seem like a hallmark of cultural artistry to some, and a fantastic spectacle to most. It was only after I had gotten a chance to join the lion dancers at the Kong Chow Wui Koon (岡州会馆) along New Bridge Road that I gained a tiny glimpse into the world that really exists behind these performances. Continue reading
Every so often, the Ghim Moh Food and Wholesale Market would be more hectic than what would usually be expected on a weekend. 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
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.
“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.
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.
“This kitchen is open 365 days a year. Chinese New Year, Vesak Day, Christmas. We don’t stop.”
There was no other introduction needed for the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen. Behind its pastel yellow facade and small strips of grassy lawn dotted with colourful garden gnomes was a storm of heat and movement. A tall man in an apron shoveled away at a wok the width of a bathtub, stirring at a morass of bell peppers, long beans and tomatoes. Volunteers moved from one end of the metallic grey kitchen to the other, supporting large trays of fried mackerel and vegetable stir-fries. And at every table were more volunteers in hair nets and plastic gloves. Scooping rice into styrofoam trays, ladling on vegetables, and topping on fried fish before each box was squeezed with tens of others in tightly-tied red plastic bags. “Another 1000!” came the occassional cry. It was not at all a startling number in these kitchens. The daily order for lunch and dinner each was 5000 boxes of packed food. No one stopped unless the ingredients in front of them had run out. Just as soon as the remnants of food in the previous trays had been scraped out with ladles and new trays were brought piping hot onto the tables, work began again.
Willing Hearts is just one of the many organisations throughout the island dedicated to alleviate the suffering of the city’s poor and hungry. And yet there was never a moment where help was not needed somewhere in the kitchens. Besides the assembly area, the soup kitchen sported an open-air food preparation area, a small herb garden and even carried out daily deliveries of food to communities all across Singapore. There were even less people on the weekdays – retirees, people between jobs, the odd school excursion group. I plunged in.
It can be easy to forget the real significance of what you were doing there when you settle into the rhythmn of work. There are some who volunteer there because the work is relatively straightforward, even enjoyable (as many of the housewives at the preparation area would attest). To an extent, volunteering at a soup kitchen is seen as a standard way to ‘fulfil service hours’ by many school clubs and corporate groups. But the grittiness of standing in an assembly line, shovelling cabbage and lotus root slices onto a bed of rice for three and a half hours on my feet non-stop, touched me. This was how much work went into providing for the less fortunate around us.
A middle-aged woman suddenly stopped two of us from adding some blanched bok choy into the boxes. “I think you cannot use this, it’s not properly cooked,” she explained. “Not good for the old people. I once followed them on distribution; we went to the flats at Clementi to deliver food to families. There were so many people, I think almost 300!” As the vegetables were being replaced, the volunteers in the line stood around, restlessly waiting. “We slowed down,” exclaimed one. No one thought solely of the 1000 boxes we had to prepare at each go. Everyone was thinking of the people this food would be going to – and how they would have to wait if we didn’t fill the boxes in time.
And yet, over the long hours and risk of exhaustion, there were still moments for a little light-heartedness. “Oh, I hate this song,” a lady in glasses exclaimed, rolling her eyes as ‘If I Die Young’ came over the radio. “I’m like those grandmothers who wants everyone to eat more,” explained another with serious meticulousness as she spooned an extra helping of long beans onto the boxes laid out in front of her. The older volunteers smiled and laughed, finding time to clap each other on the back or swap a friendly ribbing as they bustled between the kitchens and the driveway. Not long into the shift, everybody was already talking to everybody else. Though the exact reasons each volunteer had for coming here was different, all of us wanted to be able to help out in any way we could.
Noon struck. “You ladies can start clearing up this table,” a small wiry man called out. Four hours and countless boxes of rice later, we had finally finished the lunch order. Relief rippled through the assembly line. It was only then that I noticed how sore my limbs felt. We had all been swept up in a collective atmosphere of hard work – a labour of love for everyone whose stomachs we might be able to help to fill.
I dragged my weary bones to the dining area. Small metal dishes and utensils had been prepared for the volunteers to enjoy a free lunch using the leftover food from whatever had been prepared that day. Others sat around me: giving thanks, eating in quiet meditation, or talking in low voices over coffee. I smiled and nodded at them – it was a camaraderie borne of service. The food was itself nothing fanciful or extraordinary. And yet I found myself craving it. And I felt the heart and soul that had gone into every grain of rice.
As long as there has been a contemporary art scene, artists have attempted to use their craft to make sense of their belonging to a community. The City Book is another of those attempts to take a fresh spin on the decades-long issue of Singaporeans negotiating their identity to the city-state. Published by the local art design studio Production Q, it compiled the works of six artists using their respective media to relate the stories and ways they view this urban island. I went with a friend, who shall be referred to as V, to their opening reception at Robertson Quay, hoping to find out more about how others have also tried to explore what their city means to them.
We edged past throngs of well-heeled socialites in business suits and cocktail dresses to find a browsing copy of the book. We were almost embarrassingly out of place: a pair of teenagers attending what appeared to be a swanky reception in an avant-garde retail-art-food market, complete with waiters bearing trays of champagne and truffle mushroom toast. V and I sat on a pair of beige rattan high stools, thumbing through the pages while looking out over the Singapore River gleaming under the night lights. A symbol of the island’s lifeblood, juxtaposed against an artistic dedication to the lives that have gone on around it, mostly oblivious to its presence.
