Another year, another trip down to the tropical city-state of Singapore – or that’s what it feels like, and I’m not complaining. Last August, a little more than a year ago, I flew down to the Lion City with Ashley and a group of friends to catch the first Foo Fighters concert in Singapore in 21 years – it was amazing, and also very sweaty. This time around, I’d be traveling on my own, sans Ashley and baby Miles, and spending my time with a largely different group of friends, though fellow concert-goer Gordon made the trip down as well. In fact, we both ended up crashing at our friend Sharon’s (Taipei 2014, Europe 2013, Seoul 2012, Yunnan 2012, Shanghai 2011) apartment for the weekend, which was empty due to her own holiday in Bali.
After landing at Changi Airport at around midnight and dropping off our bags at the apartment in Tanjong Pagar, we hustled out to Ponggol Nasi Lemak, a local joint in the Tanjong Katong neighbourhood famous for its take on the Malaysian staple. Nasi lemak is a deceptively simple dish – essentially a steaming half-dome of fragrant rice with an assortment of vegetables, fried meats, and spicy sambal. The key to the nasi lemak is the rice, soaked in coconut milk and cooked with pandan leaves, as well as the spiciness of the sambal chili paste. Ponggol Nasi Lemak struck a positive note on both counts for me, and I award bonus points for being open past 1 in the morning. We couldn’t stay out too late, however, hungry though we might be, as we had to wake up at a reasonable hour the next day for the true purpose of our trip – a wedding.
Crazy Rich Asians
Unless you’ve been under a rock all summer, the breakout movie of the year so far has been Crazy Rich Asians, the much-ballyhooed rom-com with an all-Asian cast based on Kevin Kwan’s hit novel of the same name. I saw it a few weeks ago in Hong Kong with Ashley and a few other friends, and we all loved it to bits. Much of the hype around the film has been around its decision to go ahead with a mostly Asian cast in a Hollywood production, something that hasn’t really happened since The Joy Luck Club came out a quarter of a century ago.
In discussing the movie afterwards with Ashley, we talked about how moving to Hong Kong has shifted our perspective on representation somewhat, however, and perhaps tilted our reception of Crazy Rich Asians to one that borders more on a sense of belonging and ownership of the culture represented. I think if I’d stayed in Toronto, and the North American context in general, the representation angle would have had a much greater impact on me. Without anything lived-in to really grab onto as a viewer, I probably would have gravitated towards just seeing Asian faces on screen as a win, in and of itself, or I would have interpreted movie details through the limitations of my Westernized Asian lens. Probably I still do, no doubt.
But having lived in Asia and Hong Kong for almost a decade, having spent time with actual billionaires and their families in their penthouse apartments on The Peak, having traveled regularly to Singapore and spent time with my Singaporean relatives and friends, and having formed deep and wonderful friendships with people from the city-state, I do feel some sense of ownership over the culture represented on screen. It’s not a complete sense of ownership, but I did watch it with an eye towards what the filmmakers got right, and what they might get wrong, because to a very small degree I felt like they were not only representing Asians in general, but my Asia specifically – and that’s something I could not have said if I’d stayed in Canada. Anyway, my excuse for bringing up Crazy Rich Asians is that the wedding I was in Singapore for over the weekend was at the same venue as the ridiculous, over-the-top nuptials in the movie – CHIJMES.
I first met Nicole in the summer of 2007, when we ended up on the same ultimate team – UFO – in Toronto. She was studying at the University of Toronto at the time, and a mutual friend brought her along to one of the games. The team was brand new and we were all playing for the first time, so we had people joining up throughout the season – Nicole included. There was something about the timing of it all, though, where it seemed like almost the entire team was in some kind of funk in other areas of our lives, and being part of UFO gave us all a badly needed boost. Most of us were strangers to each other at the beginning of the summer, but having something to strive for together knit us into something resembling a true team by season’s end. From last place in June, to squeaking into the playoffs a couple months later, to narrow, nail-biting, last minute, winner-take-all victories over teams that beat us handily during the season, and to a hard fought, nothing-to-be-ashamed-of loss in the finals – there’s nothing quite like going through the flames to forge lifetime bonds, even if the “flames” involved sunny summer afternoons on grassy fields.
The team played together for the next few years, and even after I moved to Hong Kong it was still around in some shape or form, though the roster had gone through significant changes. We won the league championship the very next summer, though by that point it was clear that it was time for us to move up a tier or two in the local city leagues. The friendships formed over that first season, though, were of a higher quality than most, and I’ll always be grateful for the role that UFO played in my life that summer. Not long after I relocated to Hong Kong, Nicole moved back home to her native Singapore, and I’ve had the privilege of enjoying her and her family’s hospitality on many of my trips since – including my first time ever in the city back in 2008.
So, the wedding. Gordon and I took a Grab to the venue, where we met up with our other Hong Kong-based friends Elton, Niki, Margo, and Karen. Gordon and the rest had met Nicole at the University of Toronto, so I was the lone representative from her Toronto ultimate days – though technically I also briefly overlapped with her at U of T when I did graduate school at the downtown campus and she was wrapping up her senior year, but that was after having already known her through ultimate. The venue was gorgeous, though missing the movie’s slightly ridiculous fields of grass and river flowing down the center aisle, and it was clear that the bride and groom (four times Singapore’s strongest man!) were well-loved throughout the ceremony. It was nice to reconnect with Nicole’s parents as well, along with her twin sister Nadine and her husband Bryan – they’d made themselves very available my first few times in the city, taking me out to various hawker centres before I even had a chance to drop my luggage off, firmly seating me at an empty table as they scurried off and came back with heaping portions of the most wonderful and fragrant dishes. With all the friendship and hospitality that Nicole and her family have shown me throughout the years, it was my privilege to be able to share in this happiest of days.
