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.

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