(Note: This is a longer version of a profile first published in May on Mekong Review. I have italicised the extra passages.)
Epigram Books owes its existence partly to Lee Kuan Yew’s secret police.
In 1981, as news broke that the Workers’ Party’s J.B. Jeyaretnam had won a by-election, thus breaking the ruling People’s Action Party’s stranglehold over Singapore’s parliament, plain-clothes officers from the Internal Security Department watched in horror as a young reporter from the Straits Times jumped up and down at the counting centre.
The visit to Uncle Sushil’s grave offered me a chance to think more broadly about our loved ones far away. Not being able to see them, for those of us lucky to avoid the worst, has been one of the central tragedies of the pandemic. In a world of restricted travel, how do we maintain those bonds?
When borders first closed, I immediately thought of my mum’s mum in Indore and my father’s brother in Toronto. Nani is over ninety and Uncle Sushil had experienced a number of recent health issues and scares. Pre-Covid I had always imagined that if they were nearing the end, I’d just hop on a plane to see them.
(Note: I researched and wrote this piece in mid 2019. It was originally published on New Naratif. Am republishing here for those who might have missed it. I have made edit notes on a couple of things that are out of date.)
The entry of Tan Cheng Bock and his newly registered Progress Singapore Party into the political fray has stirred up excitement. But is Tan, a former PAP backbencher, offering a vision of Singapore’s future, or a return to its past?
The winds that usher in Singapore’s election season are, in many ways, familiar to illiberal democracies everywhere. Flags and faces popping up; government handouts; public largesse on incumbent brand-building, camouflaged as patriotic projects; the instilling of fear through new demons within and old ones abroad; and the obsequious submission of media outfits that have grown dependent on juicy government contracts.
Mexico ’86 was the first full football tournament I watched. The excitement began well before, when every recess time a bunch of us nine-year-olds would huddle in the Saint Andrew’s School canteen, sometimes near the char kway teow uncle’s corner, sunlight creeping in to light his halo.
Forget the Hawker Centre. If you want to observe what some might call Singaporean integration—others inequality—visit Mustafa. Go at six on a Monday morning to see Mrs Nose Up-in-the-air, striding confidently to the daun kusum aka laksa leaves for her famous home-made laksa for her lunchtime group of tai tais who these days are called investors. If she returned at three on a Sunday afternoon, … Continue reading Ode to Mustafa
Two years ago, when Li Ling, the kids and I moved out of my parents house in Bukit Timah to our own flat in Pasir Ris, it was hardest on Gorby.
Ling and I had the benefit of time, foreknowledge, active hands in the process. Blooby, Gorby’s sister, had by then retreated to a familiar sedentary life of eat, sleep, and the occasional lizard, dragged in leaving a trail of blood, body parts strewn across the terrazzo floor.
But Gorby was still Mr Bukit Timah. We would spot him prancing around the actual Bukit Timah Road, near the Tessarina Apartments and Tan Chong Motors, a full two-hundred metres from our house. Unlike us, Gorby had two channels of entry/exit: regular sidewalk when pesky humans weren’t around, or the wide drain when we were.
Once Gorby went missing for a full eighteen hours. It was his first full night out. We grew anxious. When he returned the next morning, smelling of stale beer and garbage, I saw my younger self in him, remembering my own adolescent nights of too many Graveyards at Zouk, slobbering up the driveway after stumbling out of the cab.
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
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.
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 T, a good mutual friend, for references. (T and M, 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.
When you recover from the invasion of polka dots on your smartphone—yellow-and-black, primary colours on white, pixelated stardust from some neon galaxy, arresting but soon annoying, with the never-ending shower of selfies, with Singaporean FOMOness suffocating all sensibilities—when you recover from that all, remember that Yayoi Kusama probably wanted you to embrace narcissism.
How else to explain the alleyway of convex mirrors, where you are forced to either stare down or stare at your reflection, sidestepping couples waiting patiently for a break in traffic. Or the Infinity Mirrored Room—Love Forever, into which you pop your head and see your friend’s face, and endless reflections of yourselves lit up by psychedelic lights.
And how else to explain the most popular exhibit, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, a hanging-LED infinity mirror room, into which you walk, and immerse yourself in some glittering self-absorbed universe, trying not to think of the next person in line and the usher outside timing you, for precisely thirty seconds, with a stopwatch. (“It’s the only fair way.”)
“Up till Kusama, there were many artists from the Renaissance on, who were involved with perspective and infinity but it was all a fake because you knew, you were the viewer you were always aware that you were the master,” said Richard Castellane, a former gallerist, in a documentary on her.
With her infinity rooms, Kusama fools us in a way never done before. Does “Infinite You” prove your infinite worth or your infinite irrelevance?
The Singaporean, a species engaged in perennial status competition, is the perfect subject for her play. Over the years, we have become far more sophisticated in our social media mating dances. The garish displays of branded leather are disappearing. Today there is a new battleground: travel.
So we are treated to selfies that say nothing more than “I am here.” Of course, all this is not the preserve of the Singaporean, arguably less cultural than generational, of Xs and Ys. Still, as with most money-fuelled pursuits, Singaporeans tend to go the extra mile. (A photo of your holiday business class seat? Are you trying to show off your carbon footprint?)
No surprise, then, that Yayoi’s dots have colonised our smartphones. Yet now that the torrent has slowed, one hopes her audacious aesthetics are not the only thing we remember.
Dear friends, on May 4th at 630pm I’ll be interviewing Sonny Liew in Raffles Place, Singapore. Sonny’s graphic novel, “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, was arguably Singapore’s most important book in 2015. The Economist called it a “brilliantly inventive work” that “does not shy away from controversial periods in the nation’s history.” We’ll be talking about Singapore’s history, life as an artist, political storytelling through … Continue reading May 4th: Interviewing Sonny Liew