Lee Eng Su, chef and champion cock talker, 1979-2019

Two months ago one of my closest friends and biggest fans/inspirations/all the rest of it passed. This is a bunch of random reflections, in the disjointed fashion in which we spoke (past tense…sigh). Some of it won’t make sense. Sorry. The only part that might approximate a traditional obituary, if you’re keen, is the last section, “A suitable marriage of Singaporean idealism and pragmatism”, where I tell the story of the time Engsu hosted Lee Hsien Loong and Rodrigo Duterte, leaders of Singapore and The Philippines, at The Coconut Club

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Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again

On Thursday night, September 12th, hours before I heard the news, I was watching HBO’s Big Little Lies, after a day of walking in rural Portugal, and I thought of Eng Su. Nicole Kidman and her husband were dancing to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and I remembered the way Eng Su used to sing Young’s Old Man.

Those were the days when Nengks used to sing regular songs, before he decided that he had an obligation to feed our ears with undiscovered gems, that he needed to excavate Motown with the same tenacity he did his own feelings and past.

He would close his eyes and sing the chorus—”Old man take a look at me now, I’m a lot like you”—with such passion, his usual passion i guess, and I always assumed he was thinking of Uncle Eu Seng.

Now, looking back at that moment, knowing that he is gone, I realise that I see him everywhere. Outsiders know him for his food. Insiders, the many of us in his exceptionally big tent, know him for all sorts of other things. Eng Su is in my music, in my movies, in my books, in the swimming pool, in the fresh air among the redwoods, in the dirty toothbrush destined for secondary work.

On August 11th Eng Su came over to visit me in Pasir Ris, 8am on a Sunday morning. We spoke for four hours, he had many things on his mind. We marvelled at my ability to detach myself from the world and lamented his inability to, something we always do when we are alone.

Throughout our twenty-five years together he was always telling me to try and do some fantastical great thing with my life, and I was always pushing back saying I just wanted to get drunk on a beach. Eng Su wanted to change the world in a big way, to fight every injustice he saw, to overhaul entire systems. He was never satisfied just touching one person, improving just one life.

Oddly, for what I now realise was my last ever session with him, we were both sober. When he left we were happy, and were looking forward to doing great things together, the same sentiment we had always left each other with since we were teenagers.

There is a lot more I want to say, one day, maybe. But now, far away in Portugal, I have found much solace in Harvest Moon. I saw the most amazing sunset and Harvest Moon, yes the actual Harvest Moon, over the Alentejo, and I could see Eng Su smiling at me from up above. The only thing I’m still unsure about, as I listen to the lyrics for the XXX time, is whether he is singing to me, or me to him.

Probably both.

***

It’s shit man.

What?

You call that an obituary?

No it’s more just reflections.

Ya, your reflections, about you. What about the girls?!

“XXX”?

Fuck that lah. What about my surprises?

***

The Surprise

November 2000. Berkeley, CA.

It was a Saturday morning. There was a knock on the front door and some unruly flapping around, as if an ostrich was warming up on the creaking front porch.

I thought it might be the cops. My housemates and I, sophomores, hosted regular parties for Singaporeans, Americans, anybody. The cops often came round on Friday nights, following complaints by our neighbours, only to leave soon after they realised the identity of their adversaries: drunk, geeky Berkeley kids, only too happy to debate jurisdictions and rights and limits.

At the time Eng Su was studying in community college thirty minutes away in San Francisco. He had by then overcome his adolescent anxieties associated with the lack of brand name schools on his CV. Whenever he showed up, he would outshine all of us with his worldliness and intricate, granular explanations of everything.

I think I already had a sense for this, but Eng Su was perhaps the first to demonstrate it repeatedly in my life: that the most brilliant, talented visionaries in this world—and certainly in Singapore—are often the ones without the fancy degrees and titles.

Hungover on that Saturday morning, I dragged myself to the front door. Instead of the cops, it was my best friend Sumana. Following closely behind was a part human, part Penguin creature, with laughably large, elongated feet. I was a tad bemused, a tad bewildered.

It took me a while to process that it was Eng Su. He had just stumbled through my narrow doorway wearing a giant scuba mask and huge flippers, the kind with a slit down the middle. It is tough walking in those things even in shallow water, never mind inside a house.

What the fuck are you doing!?

Breathing desperately through the snorkel, he was determined to make it all the way into the centre of our living room, the final steps in his marathon.

“Happy Birthday!” he screamed, pulling the mask up, panting.

Finally I understood. Eng Su and Mana, aware that I had just started diving, had asked my then girlfriend to help pick out new gear for me.

Eng Su had wanted the best, of course—for any and every body in his life, for any and every occasion, whether offering you a fleeting teaspoon taste of a stock a zillion iterations away from daylight, or lifetime scuba gear that still sits in the cupboard, ready, long after he is gone.

***

Thu, Apr 6, 2006, 3:52 AM

Eng: Today is a milestone in my career. My chef decided to put one of my ideas on the menu. Seseme and black pepper crusted seared tuna with wasabe viniagrette.

