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This is one Peranakan soup that is fast to make and tasty too.
Simply prepare the ingredients, throw everything into a pot
and boil. Voilà, the soup is ready!
30 g dried shrimps
6 g belachan
34 g shallots
1 tsp white peppercorn
10 g garlic
15 g candlenut
330 g fresh, semi-ripe papaya, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 kg water
¾ tsp sugar
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp gourmet powder (optional)
1. Pound dried shrimps, belachan, shallots, peppercorn,
garlic and candlenuts.
2. Put the dried shrimp mixture, papaya and water into a
saucepan and bring it to a boil. Then switch to low heat
and simmer for ½ hour.
3. Add sugar and salt. Adjust according to taste and serve
Blue White Noise
Two walls are dirty mirrors that copy and jam the guts of this
place into grimy, tight infinities. Red plastic chairs, white
Formica tables; the white glass tubes of lights, all vibrate
and recede into the centers of the two mirrored walls. In the
back, two mainland Chinese women boil and cut yong tao
foo. They are silent.
Beneath the streetlights a river flows. Angry and worried,
a Chinese woman in a tight pink dress: the taxi stand, her
watch, the taxi stand, her watch, the rain, the taxi stand... On
TV, subtitled promises of eternal love. Then, in slowmotion,
a lit match dropping onto a bound woman struggling in a
pool of gasoline.
The 5AM man near me leans back and the mirrors grab his
orange hair. Three shopping bags by his sandals, nothing
on his table. He begins combing his hair into infinity. The
Filipinas drink Coke and make phone calls at a table covered
with Tigers and globs of chocolate cake. Young Bob Dylan
walks by with a newspaper over his head and a platinum
blonde Chinese on his arm. Bony hands. Black fingernails
jabbing the Nirvana on his T-shirt.
The vacant field. The Tiong Bahru estate. The small blue and
white signs of Kim Pong Street. One month to live.
The blue and white street signs of the Tiong Bahru estate
bear the names of some of early Singapore’s most illustrious
citizens. Eu Chin Street, for example, is named after Seah
Eu Chin, whose father was a Teochew from the Chaozhou
region of Guangdong province.
Born in 1805, Eu Chin arrived in Singapore in 1823.
After working as a clerk, he began to grow and market
gambier, a plant used in the leather-making process. The
“King of Gambier” also grew and sold pepper, managing
these ventures, and others, from his headquarters on North
Eu Chin married the daughter of a Chinese community
leader from Perak. After she died from smallpox, he married
her sister and had several children. His brother-in-law was
Tan Seng Poh, after whom Seng Poh Road is named. Eu
Chin was involved with the management of Tan Tock Seng
Hospital and also co-founded a Teochew clan association.
He helped calm the Hokkien-Teochew Riots of 1854, in
which 400 people died in 10 days of violence. After retiring
in 1864, Eu Chin devoted himself to community matters
and the study of Chinese classics. His son built him a house
that was one of Singapore’s “Four Great Mansions” (Si da
chu). Eu Chin authored One Hundred Years of the Chinese in
Singapore, a finely detailed account of the early Singaporean
Chinese community. He died on September 23, 1883.
I’m a Kway, You’re a Kway
While sitting outside at the Lim Lam Hong 2011 Christmas
Party, a simple solution to a complicated artistic challenge
presented itself. Finally!
Positive space, negative space: the rectangular wooden mold
has both. In keeping with tradition, the hollowed-out form is
shaped like a tortoise shell. Within, fine lines form octagonal
borders and designs. In the center, carved brushstrokes represent
the Chinese characters for wealth and prosperity. These are
reversed, of course.
Countless times this mold was lined with a layer of red glutinous
rice and packed with a dollop of red bean paste which, in turn,
was covered with another layer of red glutinous rice. Skilled
hands then tapped the mold and flipped it. The mold was lifted
to reveal a raw ang ku kueh.
The mold belonged to Louis’ grandmother. Brought from China
when she was a young wife, this one mold was the foundation
of a successful ang ku kueh business. I look up at the signboard
for Lim Lam Hong, Louis’ family-run company. They sell
traditional ang ku kuehs. They also sell kuehs filled with non-
traditional flavors like mango, coffee, corn, sweet potato and
yam. Each “new” flavor is color-coded. I look at the mold in my
hand. I look at the signboard. I have an idea for my artwork!
I had been invited to participate in Open House, an
annual intersection of art and uncommon Singaporean
spaces. The 2012 event was entitled Occupy: Tiong Bahru.
My exhibition space was to be the kitchen counter of a
newlywed couple living in a second floor flat in Block 18.
The work would be shown for two weekends in February.
My first idea had been to organize and document a
brainstorming/cooking session attended by Tiong Bahru’s
traditional cooks and contemporary chefs. The goal was to
create a new dish for Tiong Bahru, a mouth-watering symbol
of community-based gentrification. The new dish would
have been an East-meets-West, organic, locally-sourced (and
sustainable) culinary artwork. Great food.
However, the timing could not have been worse: the
Christmas/New Year holidays were fast approaching and
Chinese New Year festivities would start three weeks after
that. Asking people in the food business to make time for
art during their busiest time was not going to work. I needed
a new idea.