One thing that stood out to me from the art I found in the book was an undercurrent of absence. A selection of what was covered: overlooked urban spaces, the disconnectedness of people in proximity to each other, the reclaiming of the urban by natural forces. I was particularly struck by Zhao Renhui’s photographs highlighting the artifice of nature in urban Singapore, as well as Charles Lim’s pondering Singaporeans’ lack of connection to the sea despite being surrounded by the ocean. I, too, felt discomfited by how many locals seemed to concentrate their yearning for the past on the recently bygone, oblivious to the natural and cultural losses that also go on around us. It seemed like the way these artists had chosen to frame their personal journeys was through looking back, through loss. It was something I found myself unconsciously relating to.
“It isn’t anything new,” V remarked. We had gone a quarter of the way into the book. “It’s just a different way of expressing what we already feel.” Several of the artists had stated they weren’t doing what they did for sentiment or nostalgia – a disclaimer, of sorts. And yet, in spite of the book’s main purpose as an expression of their views on the city, what they pointed out couldn’t help but sting a little. It stung because of what it, like its literary predecessors, had subtly highlighted: a chronic dissatisfaction of the present generation with the state of our city. Perhaps it is this dissatisfaction that also spurs me, to an extent; maybe it’s also what drives me to look towards and glorify the past.
I looked behind through the window-panes at the people inside. How many of them understood the book and its artworks beyond its abstract aesthetic value? How many of them would seriously think about the themes it raised? How many of them would be able to contribute to a greater conversation that this book points towards, one where we as a nation can decide how we can truly belong?
V and I continued talking as we walked to the bus stop. We discussed Dawn Ng’s psychedelic compositions of typically mundane objects that could be found in households and provision stores. “I guess we’re privileged in that we’re able to distinguish the quotidian from an artistic standpoint,” he went on, “but I wonder if the people who actually use it would recognise it as the quotidian.”
And even if we recognise it as such – what then?
The search for, and celebration of, the quotidian is arguably another big driving force behind what I write about. It can easily be seen as a sort of quizzical, inane idealism. But I guess it is precisely the fact that I feel the everyday needs to be celebrated that points to a deeper, unspoken absence that many Singaporeans would feel – hence a common national attraction to nostalgia.
And yet, I hope that one day I’ll be able to find artists who don’t just mention the keen loss of the past, but also pride over the future. A piece of art that shows how we can celebrate our country holistically without mourning what we wanted to keep.
And I will be working towards that, too.
While most of Singapore has been swept up in a holiday frenzy over Chinese New Year’s impending arrival, a different sort of frenzy has been bubbling in a small corner of Singapore. Another harvest festival, Pongal, was also approaching, anticipated by the majority of the island’s Tamil community. The Pongal lights had come up over Serangoon Road, looking over Little India’s main thoroughfare, and side-streets closed in preparation for the festivities. In the lull of a Sunday mid-afternoon, though, the lights were not yet lit, giving the streets over to throngs of tourists and visitors.
Along Hastings Road, a small enclosure had been set up to house the livestock who would be vindicated on the third day of Pongal, Maatu Pongal. On that day cattle, considered sacred animals in Hinduism, would be treated to a mixture of milk and fruits, but for now they would be shown off to crowds of curious onlookers. Dairy cattle and long-haired dwarf goats were tethered behind a metal fence mulling over buckets of hay at their audience, their horns painted in different colours as a preliminary symbol of their upcoming veneration. Among the onlookers there was a fascination tinged with reverence for the cow’s life-giving properties, and I wonder how the cattle must have felt about the sweet treats and special attention they would be receiving in just days to come.
I backed out of the street and moved further along to Campbell Lane. What interested me at that point were not the decorations put up for the festivities, however, but the signs of the bustle of daily life I spotted around me. Signboards for goldsmiths leapt out at me from among the rows of shops I walked past, emblazoned in flowing Tamil script or even in gilded Chinese characters from the different chains that had set up shop in this area. A shopping arcade peeked out from a zebra crossing, revealing a pair of men behind a glass counter filled with sandy-white halwa and golden-orange jaangiri. A vegetable stall sat just blocks away from a SIM card shop, giving way to fridges filled with soft drinks and racks of magazines printed in Tamil and Hindi.
And then I noticed the streets were teeming with foreign construction workers. Many construction workers hail from southern India or Bangladesh, eking out a living doing back-breaking manual work under spartan living conditions in return for meager pay. Many of them go un-noticed, sometimes even vilified, by locals. Today was the only day in the week they had off work, and they looked significantly more relaxed in their plaid button-downs and T-shirts. A pair of men walked out of Tekka Centre, each toting a plastic takeaway cup of kalamansi juice and bantering with a relieved vigour. Lines of them snaked out from the back of the hawker centre, waiting for their turn to send money home to their families from the ATM. Men sprawled over the grass, sat together on ledges and talked quietly over cigarettes. I even saw them roaming around a playground. One man had a go at playing with the fitness equipment while his companions looked on, a shy smile crossing his face.
I began to feel distinctly out of place and yet, I was touched. It can be hard to identify with the people we perceive as below us as multi-faceted people, to think of them as having interests and aspirations of them. I felt like I had seen a more human side to these construction workers that day, one that cut through and defied the warnings I had heard from misguided stereotypes of their propensity for violence. I walked away that afternoon feeling like there was a group of people that appeared almost inaccessible to me, and whom I longed to be able to understand.