*

Aug 13, 2015, 12:23 PM

…I gave a talk at the Baba house early this year as part of the SG50 thing and it was all about why our food is getting worse and worse – economic, socio-political, historic etc. Even delved into the science of Asian food and why we are losing the taste for it….

[The Coconut Club opens in November 2016.]

*

10/03/2018, 11:13 – Eng Su Lee1: Ey but seriously I also need to go Ipoh at some point but was going to drive. I’m doing a new dish now , Kai Si Hor Fun. Not sure if you know it

10/03/2018, 11:16 – Eng Su Lee1: And I’m toying with importing Ipoh water down to grow my own taugeh

10/03/2018, 11:59 – Sudhir: ha! was chatting with this Ipoh chick the other day. about the relative importance of water vs geography (valley, very cold mornings and hot arvos)

10/03/2018, 12:07 – Eng Su Lee1: Yeah so I’m going to do a Ipoh vs PUB water taugeh experiment. To do a test. I believe it’s technique. Also growing taugeh for restaurant will be quite profitable

***

A suitable marriage of Singaporean idealism and pragmatism

I remember when Eng Su found out that Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, wanted to host Rodrigo Duterte, the Phillippines’s president, at The Coconut Club.

He called many of his friends to talk because he was excited but unsure. I think he already knew, instinctively, that he was going to welcome them with open arms, but he just wanted to talk through, as he does, all his possible emotional and moral uncertainties.

Most importantly, Lee Hsien Loong’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, had in the 1970s jailed Eng Su’s late father, Lee Eu Seng. Uncle Eu Seng was then chairman of Nanyang Siang Pau, a fiercely independent Chinese paper. As part of a broader crackdown against alleged communists and “Chinese chauvinists”, LKY’s government charged and jailed five Nanyang executives, including Uncle Eu Seng’s brother Mao Seng, under the Internal Security Act. Francis Seow, among others, has written extensively about this episode.

(Uncle Eu Seng had taken over the leadership of the paper after the passing of his father, George Lee, business magnate and brother of Lee Kong Chian, Malayan rubber tycoon.)

Uncle Eu Seng spent five years in prison, much in solitary confinement, without ever being charged for anything. Eng Su was always so proud of the fact that his father never buckled, never signed any fake admission form that would have allowed his release. (Yet also aware of the toll on him and the entire family.)

Uncle Eu Seng and I had a great relationship. I would always listen to his actual stories and he would always listen patiently to my story ideas. Sometimes Eng Su would come down from his room to find us chatting: “Oh, you’ve been here for the past hour?!?”

Uncle Eu Seng never had any spite or remorse about the injustices in his life. He would take great pains to qualify any critique of “Kuan Yew” by talking about all his developmental accomplishments, which Uncle Eu Seng admired. Separately, he is one of the few people I know who actually calls the old man “Kuan Yew”.

Eng Su did not agree with many things about life in Singapore, from hawker centre policies to racism against Malays, which he saw every day in his restaurant directed by customers towards his staff, something that caused him endless heartache.

Despite all the potential personal and political baggage, Eng Su was delighted that Lee Hsien Loong—Singapore’s prime minister!—wanted to eat at his restaurant. “One shouldn’t judge the son for the sins of his father!” he went around chirping for a while. Eng Su always had these cute rejoinders to prickly situations. And I think he often meant them as broader life philosophies.

Duterte brought another set of complications. Eng Su had always been concerned with social injustices around the world and we had spent much time discussing extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. Yet while the Western media was massacring Duterte, we were also hearing something very different from the Filipinos on the ground in Singapore—they loved him, in the usual strongman-who’s-cleaning-things-up way.

Eng Su was closer to “The Help” than any other employer I know. His Filipino and Myanmese helpers, alongside his Bangladeshi garden workers, would join us for parties, eating and drinking with us. They would attend football games at Jalan Besar Stadium with Eng Su. One of the only times that I saw Eng Su reserve a table at the original Coconut Club is when his Myanmese helpers went with their posse.

More than that, they would make fun of Eng Su, straight to his face, in front of his family and friends. That’s the ultimate litmus test, I think. One of my favourite pastimes in Singapore is observing how the many different forms and origins of wealth express themselves in their relationship to the help.

On one end are some who believe helpers should be dressed in uniform and ostracised to some corner of the house, their speech ideally limited to “Yes Ma’am” and “Yes Sir”. On the other are people like Eng Su, who share everything with their helpers and, perhaps more importantly, want them to maximise their intellect and prowess. Eng Su’s helpers could probably waltz into any kitchen— no, any service establishment—in town.

Whenever I see Eng Su and his helpers interacting, I am elevated into some bubble of Southeast Asian cross-country, cross-wealth togetherness. I always wonder if there are parents and husbands and children in Myanmar and the Philippines who, with both admiration and frustration, wonder about this man who fed lontong, nasi lemak and foie gras to their wide-eyed girls.

