Hello again, Singapore
Singapore and Hong Kong, two tropical Asian metropolises unavoidably linked together by thick threads of history, trade, industry, culture, and even family. Both defined by island geographies, both former British colonies, both of majority Chinese heritage (though in Hong Kong’s case it is almost entirely Chinese), both major global financial hubs, and, perhaps most importantly, both boasting world class food scenes. It’s not unusual to come across Singaporeans working in the financial sector in Hong Kong, and vice versa, with Hong Kong having an edge in the investment banking and the fund management side of things, and Singapore leading the way in private banking and fintech. But the flow of people from one city to the other has existed for decades, and my Hong Kong-born uncle has lived (and worked, married, and retired) in Singapore since the 1960s, planting our little family flag on the island state.
For this most recent trip to Singapore, the occasion was to celebrate another tie between the two cities: Brian, a friend of mine from church here in Hong Kong, was celebrating his wedding to his now-wife Jocelyn, a dentist originally from Singapore. They had done the official ceremony in Hong Kong the week before and the plan was to do the dinner reception in Singapore for the benefit of Jocelyn’s family and friends. As part of his team of groomsmen, I flew down to offer my help and support, but also to stuff my face with food. As with my last trip to Singapore, I took this trip alone, although I felt a bit better about it now that Miles is more settled and predictable as a baby, as far as babies go. Still, weddings are best enjoyed with Ashley, and I missed having her there with me.
So, after an uneventful afternoon flight (during which I started about eight movies and stopped all of them after the first ten or so minutes before settling on a Korean coming-of-age romance that dropped an emotional bomb on me), I met up with another groomsmen, Derek, at the hotel where we were splitting a room with a third groomsmen, Yale. Derek had arrived earlier in the day from wintry Tokyo, and after a whole day sweating it out in the tropical heat he was in no condition to go out again. And that’s how I ended up eating bak kut teh by myself at Outram Park Ya Hua Rou Gu Cha on my first night in Singapore. This dish is the real MVP, humble though it may look, and I couldn’t think of a better meal to get the weekend started.
Breakfast in Little India
The next morning, the three of us caught a ride over to the Little India neighbourhood, where a couple of other friends (and wedding guests), Enoch and Sharon, were staying. We met up with them at the Tekka Centre, a massive complex of markets, shops, and food stalls under one roof serving the local community. I’d say about a third of the food stalls were Chinese, while the rest were a mix of Indian, Sri Lankan, and Malay. After wandering the aromatic rows of the food centre, I ended up with a couple plates of roti prata, a bowl of dry wonton noodles with crispy wontons, and a cup of special chendol, an intoxicating mixture of grass jelly, coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup.
We hung out for a bit afterwards at the outdoor eating area, catching up on what we’d been up to so far in Singapore, but Derek and Yale were itching to get back to the hotel for some R&R, so we bade farewell to Enoch and Sharon until the wedding reception at night. By the time we reached the front entrance of our hotel on Sentosa, the heat was really starting to get uncomfortable, so we took the chance to go check out the hotel pool. For whatever reason, there was no one else at the freakishly-long pool that day, or at least during the hour or so that I was there, and that suited us just fine. I hung out in the shallow kiddy pool section for a bit, and I did my fair share of floating on my back staring up at the blue skies and white clouds, but I also made sure to swim a few laps back and forth. I’d perhaps eaten more than I should have for breakfast, and I needed to prepare myself for lunch.
Old Airport Road
There was a recent survey that asked 25,000 people in 24 countries their opinions on various national cuisines, and less than half of all respondents liked Singaporean food. Italian, Chinese, and Japanese took the top three spots, while Singaporean was ranked 18th out of 34 (Hong Kong was 14). Surprisingly (to me), Australians were the second most favourable on Singaporean food (after Singaporeans themselves), followed by Malaysians, Hong Kongers, and Filipinos. I don’t really know what to do with that information, but it seems wrong that Singaporean food ranked so low. I definitely give it a leg up on some of the cuisines that ranked higher, like Thai, Korean, German, British, and Taiwanese.
But perhaps my opinion of Singaporean food has also been boosted by my experience of it throughout the years. I think I’ve mentioned this in almost all of my previous posts on Singapore, but my introduction to the national cuisine was delivered via supreme hospitality and constant unexpected delight. Singaporean friends took me to hawker centres and sat me down at empty tables, disappearing and coming back with trays of dishes I’d never seen before. So much of what I feel about Singaporean food is tied up in ideas of friendship, community, and hospitality, and even now when I eat Singaporean food in Hong Kong, it’s with a group of close friends that enjoy eating together.
I say all this as background to my lunch that day, when I met up with my friend Nicole at the Old Airport Road Food Centre. Nicole and her family were one of the first to introduce me to Singaporean food on my first visit to the country over ten years ago, thus kickstarting my love affair with their national cuisine. The last time I was in Singapore was for Nicole’s wedding at the Crazy Rich Asians chapel, and we caught up about married life, work, and family over kway chap, oyster omelette, Hokkien mee, and satay skewers. And just like old times, Nicole insisted on paying for everything – gotta love Singaporean hospitality.
In the late afternoon, after Nicole had dropped me off at my hotel, I started getting ready for the wedding reception at night. The dinner wasn’t scheduled to start until around 8:00 pm, but us groomsmen were asked to be there closer to 4:30 pm in case we needed to help out with anything. The venue was none other than The Capella, where current leader of the free world President Trump held an infamous summit last summer with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un. A few of us came across the plaque commemorating the event installed into the red tiles surrounding the garden paths inside, and a group of Korean tourists were taking handshake photographs on top of it. Naturally, we did the same.
Closer to the start of the evening, we reunited with Enoch and Sharon, as well as other friends in town for the reception. The great thing about weddings, especially once you reach a certain stage in life, is how it brings together friends separated by time and distance, and then it feels like nothing has changed at all. Our table was filled with friendships formed from over a decade ago, when most of us moved to Hong Kong with no clue or purpose, though it was that very purposelessness that forged these relationships. Years of effortless banter and wit flowed like wine from our little corner of the event hall, and it was a very good night. The good times continued long after the last dance and groomsman speech, as the wedding party migrated to Jigger and Pony, a cocktail bar ranked 42 in the 2018 version of Asia’s 50 Best Bars.
This weekend in Singapore was good for many reasons, but near the very top was the opportunity to spend a few days with a group of guy friends that have defined a large part of my time here in Asia. We all moved to Hong Kong at around the same time, bonding over all-day video game sessions, movie marathon nights, and early morning karaoke benders. We supported one another through bad jobs, breakups, and homesickness, but we’ve also had the privilege to witness professional successes, to stand as groomsmen in each other’s weddings, and to toast new beginnings as some moved on from Hong Kong altogether. And there were many long nights of prayer. We traveled together to Malaysia, Nepal, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam, including one memorable bachelor weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, when life in Hong Kong got too burdensome, and when we couldn’t get out of the city we took refuge in our brotherhood together.
Even then, life has a way of, well, getting in the way. Over the last few years, as some moved away and others of us started families, it got harder to find the time together that, in earlier days, we seemed to have in abundance. Certain friendships and connections frayed and faded, though we’d be hard-pressed to point to an exact moment when the wave peaked and began receding. But the foundation of those friendships was always there, and it took but a few concentrated hours together to uncover the familiarity and brotherly love that can only be built up over years of intentional relationship-building together. In a way this wedding weekend provided an opportunity to remember how good things used to be, and to actively lean in to picking up where we left off. And that’s why this may have been my favourite trip to Singapore yet.