The strongest pieces in previous Open Houses were
connected with location, i.e., site-specific. My experiences
as a resident in Tiong Bahru could be inspirational. Like
everywhere in Singapore, Tiong Bahru is changing. Almost
daily, the effects of gentrification struck me. Provision shops
were vacated, construction sites popped up. Long-time
residents loaded taxis or rolled their possessions away on
flimsy carts. Ikea vans began appearing, slowly looking for
addresses. The market and the coffee shops were full of talk
about buying and selling. Rents went up. What struck me
most however, was my breakfast kueh situation.
I had come to know the auntie who sold kuehs from the
stall tucked into the corner of the coffee shop on Eng Hoon
and Tiong Poh. Kueh salat, kueh dah dah and cake slices;
every morning she offered about twenty kinds of snacks. A
smile, maybe a joke and a traditional treat to conclude my
breakfast. One day she was gone. “Rent too high,” they told
I sometimes ate at the coffee shop on the corner of Seng
Poh and Eng Watt. Another auntie, another two-shelved
stainless cart full of kuehs. A month later, she was gone.
“Rent too high,” they told me.
So I started to have more porridge at Ah Chiang. The auntie
there also had a two-shelved stainless steel cart full of kuehs.
A month later... she was gone. My breakfasts
became less pleasant, but in the bigger picture, the kueh aunties are
like canaries in coal mines. They disappear first... then the
noodle sellers, then the roast pork people, then the fruit guy,
then another kopitiam... Will breakfast choices in Tiong
Bahru soon only be Starbucks, something European or a
McBreakfast? All with parking spaces and ‘local’ customers,
i.e., yuppies, millionaires, and expats with housing
Gentrification is not the problem, lack of diversity and
creativity is. Diversity of all kinds is necessary for a healthy
planet. Hopefully, the brilliance of the Lian Choon Hng/
Two-Faced Pizza shared space concept can be an example to
all, in Tiong Bahru and beyond.
Does wealth always have to be tastelesly greedy? Isn’t it possible
to make money by respecting tradition?
There is no joy in watching Tiong Bahru become a Streamline
Moderne version of Consumeristic Everywhere.
As pleasant as the Christmas party was, I couldn’t stop
thinking about the challenge of the Open House. How to
promote diversity? How to pay tribute to the kueh aunties?
How to comment upon gentrification without sounding
sour and bitter? How to avoid sounding like a know-it-all
foreigner? How to be upbeat about loss? The answer? Kways*
in the shape of my thumb!
Fingerprints signify individuality. Identity. Illiterate residents
use fingerprints to sign receipts for food from the Tiong
Bahru Befrienders Association. Fingerprints are universal,
anonymous and mysterious. Fingerprint patterns transform
kway into sculpture. Fingerprints transcend issues of East and
West. Fingerprints are beautiful.
Ang ku kueh. My thumb.
Ang means red, ku means tortoise and kueh means pastry.
Ang ku kueh are one of the most auspicious Chinese foods.
Their red color symbolizes wealth, joy and happiness; their
tortoise shell shape represents longevity, power and tenacity.
Besides being offerings to the deities, the sweet pastries also
appear at the first month celebrations for newborns and at
the birthdays of the elderly. If you live near Lim Lam Hong,
you can eat them everyday.
So... on one side, a pastry representing 4,000 years of Chinese
civilization. On the other, the thumbprint of a middle-aged,
clueless-in-the-kitchen American. I’m a Kway, You’re a Kway
the title, referenced the very popular self-help book, I’m OK,
You’re OK. Hong Guan, a designer, worked with the mold-
to transform my flat fingerprint into a
curved plastic mold. Lim Lang Hong offered advice and
I’m A Kway, You’re a Kway eventually consisted of free
samples of normal kways, a presentation, an edition of
prints and the thumb kway artworks. A limited number
of thumb kways were sold to benefit the Tiong Bahru
Befrienders Association. About two thousand people saw
IAKYAK. Most importantly, gentrification was discussed.
The exhibition space was also a sound collage. Audio artworks
from Mark Wong and Green Zeng filled the flat with a mix of
death metal wedding vows (from Wong’s teddy bear artwork)
and Green’s Mandarin dubbed Cantonese martial arts film,
* Once I set the project into motion, I fixed the spelling as kway.
one filled with Seventies disco and fighting sound effects.
Into this mix went tour guide speeches, my talk, Q&A and
IAKYAK was also an homage to one of my favorite pieces
of contemporary art: Ferran Adrià’s G Pavillion from
Documenta 12. It was also encouraging when Google
led me to Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks.
I’m a Kway, You’re a Kway received an enthusiastic response.
People ate it up. One art critic, Louis Ho, called it “the
first instance of edible food art in Singapore,” and analyzed
IAKYAK in great detail. It is still strange for me to see my
thumbprint made of red glutinous rice and displayed on a
square piece of banana leaf. Stranger to see it being eaten.
I must confess that I was apprehensive about speaking to the
groups. I thought that jokes would be a nice way to soften
the feared harshness and clumsiness of my talk.
However, I think I did OK, even without the jokes.
Here are the jokes. I may need them someday.
Two peanuts walk into a really rough bar.
Unfortunately, one was a salted.
What do you get when you pour boiling water in a rabbit hole?
Hot cross bunny.
What is small, red and whispers?
A hoarse radish.
Why did the tomato blush?
Because it saw the salad dressing.
Waiter, waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?
I think it’s the backstroke, sir.
There are many versions of this classic Johnny Cash song on
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