I know some might deride Eng Su’s generous treatment of his helpers because of his wealth. Oh, he can afford to. But it really isn’t true. There is very little correlation, it seems to me, between wealth and generosity. Throughout his life, Eng Su felt the need to correct misconceptions about privilege.

So, whatever the media was saying about Duterte, Eng Su was not going to overrule the impressions from the Filipinos he personally knew.

Perhaps it was an easy cop-out, a willfully ignorant way to reconcile his own doubts about the vigilante justice spreading across the archipelago. But that potential contradiction is something Eng Su would happily discuss with you on your first meeting.

Ultimately Eng Su also felt, correctly, that the event would be good for the business and, in turn, all the people, staff and otherwise, whose lives now depended on it. (He told me something to the effect of) “I can’t let any personal objections get in the way of what’s good for them.”

When Eng Su and The Coconut Club hosted Lee Hsien Loong and Rodrigo Duterte, the event was, in my mind, a suitable marriage of Singaporean idealism and pragmatism.

***

That’s it?

For now, lah.

Are you writing about me for me or about me for you?

Huh?

You’re just upping yourself right? Aiyah, fuck it. Nobody reads your bloody blog anyway.

***

Post-script

I have been very conflicted about whether I should write anything publicly but have decided I must. If I can write tributes and obituaries to the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Lee Kuan Yew, then why not my own close friend. Eng Su was a great person and Singaporean.

Most importantly, Eng Su’s family and life give me much hope in this drastically unequal world. We love juicy stories about the decadence and selfishness of the world’s billionaires and plutocrats, but should really also talk about wealthy people who are genuinely nice, who are trying to be a force for good. They are examples for the rest. The late Uncle Eu Seng, Aunty Eva, Engsu and his brother Unsu are some of the most generous and considerate people I know.

Engsu’s “charity”, if one can call it that, was never about fancy balls and fundraisers, helicopter drops of money or ivory tower, neo-colonial uplifting of “the natives”. He wanted to work on the ground directly with people who were much less fortunate or who had been marginalised by society. The staff at The Coconut Club and Belimbing Superstar knew him intimately. He was not just their boss but their friend, in the most unassuming way (notwithstanding the obvious professional relationship). Of course he had his ego, of course he had his flaws, but we don’t need to get into all that now.

I am delighted that Unsu and his cousins, owners and managers of the restaurants, are trying to stay true to Engsu’s philosophies. Finally, a shout-out to Lee Chan Wai (no relation), who was Engsu’s creative foil, one half of a two person culinary team. When I first wrote about The Coconut Club, a month before it opened, I found out that they had agreed that it would be easier if Engsu just fronted all the conversations about food. Most people know Engsu. But Chan Wai was his creative equal, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

***

Photos

Engsu hated regular photos, but was never averse to gaya, cheekiness, farce. The photo that leads this piece is sheer irony. Engsu loved to drive. His last serious car was an Audi RS3, a bullet. However, a couple of years into The Coconut Club, he eventually decided that it was unbecoming and unnecessary, and that he should downgrade to a more traditional service vehicle, like one used by many small business owners and chefs.

Shortly after buying this supposedly much slower, more pedestrian vehicle, Engsu got into an accident with a bus.

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Kerala, circa 2003. Engsu, Sumana, Knute (Californian friend), my uncle, and a bunch of other random gangsta Mallus who we wanted in the shot. Check out Engsu’s hands.

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Baja California, circa 2000. I had this bright idea of renting a big van and driving down the Californian coast from San Francisco to Ensenada, deep in Mexico, a roundtrip of 1,800km. Just to see the desert. So I got a bunch of buddies, Indonesian/Singaporean boys and girls, and we did it over a few days. No bookings, no plans, no nothing. We often slept in the van, much to everybody’s irritation. Engsu kept calling me a cheap bastard, for selling them a pointless trip. He never let me forget it. Here he is powdering himself for the camera one morning, mimicking another good buddy of ours. When I see this I remember how ripped he was before he decided to eat and cook for a living.

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We loved staging photos. This one, with all apologies to anybody who finds it offensive, is called “Baja roadkill, featuring Nengks and Mana”.

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Some small town, Cuba, circa 2001. I’ll end with Engsu in a normal pose. The lady on the right is a hitchhiker we picked up when driving out of Havana for the first time. She invited us to do a homestay with her parents. So we did. She is also the one who taught Engsu how to salsa. She was very patient with him. We had such a blast partying with this family, all mabok on local rum.

5 responses

  1. Well, I’ve just read your blog – and I think this is a damn fine obituary! Sorry for your loss. He sounds like a truly great friend.

  2. Hi Sud,
    Thanks, it’s an obituary that makes Engsu alive again. I picture now a ‘beaumes-de-venise which we talked about and he made. Try the cake, it has olive oil…A jazz bistro CD, magenta color cover, presented when I asked him for some music to play.. ‘Easy listening’ he said…

  3. Eng Su was such a brilliant rough diamond uncut unpolished but just shone with so much clarity. Missing him will always be in our Herts.

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