Two weeks with “Tony”

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice at Mawell Center Hawker Food Center, Singapore.

Ok, fine. I lie. I had only an hour and a half with “Tony”. Enough to be charmed.

I say two weeks because I received the WhatsApp invite from a Singaporean producer two weeks before. We want to chat with you before we decide if you’re qualified to appear on screen across from Mr X who’s flying in from the US.

Who the heck is this? Somebody so famous that he must remain anonymous while he sends an advance troop, scouts to survey the terrain? Yet also somebody who wants to come to Singapore to meet not its property developers, not its politicians, not its hawkers…but its writers?

That overlap between fame and grit. Must be a very small demographic. VICE came to mind. Ok, I said, trying to hide my excitement.

Having apparently passed the telephone interview, the Singaporean producer tells me that Anthony Bourdain is filming his third season of Parts Unknown and the first episode will be about Singapore. I had watched the show a couple of times and really liked it. Food, so long the centrepiece of his work, had become an accomplice to culture, identity, roots. I also loved the cinematography—the dark, hypnotic, Blade-Runnerish palette for bits of Shanghai hinting at dystopia.

Don’t tell anybody about this, the producer says, all very hush hush.

Seriously? That’s a bit exaggerated, I thought.

But she was right. The name Bourdain really does stir the soul like no other. I mention it to a couple of close friends, demanding their secrecy. Soon a friend who owns a restaurant starts lobbying for inclusion. Others offer their congratulations, as if this opportunity alone vindicates my writing career path.

“But why did they ask you?” cracked the more sardonic—and maybe contemplative—of my friends. Well, like so much else in life, I think it’s just luck and networks. Friends of friends. The Singaporean producer asked Tanya Angerer, a good mutual friend, for references. (Tanya and Melanie Chan, another mutual friend, appeared alongside me on the show.)

The two New York producers, Bourdain’s long-time collaborators, had now started communicating with me directly over e-mail. Can you suggest an economist? Easy, Donald Low. Of course, I declared to them my overwhelming bias: Donald’s a good friend with whom I co-authored my second book. Donald, so overburdened by interview requests that he often dithers, this time responded instantly.

And that is half the interviewee selection story of Parts Unknown: Singapore. One of their prerequisites, I later realised, was ethnic comprehensiveness. Chinese (Donald), Malay (comedian Najip Ali), Indian (me), Others (Eurasian chef Damien D’Silva), adhering to Singapore’s well-known CMIO model that guides ethnic policies.

***

“So where would you like to take Tony?” By that point I had started mimicking them, and everybody else in his immediate orbit, in just saying “Tony”. The names “Bourdain” and the fuller “Anthony Bourdain”, hitherto so ingrained in my food-writer-adoring mind, quickly slipped from my vernacular. Friends still make fun of me. “Oh, you call him Tony, izzit?” Well that’s how he introduced himself! It seemed natural, understood, not some false humility or pretentious attempt to connect with the salivating masses of self-proclaimed foodies.

I suggested a 7am breakfast of my favourite Singaporean dish, bak chor mee, mushroom minced meat noodles, at Ah Hoe Mee Pok. It ticks so many boxes. Bak chor mee, or BCM—yes, we love our acronyms—is a dish whose quality has suffered immensely from economic and globalising forces. Ah Hoe is one of the few good ones left, with the most lovely, chewy egg noodles cooked al dente—think fresh pasta tossed in vinegar and chilli—paired with a deep, rich pork broth, in which float homemade fish dumplings, pork morsels, and bits of cabbage.

ah hoe mee pok

Ah Hoe is in many ways my model hawker. First, right pricing. The five dollars per bowl he charges is above market rate—three dollars is quite common—but it obviously allows him to use quality ingredients, including the odd scallop, which he places ostentatiously on the noodle cushion, an unnecessary flourish to an already special BCM. Yet five dollars is still within reach, at least as an occasional treat, for most Singaporeans (unlike, some might say, a twelve-eighty nasi lemak).

Second, Ah Hoe’s willingness to share his knowledge. Many first hear of him because of his disciples, a Japanese father-daughter team who learned from Ah Hoe and then opened their own stall nearby. In the pernickety, secretive world of South-east Asian cuisine—where old aunties are averse to sharing recipes even with cousins, never mind foreigners—Ah Hoe’s generosity is admirable.

At a more prosaic level, I like his working hours. 6am-1pm, five days a week, excluding prep. If I ever open my own joint, those are the hours I want.

All of the above, in my mind, would lubricate conversation on Singapore with Tony. I also thought the setting of a spicy noodle first thing in the morning would be great—something taken for granted by us in Singapore and many parts of Asia, but an oddity (still) for many in the West.

***

Errr, came the sheepish reply from the producers. We were hoping that you could take Tony to an Indian place.

