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Posted by on Nov 26, 2014 | 0 comments

The Siren Song of Singapore

Even in the most sweltering months of my Singaporean girlhood, the outdoors called to me. I’d clamber onto a bus, flash my school bus card, hope for a window seat and perhaps a whiff of a breeze, and settle in for the stuffy ride east.

Densely packed apartment buildings and car-clogged streets would gradually give way to lush trees and dusty squat row houses. The destination: Changi Village, a somnolent neighborhood perched on the far northeastern shores of the island.

Rustling palm trees lulled me into a trance during walks in one of Singapore’s oldest coastal parks. From the jetty, I could sometimes see the morning fishermen and kelongs (traditional fisheries on stilts) out in the Strait of Malacca, the waterway that slices between Singapore and Indonesia.

Though far from the city-state center, Changi Village still has a faithful local following.

Athletic types come for the windsurfing and kayaking. The hungry head for breakfast at International Nasi Lemak, a Malay food stall selling fragrant plates of coconut rice paired with turmeric-coated fried chicken or fish, fried egg, sambal sauce, and crispy fried anchovies.

My reason for visiting remains the same as ever: In all my years, I’ve not come across a better spot for a good sit and a hard think. This, to me, is the true Singapore.

A former covent chapel now anchors CHIJMES, a downtown nightlife and dining complex. (Photograph by Flickr RM/Getty Images)

A former covent chapel now anchors CHIJMES, a downtown nightlife and dining complex. (Photograph by Flickr RM/Getty Images)

The country of my birth may be known as a fast-paced metropolis of 5.3 million with a gleaming modern skyline, buzzing shopping districts, casinos, vibrant nightclubs, and futuristic parks. But the Singapore I treasure is more veiled. It’s a place where the old is celebrated and cherished—and it’s not hard to find if you know where to look.

Along Singapore’s once sleepy, now trendy east coast, Starbucks and gastropubs have nudged out decades-old vendors selling local favorites such as tau kwa pau, a fried tofu pocket-style sandwich.

But one thing hasn’t changed since the 1950s: Chin Mee Chin, a cozy coffee shop in a chalk white prewar “shophouse” that’s been serving up British and local breakfast classics for almost 70 years—custard puffs, runny soft-boiled eggs doused in white pepper and soy sauce, hot buttered rolls slathered with housemade kaya (an eggy coconut jam). The Sundays of my youth were largely spent at the neighboring Holy Family Church—and every week at Mass, all I could think about were the sausage rolls right next door.

Another throwback, in the heart of downtown Singapore and incongruously tucked into a dining and nightlife hub awkwardly named CHIJMES (pronounced “chimes”), has special meaning for me.

I was just nine in 1983 when my school, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, or C.H.I.J., was abruptly moved out on order from the government, which wanted to repurpose the land. Although portions of the convent’s property—which spanned an entire city block—were torn down, some parts were preserved.

So when I visit CHIJMES these days, I don’t come for the dim sum restaurants or the cocktail bars. I come to relive schoolgirl memories at the 110-year-old Gothic chapel, miraculously saved from demolition and now a popular venue for wedding receptions.

Then there’s Samy’s. Not far from Orchard Road—Singapore’s main shopping drag, which is lined with air-conditioned malls and luxe stores from Gucci to Prada—this cavernous Indian curry joint is housed in a former civil service club nestled in a cluster of old British military barracks.

Samy’s is one of the best places to get classic “banana leaf” curry—where waiters spread out a rectangular banana leaf at each diner’s place before piling on rice, fiery chicken masala, dal, and more. Afterward, guests simply fold up the leaf for the waiter to toss.

On my most recent return trip to Singapore, I ended my visit with a journey to Tiong Bahru, one of my favorite neighborhoods. This warren of narrow streets lined with low-rise art deco buildings is distinctly 1930s Singapore.

The housing estate was informally called Hollywood Flats when it was created, because the architects were inspired by Hollywood films. It was also known as mei ren wo (Mandarin for “den of beauties”), as rich men liked installing their mistresses in those fashionable flats.

These days, even though disheveled provision shops have been replaced by boutiques that sell $50 candles or salons where men can get waxed, Tiong Bahru still has its authentic quirks.

Chin Mee Chin coffee shop has been serving traditional breakfast since the 1950s. (Photograph by Edwin Koo, The New York Times/Redux)

Chin Mee Chin coffee shop has been serving traditional breakfast since the 1950s. (Photograph by Edwin Koo, The New York Times/Redux)

One of my best friends from high school lives in this neighborhood, and one morning, we decided to meet at Hua Bee Restaurant, a small coffee shop that’s been selling mee pok, a noodle dish with fish balls and minced meat, since the 1940s. Recently, a local restaurateur planned to take over the space to open yet another addition to Singapore’s glitzy dining scene.

However, locals had seen far too much of their history blithely erased, and this time they weren’t having it. A (polite) uproar ensued, complete with an active Facebook campaign. The businessman compromised.

In the mornings, our beloved mee pok man could continue to serve his thick, fragrant coffee and tea and noodles. At night, the coffee shop would metamorphose into Bincho, a sleek yakitori joint.

I was skeptical. Could the old and the new truly exist harmoniously in the same space? But my dear friend Jeanette had simply said, “Come, lah!”

As I sat down, everything at Hua Bee seemed exactly the same. The tiled floor seemed just as grimy, the marble-topped wooden tables that are the hallmarks of old-school Singaporean coffee shops were still in place. When I lingered a second too long while placing my order, the mee pok man gave me the same old evil eye.

There were signs of Bincho, of course—a modern kitchen, counter, and bar stools packed into the back. But the sameness of Hua Bee was reassuring.

Jeanette and I leaned into our familiar old talk, teasing each other over all the things that girls will needle one another about, even if it’s been decades since they were 14-year-olds.

By the time our bowls arrived, there was no more talk; we got down to business. At first bite, I knew I needn’t have worried. The wide egg noodles—coated with a chili-and-black-vinegar sauce and then tossed with fish balls, fish cakes, peppery minced pork, and crispy cubes of deep-fried lard for extra umami—were as they’d always been: sheer delight by the mouthful.

This piece, written by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, first appeared in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler. Brooklyn-based Tan is author of the memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen and editor of Singapore Noir

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