Let’s go on a journey, into places unseen and yet, somehow, impossibly, in front of our faces the entire time. To back paths through public houses and ancient cemeteries and down ill-lit streets that in any other city of the world would reek of danger and dread and a thousand other nameless things; not chicken and curry and the wealth of spices in this surreal place. We’ll walk past playgrounds and well-lit futsal fields housed in cages that resemble something from a wrestling match. Oh, don’t think too much of it – it’s hard to imagine anyone even playing on this field if not on a Saturday night. Life moves differently here, but it, much like the best food cities do, revolves around food.
This journey began last week, as I met a lunch table full of men, other expats and trailing husbands like myself. They do this weekly, this lunchtime meeting, and I so enjoyed the food and company that I repeated my visit to the spacious Shaw Centre food court, filled with the various pleasures of Singapore’s food scene – food from every corner of Asia, staples like char kway teow and chicken rice and of course a plethora of coffee drinks. I said little, content to listen, but participated actively when the conversation turned to travel.
John, the man sitting across me, was revealed to be the expert on Bali, having just gone with his wife. He had some great advice about enjoying the island without the bustle of tourists, but conversation can only linger on travel for so long when one side hasn’t done any. We began to talk about how long we’ve been here, where we’re from1turns out, John & his wife Kathy are from Cleveland, so, yay, they hit the lottery with this move, where we’re living within the city, which is when the conversation became very interesting, because John turns out to be my neighbor, two lobbies down from me.
Food is never far from the minds of islanders here. How can it be with the amazing choices we have at our fingertips? So it was with my neighbor and I, talking about the local hawker places, the wet market down on Commonwealth Crescent and some of the places that he and his wife had found in their six months here. It was to my amazement that they had found at least two hidden hawker centers in another public housing area right under our noses. This city never ceases to amaze, so many hidden things right out in front of you.
We made a plan to meet Saturday night, the four of us and walk down somewhere for some local fare. We settled on the large food court in Holland Village for ease and comfort, but talked of the various other paths you can take around the area. Dinner was, as always, amazing – four new friends sitting around a table under a fan, watching the foot traffic on Lor Mabong. We all agreed that one of our favorites in that particular centre is the “Happy Chef”, as John referred to him, referencing his always-smiling demeanor. Happy Chef makes a variety of meat & rice or noodle combinations, so you can have your favorite protein (I’m partial to the ginger chicken or pepper beef) on either rice or hor fun noodles with a bit of sauce. It was validating, perhaps on both sides, to see someone else from America, or just another “ang mo”2literally red hair, referring to all us secret gingers enjoying the local food and not eating out at a restaurant every night, or having a helper do all the cooking as so many of our well-off neighbors seem to do.
We walked back along a different route, seeking out the hawker stalls that John had told us about. Instead of walking back up the hill on which we live, we walked along side it, almost towards where we come out when walking to the Commonwealth markets and food centers, back along poorly lit streets and past some of the local carparks. A couple and their boy played frisbee as we approached one of the stall areas where the “Odd Couple”, two chefs, one young, one old, plied their skills. This was one of John & Kathy’s favorites, a mix-and-match sort of affair where you could select from any number of veggies. Also back here was “Famous Chicken Rice”, purporting to be the best at Singapore’s national dish. I will of course have to investigate.
We walked along an older Chinese cemetery as well, where thousands of white, meter-tall markers stood in perfect rows, too close together to mark burials, as Kathy explained that the remains were interred within a nearby mausoleum and crematorium. The night, now impossibly warming from a day of rain, stood still for a moment, before the spot lights from the Marina Bay Sands could be seen. A breathless pause in a city that never stops amazing me.