An Indian place?!?

I was caught between a duty to represent and that uncomfortable feeling of being boxed in. Moreover, an Indian meal in Singapore would necessarily be mediocre, inferior to Indian Tony has had elsewhere (one exception in the post-script below).

I do believe that the only really spectacular, unique food in Singapore is Chinese hawker food. For those who can afford to travel to other parts of Asia—this includes most Singaporeans—every other food is better (and cheaper) elsewhere. Malay food is better in Malaysia/Indonesia, Indian food is better in Malaysia/India, regular Chinese food—whether delicate xiao long bao or fiery shui zhu yu—is better in China, and so on.

But local Chinese hawker food, incorporating the spices of South-east Asia, finds its best expression in a few historical trading and mining cities on Malaya’s western seaboard.

(A discussion on which Chinese hawker dishes are better in Malacca vs Ipoh vs Penang vs Singapore will be left for another day; Indonesians might clamour for inclusion of Medan and other towns just across the Malacca Straits).

No matter, I’ll play the Indian game, let’s meet at Karu’s. Banana leaf rice, with its medley of curries and hand eating and Tiger Beer and supposed fold-in or fold-out rituals, will also make for a nice scene, I thought.

Karus

Lunch at Karu’s, with the two New Yorkers, one Singaporean producer and Tanya, was a blast. Conversation swung from Lee Kuan Yew to life on the set of Parts Unknown. I ribbed them a bit for the Indian restaurant—“you’re stereotyping me!”—which I imagined was the sort of inane cheap shot that would get under the skin of an East Coast liberal.

They knew it was banter, we agreed that people have become too sensitive about race. Conversation drifted to the growing intolerance of speech on American campuses, then swung back to the casual, mocking “racism”, often self parody, common among friends in Singapore. Chinese money-faced, Indian dirty, Malay lazyis it really all just harmless fun?

The more important point, which I think won them over, is that the beauty of Singapore’s multiculturalism can be witnessed in how we eat: you should get an Indian to take Tony to Chinese, a Chinese to Eurasian, a Malay to Indian, a Eurasian to Malay—or some permutation thereof. Not Chinese-Chinese, Indian-Indian, Malay-Malay…aiyah, so boring.

And that is how I ended up taking Tony to Chinese. But not Ah Hoe, sadly. For aesthetic and geographic reasons, the producers wanted a scene in Geylang. Though slightly disappointed, the truth is I have long enjoyed taking guests to Geylang; not only for the food, but to see Singaporean pragmatism at work. A short ride from the razzmatazz of Marina Bay Sands is Singapore’s red-light district. The fact that prostitution is decriminalised and regulated here punctures whatever sanitised preconception of Singapore visitors might have.

Not long ago I may have called Geylang Singapore’s seedy underbelly, but the place is so gentrified today, partly by that “Where’s the next cheapest shophouse?” set of makeover specialists, that one is left to ponder wistfully, and speak about it in the way our parents speak of Bugis Street; or the way 70s kids like me speak of Desker Road.

***

We finally settle on Lorong 29 Hokkien Mee for dinner on a Wednesday night. There is no easier lens to contemplate Malayan diversity than the words “Hokkien Mee”—which mean something completely different in KL (blackish, sweet, gravy), Penang (prawn soup) and Singapore (white-yellow, gravy).

What they have in common is artery-bursting deliciousness—the one on Lorong 29 comes dressed with the lard of a small pig and, sometimes, the roe of a squad of squid.

As fascinating for me, with Singapore Hokkien Mee, is the ritual. Like paella, it is one of those dishes cooked on demand for a slew of customers, who wait patiently in line as ingredients are thrown into a giant wok, eventually resembling a heaving, bubbling mass of slurry goodness. You might be the tenth person in line, all waiting for twenty minutes; and then in one fell swoop the chef clears everybody. There is a comforting communality about the imminent destruction of your hearts.

geylang-lor-29-fried-hokkien-mee-85-1389444790

Despite repeated checks about opening and closing days, as my luck would have it, the stall was closed when we got there. We had to settle for their famed pork satay and—alamak!—a subpar BCM from a random stall. Quite aside from the fact that I never eat BCM for dinner, the quality was about as far as one can get from Ah Hoe. It was a cruel joke. Despondent, I later unwittingly abdicated my responsibility to describe the dish to Tony; Mela thankfully stepped in.

The crew did an incredible job of transforming that Lorong 29 coffeeshop into a television set. There were powerful spotlights tucked away and mammoth cameras sliding on rails and wireless microphones controlled by some faraway seer. It was a level of production sophistication I’d never before seen, and I’m not sure I ever will.

