i ate tiong bahru by Stephen Black, 2013
Published by Book Merah
First line: “Mr. Chew describes great food as being beautiful.”
Book Rx: For another slice of old Singapore.
I recently read a satirical piece on McSweeney’s about Hirl, a café “serving [a] clientele of hip creative types in search of the authenticity that can only come from eating seared polenta cake next door to a wine and cheese shoppe that used to be a piñata store.” In the article Hirl goes on to say that, “When we moved into this barrio, the rent was cheap and affordable for anyone, whether you were raising a family on a minimum-wage income or trying to pass off fruit preservatives as a whimsical luxury good. And although our quirky foodstuff, like the small pox-infected blankets at Fort Pitt, has eliminated most of the generations of families who grew up in this neighborhood, we at Hirl will never forget that our main goal is to serve food that locals have zero interest in eating, even when the demographics of said locals change.”
It’s a funny read. But the kernel of truth at its core is somewhat depressing. It reminded me of Black’s ‘i ate tiong bahru.’
Black, an American artist and writer, lived in the area three of his eleven years in Singapore. His book is a “lyrical documentary” that describes in detail a softer, older, markedly different Tiong Bahru, back when there were more kopitiams than coffeshops.
I’ve seen the changes in a small way myself. In the course of searching for more local restaurants to try I dug up articles on closures of provision shops/eating houses that were practically institutions in the area — mainly because of higher rent.
I thought a sense of wistfulness about the changes in the community permeates the book. It’s in the way Black describes colorful characters he meets and chats with (Cecilia, a woman who cooked chicken heads and necks, and together with canned cat food, fed the community’s cats everyday for ten years–she stood out for me), the way he writes about sticking his face in a gula melaka steam as fuat kueh pastry was made in Galicier pastry shop…
I gulp the delicate, narcotic mist. I become an angel in a heavenly cloud of butterscotch. I become a warm knife gliding over soft pancake butter and maple syrup. A streetlight in a tropical mist of caramel, a kite in a windy molasses sky.
… which contrasted with how bored kids were with listening to the shop’s history, how he listened patiently and carefully to the stories of aunties and uncles who’d been in the area for decades.
If [Tony the guy who makes kopi] want[s] to sell the shop, then more power to them. […] It would be nice, though, if the new owners knew a bit about history, had a sense of taste and contributed to the local and global community. (Yes, I am naive. Indonesian, Australian and Japanese speculators don’t usually have this mindset. Not to mention Singaporeans and mainland Chinese.)
In a later chapter, he explains:
Gentrification is not the problem, lack of diversity and creativity is.
He certainly makes a good case for preservation and moderation. ‘i ate tiong bahru’ is divided into short chapters and written in a stream-of-consciousness narrative style which I like (liberal use of lists too, and a recipe for Peranakan soup on page 83!). At times when I read the book though, I felt like I was reading an unpolished draft; sometimes the thoughts and sentences didn’t quite flow smoothly. I also felt the way the book ended was somewhat abrupt. The last line in the last chapter ‘The Canal and the Blue Orchid’ didn’t feel as satisfying as earlier parts of the book.
That said, it’s undeniable that the Tiong Bahru Black describes has a rich and diverse present and past. For instance, I didn’t know Tiong Bahru is a Hokkien-Malay word meaning “new cemetery,” and that the hills used to be burial grounds; nor did I know that the area was the first public housing project in the world to include electricity and water.
I also loved that Black waxes poetic about food. In my favorite chapter ‘Dewali in Galicier,’ Black describes the shop’s process of making kueh dah dah, a process that’s “part ballet, part production line”:
Mr Tan begins. Twisting his arm, he uses his wooden paddle like a shovel to flip white fluffy coconut into the air. Then, he quickly warms the pan. Crêpe batter is poured and carefully swirled to cover the bottom. The pan is set on the waiting circle of fire. A choice for the chef: a high flame releases more coconut milk flavor, a low flame allows for more variations of texture.
The liquid in the pan quickly becomes a pale green translucent skin. Golden highlights appear and after about a minute, the crêpe is flipped out of the pan. It immediately receives a steaming spoonful of shredded coconut. One fold, two folds, a rolling motion and a kueh dah dah is born.
It was enough to motivate a personal visit.