After the ceremony ended, we had a few hours in the afternoon to kill before the reception later that night, and we set out to have a quick get-together with other friends in the city. Over the years, we’ve had a steady trickle of friends move from Hong Kong to Singapore, drawn to its wider spaces, bigger housing, and relatively slower pace of life. This includes the Wu family – Xian and Phoebe, along with their three young kids – who moved to Singapore a couple years back. Xian is originally from Singapore and he worked in Hong Kong and China for a few years developing solar-powered lamps and batteries for rural communities, while Hong Kong-born Phoebe was a teacher. In their last couple years in Hong Kong, they lived in a village complex in the New Territories with a few other families we know, hosting large holiday gatherings for dozens of guests. Unfortunately, every single one of those families has since left Hong Kong, but, luckily for us, the Wus only went a short plane-ride away.
Singapore housing supply is dominated by public flats managed by the Housing and Development Board – over 80% of Singaporeans live in government-provided apartments. There’s nothing shabby about public housing in Singapore, though, and Xian and Phoebe’s apartment complex could give 90% of private complexes in Hong Kong a run for their money, especially when it comes to usable square footage. The views from the sky garden on the roof of the complex were incredible as well, looking out onto the Central Catchment Area – a sea of lush greens and blues in the heart of the city. In between chasing the kids around the garden and then reading to the kids on the couch inside, we did get some time to catch up with our transplanted friends and reminisce about days gone by, while also sharing new updates on families, work, and life.
By the late afternoon, the Wus had to start getting ready to meet up with other friends, so we said our goodbyes and made our way over to the nearby neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru, known for its hip coffee shops and reading nooks. After a quick coffee at local institution Forty Hands, we squeezed in a round of bak kut teh around the corner, across the street from Tiong Bahru Market, before heading back to the downtown core for Nicole’s wedding reception. The dinner was a smaller affair than the ceremony, and though the menu was very familiar to those of us from Hong Kong, the food quality was certainly up there. Of course, you can’t have a Southeast Asian-Chinese wedding without doing a few rounds of yuuuuuuuuuuuuuum siiiiiiiiiiiing, which we did with much gusto. Just like that, the wedding festivities were officially over, and my last full day in the city faded into the warm Singaporean evening.
East Coast Breakfast Tour
On my last morning in Singapore, I headed over to the city-state’s East Region to grab a series of breakfast meals before checking in for my afternoon flight back home. My first stop was 328 Katong Laksa, purveyors of the Straits Chinese style of laksa – a bright orange, coconut-infused noodle broth speckled with chili, dried shrimps, and herbs, and topped with a packet of chili sauce to turn the heat up a notch. Perfection.
My second stop was Mr. and Mrs. Mohgan Super Crispy Roti Prata, located about 15 minutes walk away in the Joo Chiat neighbourhood. The Mohgans have been serving up the Indian breakfast food for decades, perfecting the art of creating their crispy yet delightfully chewy flatbread. Served with a small bowl of dipping curry, it’s clear to me that there’s a beauty to the dish’s simplicity. I joined the line outside the open air building and saw that their order book for the morning was already several pages long. Luckily for me, they skipped past the pages of family orders and served my single plain roti prata right away. Again, perfection.
The third and last stop was supposed to be the Chin Mee Chin Confectionary, home of the traditional Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast and boiled eggs. Unfortunately, the shop was closed, denying me the chance to go three-for-three that morning. With time running low and my other options beyond walking distance, I walked down the road and popped into a corner food centre – just a couple of verandas set up to cover a section of the sidewalk. My eyes immediately locked onto the food stall selling kway chap – braised pig innards served with tofu, eggs, and a flat noodle in broth. I had it for the first time on one of my initial trips to Singapore a few years back, during one of those whirlwind hawker centre experiences with Nicole and her sister Nadine – I don’t even know which one we were at – and I’ve craved the dish ever since. No kway chap meal has lived up to the first one yet, but this one was satisfying enough to end this Singapore trip on a high note. So, with a healthy slurp of the last saucy intestine tying the perfect bow onto my local breakfast tour, I grabbed my suitcase and made my way back to the airport, and back home.
In retrospect, this was a trip that I probably should have reconsidered. Though I was not short of reasons to be in Singapore – a wedding of a close friend, reuniting with ex-Hong Kongers, the incredible food – the more pressing need was back home with Ashley and Miles. The way the timing of the weekend worked out meant that she’d be alone for about a day with no one to help out with the baby. She was, of course, supportive of the trip and of my attendance at Nicole’s wedding, but a newborn can be a significant X-factor – sometimes you have good days, sometimes you have very, very, bad days. The day Ashley was alone with Miles was an example of the latter. I’d actually tried to get onto an earlier flight on Sunday, but no dice – hence how I ended up doing my breakfast-oriented plan B in the East Region, closer to Changi Airport. By the time I found myself standing outside our front door back in Hong Kong later that evening, Miles’ desperate crying leaking out into the hallway, there wasn’t any other place I’d rather be. As every traveler knows, whether you’re a weekend holiday-er or a global nomad, whether you prefer a beach and a fruity drink or a city and a faded map, whether you go for the culture or go for the thrills, and whether you travel solo or with a tour group: there’s just no place like home.