Crew members, comprised of Tony’s American regulars and Singaporean freelancers, were motoring around blissfully, in quiet harmony, as if they’d been working together for years. They snapped open bottles of Tiger Beer for us, squeaked out smiles at bewildered passers-by, and shrugged half apologetically at grumpy regulars whose dinner paths had been disrupted.

He’s thirty minutes away!…He’s fifteen minutes away! The countdown had begun as we kept chugging beer to calm nerves, as we made small talk to find our voices, as the producers reassured us that bloopers could be edited out, as our opportunistic in-the-know friends whom I didn’t know were coming adjusted their seating on the table behind so that they might make it into a Parts Unknown shot, as the Geylang coffeeshop throbbed with the restless energy of a bridal party on edge, or of a Hokkien Mee one wok jiggle from heaven.

***

And when Tony finally strode in, I had the best view, looking down the aisle. “He’s here,” I whispered to Tanya and Mela, and I could tell they knew I was no longer joking, their faces a mirror for my nerves.

“Hi, I’m Tony.”

God, you’ve aged so much.

I feel bad now that that was my first thought. But what happened to that dashing man from Kitchen Confidential or even the one I’ve seen recently on TV? I thought of those before/after photos of George W Bush and Barack Obama. Tony looked like he had just served three presidential terms.

The nerves lasted about fifteen seconds. Tony makes you feel like you’ve known him for decades and that you can speak about anything. In that short time, Mela, Tanya, Tony and I discussed racism, nationalism, love, drugs, addictions, privileged Singaporeans (like the three of us) vs bootstrapping Americans (him), autocrats, democrats, demagogues and other stuff I don’t remember because I was too drunk.

(Tony and I were seated across from each other; I kept topping up his glass and a magic hand kept appearing next to me with a new bottle of beer; drunkest I’ve ever been for anything “official”.)

parts unknown bourdain lor 29 2

We didn’t actually speak much about the food; maybe the soggy BCM hinted at a culinary plebeianism. Yet it didn’t really matter because Parts Unknown is not about food. People more familiar with the original Anthony Bourdain still ask me: “Doesn’t he talk only about food?”

No. Tony does culture and politics, and with more sensitivity and nuance than most. Roughly ninety percent of foreigners, IMHO, misunderstand Singapore because they are blinkered. Most see only the paradise and conclude that any critique must stem from some indigenous culture of complaint or excessive self-improvement. A small proportion are on the opposite end, believing that robotic Singaporeans are unwittingly trapped in some Disneyland with the Death Penalty.

Perhaps it is wrong for me to say they are “blinkered” without acknowledging that Singapore is a confusing place to grasp. Within a stone’s throw of that Geylang coffeeshop are a mosque, a temple and countless brothels, all operating in seeming harmony (a point I made when Tony asked what I loved most). Even after living here for forty-one years, I’m not sure I fully get my city.

Like in the few other enlightening conversations I’ve had with foreigners about Singapore, Tony was able to remind us what we do right and the need to appreciate it; while staying open to the “complaints” we might have.

“I love smoking weed but I know that I shouldn’t bring it to Singapore,” Tony said at one point. His guilty pleasure here was jujitsu, which he credited with helping him in life. “You have to follow and respect the rules of the country you’re in, right?”

“Yes, but at least we need to be able to talk about drugs, openly and honestly, in the mainstream. We can’t even do that here.” Tony looked at me for a moment; and then just nodded.

(Singapore executes people caught with 500g or more of weed. Given the medical industry’s small but growing base of knowledge about the substance—and liberalisations elsewhere—I suspect future generations might wonder why. As part of Singapore’s blanket, my-way-or-the-deathway approach to these things, Body Shop is unable to sell its popular Hemp Body Butter here and bakeries are unable to sell loafs with poppy seeds. Presumably Singaporeans might get high off them.)

I’ve been writing publicly about Singapore for ten years now, and in that time have met or listened to many supposedly erudite people coming through our lovely garden city. Suffice to say that Anthony Bourdain, the chef from New York, and his hardworking, talented supporting cast, were some of the most impressive.

In a world gripped by nativism, a strange anti-intellectualism and a—more understandable, if still damaging—disdain for elites, Tony and Parts Unknown were a bridge, an unvarnished window, a mix of ground-level reportage and helicopter views, a celebration of diversity without ever trying.

Two weeks prior, at lunch at Karu’s with Tony’s producers, I, playing the role of the good Indian, had wanted to show them how to eat with their hands. They did so, but also admitted that there was no novelty; they’d eaten rice and curry with their hands before.

Of course they had.

***

“Are you sad?” many friends asked me after he passed. Initially I found it an odd question because I hardly knew the guy. But then again, he is the sort of person to leave an impression, somehow pulling off everyday Joe and massive celebrity at the same time. Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s the fact that my fortieth year began not with celebration but with the death of a childhood friend…but death hardly bothers me anymore.

