“Try this prata (a South Indian flat bread made by frying stretched dough with ghee and served with fish or mutton curry) with the chicken curry. The prata is Indian, while the chicken curry is cooked Singaporean Chinese style. Super authentic!” I prattled to my friends, excited to share more about our local cuisine.
I was having a meal out with a diverse group of friends – between the five of us we held Singaporean, Chinese, French, Greek, and Romanian passports – at Orchard CRC, one of my favourite restaurants in Shanghai. To feed my desire to showcase what our cuisine has to offer, I had ordered a smorgasbord of dishes that lay out across the table from end to end.
Food at Orchard CRC Credit: 大众点评
Jing'An temple in Shanghai
During the course of eating, my friends oohed and ahhed as we jumped from dish to dish, going through classic staples like sambal kangkong (spinach stir-fried in hot Indonesian sauce) and mee goreng (a flavourful, spicy noodle dish). It was a culinary adventure as we navigated between the sweet and savory chye tow kway (a dish of Teochew cuisine, consisting of stir-fried cubes of radish cake), both black and white, of course, to the spicy laksa (spicy noodle soup popular in Peranakan cuisine), and transited from the tenderness of the Hainanese chicken to the crunch of the cereal prawns.
“Wow, I really like the variety of dishes you ordered today, they have such interesting flavors,” Adrien commented with an unmistakable French accent. “Singapore is a really vibrant and exciting place to live in, just like how I remember.”
“Really? I always thought Singapore was a boring place. In Romania, the most famous thing we hear about Singapore is the ban on chewing gum. Maybe I should visit there one day…” Lory wondered out loud.
Her words struck a chord with me. I tried to recall what I did on weekends. Beyond the occasional house parties and potlucks, other activities that popped up in my mind were typical and predictable: cafes, bars, watching the latest movies, or cycling in East Coast Park. Also while not always the situation, conversations with friends overwhelmingly index high around [choose one of the following topics: PSLE, ERP, BTO, ROM, or CPF] – functional, practical, everyday topics.
In my mind, Singapore life is homogeneous. Static. Boring. It clashed with my Singapore pride, but at the moment, I was unable to refute her with conviction.
At that moment, Adrien shared, “I don’t agree. Singapore is actually a vibrant place, and there are so many things to do. When I was there in 2016, I was staying near the Esplanade Theatre at Marina Bay. Almost every night, there was a performance at the Outdoor Theatre.”
She chortled, “I heard of Marina Bay, that is where the floating sky pool is at, right? That is such an expensive place. The food before and drinks after would be too expensive.”
I agreed silently in my mind. This must be why even though I knew about the Esplanade performances, they were never top of mind, I thought.
“Yes, it is expensive there but the performances I saw were free. You won’t be able to find free performances at that quality in many countries,” he countered.
“He made a fair point too”, my mind registered as I took a swig of my Milo Peng to wash down the polite piece of potato swimming in the orange curry gravy.
Looking up from WeChat, where she was mindlessly scrolling through her social feed, Freya chimed in, “Yeah, Singapore has changed quite a bit compared to the past. My Singaporean friends told me that the Government actually invests money to promote the arts and culture. I think fun activities are still limited, but it is definitely getting more interesting now.”
“Well, I guess I will have to head to Singapore to see for myself then. Who is up for a weekend trip this year?” Lory asked while looking around, excited at the prospect of a getaway.
We were all too preoccupied with the cendol (an iced sweet dessert that contains droplets of worm-like green rice flour jelly, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup) that was served to give a reply.
As we finished off the remnants of our dinner, I reflected on our conversation. I have to admit: like a typical Singaporean, I tend to engage in our favourite pastime of complaining. When looking at life in Singapore, I readily adopted a pessimistic lens, looking at what was lacking rather than what was available. On hindsight, by defaulting to the accessible and available, my weekends typically ended up around food across predictable haunts.
But while Singapore is small, we do try to punch above our weight. These range from art exhibitions – both free and ticketed – at Gillman Barracks and indie films and events at the Projector, to guided nature tours at Chek Jawa Wetlands. There are also headwinds of change from the grassroots as Singaporeans strive to redefine what life can be like on our little red dot in their own way. Geylang Adventures, a not-for-profit organization, regularly hosts events such as #backalleybarbers, a pop-up barbershop where volunteers offer haircuts to migrant workers and the poor on a weekend every month, and #backalleybadminton, a weekly event featuring a mix of Singaporeans, migrant workers with a side of sports.
Geylang Adventures Facebook Page
I am confident that Singapore is definitely on an upward trajectory to redefine our “same old boring lives”, and I look forward to my life when I return to the +65 in future.