Tony himself had said he was lucky to still be alive, to have survived his addictions, so perhaps we should just be thankful for the gifts he could share.

Yet given the world’s shortage of smart, funny, empathetic icons and leaders, perhaps my sadness will grow. What else did he have in store for us?

“Was he sad?” Ah, that was a harder one to answer, and at the risk of being flippant or superficial—I hardly knew the guy—it struck me that he was both in a good and bad place. Good because he seemed very much in love with his girlfriend and happy that he had conquered his addictions. I was surprised by how candid and detailed he was about both.

But bad because I’m not sure he enjoyed the long hours away. He made a comment about being on the road two-hundred-and-sixty days of the year and sometimes not knowing where he was when he woke up. It sounded less a moan than a kind of melancholy.

Was he killed by the very media machine that built him? Was he on a Brand Bourdain rollercoaster that he could no longer control? Was he losing his sense of rootedness, of belonging?

If true that is an unfortunate irony. That as Tony was helping people around the world understand themselves, as he was showing us things through food and culture, that in the process maybe he was losing a little bit of himself. Two hundred and sixty days of being a globalist may have been too much, even for Tony.

When I watch Tony on video say things like “I have the best job in the world, who wouldn’t want it?” I can’t help but wonder when rationalisation overtook reality, when the strain of being away from his girlfriend and his daughter and NY and everything else started to become too much. Perhaps well before I met him in April 2017, well before he returned to Singapore (yet again) to film Parts Unknown. To be sure, by then Singapore was Parts Well Fucking Known to him. Did travel still excite?

The other great irony is that the week after Tony passed, Singapore hosted the Trump-Kim summit, and so that same media machine suddenly did not have enough time for him. A man who genuinely brought others together was vanquished by vainglorious opportunists from North Korea, Singapore and the US.

***

I keep learning things from Tony. While watching a documentary on MSG the other day, I was reminded that even though he had an innate open-mindedness and balance, he was never afraid to call out bullshit.

“You know what causes Chinese Restaurant Syndrome? Racism.”

(Yes, any fear or concern about MSG is rooted in racism, not science.)

Singaporeans are often caught between Asia and the West and in our tiny little city-state you will find everybody from the most patriotic Sinophile to the most Anglicised, hoity toity monarchist. If we examine attitudes towards MSG—Singaporeans have a visceral opposition to it—then perhaps that is one small data point on the far Western end of the board. (The fiercest racism one might see here is from a Singapore-born Chinese to a “Mainlander”.)

So no, maybe I’m not that sad because there is still so much to discover. When we dip into the Tony archives—sorry, the Anthony Bourdain archives—we will likely, for many years to come, learn a lot more about ourselves: our countries, our cultures and yes, maybe even our foods.

***


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Post-script

On Indian food:

You may see Singaporeans engaging in feisty debates about which South Indian rice joint is best, whether those in the spiritual heart of Serangoon Road or the outlying renegades such as Karu’s and Samy’s. None comes close to what you might find in places such as Port Dickson, Penang and, of course, Kuala Lumpur. Never mind South India itself, a three-hour flight away.

The one exceptional Indian dish I have had is black sotong curry aka squid ink curry, a sour, fiery take of a Malay classic at a place called Rajah’s curry. I wrote about it a few years ago. Sadly Mr Rajah had to close his stall. However, by sheer stonking coincidence, as this blog post lay sitting dormant in a folder last week, I found out that Mr Rajah and his black sotong curry may be making a brief return in mid August. I wish Tony could have tried it.

On loquaciousness:

If this ended up being longer and more of a drag than any of us planned for, well, then, Tony, dear Tony of “We can’t get Tony off his soapbox” fame…I wish I had editors as good as yours.

On drunken remembrances:

When I quote Tony and myself in our discussion on weed, there may be some small discrepancies from what was actually said. Nothing major. I didn’t have my recorder with me. Typically I would make the paraphrase clear, but this time I’ve kept the quotation marks in the interest of style.

Image credits: Mee pok (me), Hokkien Mee ( The Smart Local ), Karus ( Burpple ) and for the Parts Unknown shots, the people themselves.

parts unknown bourdain lor 29

parts unknown bourdain lor 29 3

 

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2 responses

  1. Enjoyed reading this post. I am surprised you did not mention that Tony was planning to open a Singapore style hawker center in New York but that did not pan out (https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/food/anthony-bourdains-singapore-style-hawker-food-hall-no-longer-to-open-in-manhattan). Looks like he was quite taken with the hawker centers!!!!

    Are you still planning on finishing your Kerala to Shaolin book? I am not sure if you read American Shaolin by Matthew Polly. You may find it interesting ..

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