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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

SINGAPORE (continued)

May 24, Thursday night

A group of stunningly beautiful, playfully rowdy group of transvestites has taken over the internet cafe. Repeated cries of "You sly bitch!" in a British Malay accent liven up the dead quiet space as I hurry to write up captions for the latest batch of photos. I've been lax about writing, mainly because I've been avoiding mall-paved Orchard Road where many of the cybercafes are. But here are a few quick notes from the road....

It's been almost ten years since I last had a sip of fresh coconut juice, back in Vietnam where my cousins would scramble up the family's trees for me whenever I was thirsty. Here, at the cozy, triangular courtyard of Tiong Bahru market, the hawker whacks at the young, green nut a few times with a large knife to carve off a lid. He drops in two straws for sipping the coconut's clear, sweet juice and a large spoon for scraping out its still tender meat. A glass mug of ice on the side helps cool the juice for an even more refreshing treat.
Teochew fish ball soup is another favorite dish at hawker centres. I thought I didn't like fish balls, but after eating freshly made ones here, I realized that those gummy, tasteless, gray lumps I've had before are not really fish balls. This stall at Tiong Bahru serves up a pretty decent bowl, my favorite part being, of course, the crunchy golden brown bits of fried pork fat sprinkled on top. Beats Saltines or soup oysters any day.
Mr. Peter Wee takes me into the back room of his antique shop to show me a wall of his family's portraits and his collection of traditional Peranakan clothing. He also demonstrates the art of the Nyonya bun, Malacca style, as he learned it from a bibik (older Nyonya women) who could even wrap her own hair. It was a specific style involving very long hair, a complicated combination of twists and loops, a special set of hair clips, and combs woven with flowers to finish. Traditionally, Nonya women only let their hair down on two occasions: during the special combing ceremony in preparation for their wedding and immediately after their husband's death.


May 25, Friday afternoon

Mr. Wee's bright blue antique store sits in a row of Peranakan shop houses.

Mr. Wee's maternal grandfather from Malacca, Tan Cheng Kee, purchased a row of four buildings after his success with founding the Singapore Steamship Company. They sit on East Coast Road, a busy street running through the Peranakan district of Katong. With the space he inherited 25 years, Mr. Wee established the Katong Antique House, a museum and shop dedicated to all things Peranakan.

As a seventh-generation Baba, he combines a love of the old with a healthy pragmatism about changing times. Mr. Wee is a self-appointed keeper of cultural knowledge, but he understands that every age must adapts its traditions to sustain them. In the kitchen, this means premixed spices and frozen ingredients to encourage a younger generation to prepare classic Nyonya dishes. The food will never taste the same, of course. Even well-respected Peranakan restaurants serve simplified versions of time-consuming recipes. But he warns that it's fruitless to maintain cultural traditions with no flexibility. "Purity will only destroy itself. It cannot be sustained."

But Mr. Wee does have his limits when it comes to the modern pace of life. The phone rings while we talk. He waits for the fifth ring before shuffling over to pick it up. "I never hurry to answer the phone." Someone wants to build a homepage for him. He politely declines, then turns to me, "I survived all this time, what would I want with a website now?"

The old Katong Bakery and Confectionary Company.

A bright red bakery still stands on East Coast Road. Once owned by the Hainanese Chinese, who also ran many of the city's coffee shops for over a hundred years, these distinctive "red house bakeries" churned out the sweeties that accompanied a strong cup of freshly roasted, freshly brewed coffee. Hainan lies just off of China's southern corner. Immigrants from the coconut-covered island started arriving in Singapore during the Ming Dynasty, but it was a sparse trickle due to the Ming's strict emigration policies. Many more were able to come during the mid-1800s in the aftermath of the Opium War.

Red bakeries also prepared the jian diu dumplings served at weddings and other festive events. Another Hainan specialty was suyan bing, a thin-crusted mooncake made with tangerine instead of more expensive egg yolks and lotus paste. The lighter cake, originally an invention of cash-strapped immigrants, is now a traditional treat for Singapore's Hainan community during the Autumn Moon Festival.

The Hainanese were known for their coffee. A standard breakfast they served at their coffee houses would include charcoal grilled bread topped with big pats of butter and spread with kaya, a thick, sweet, yellow jam reduced slowly from egg and coconut. Although the Hainanese have moved on to other occupations, you can still enjoy kaya toast at neighborhood cafes.

Sweet, steamed rice cakes are a tasty snack.

Two years ago, Kazimah opened up her table of a stall just a few doors up from the Katong Bakery and Confectionary Company. She sells soft rice cakes, flavored with chewy bits of rich, brown, almost smoky caramelized sugar and then individually steamed in stainless steel cups. They look like idli and have the same texture if a less fermented flavor. Two cakes nestle on a bed of square-cut leaves, pandanus I think from their fragrance, and receive a dusting of grated coconut. Unlike most hawkers, Kazimah has turned some of her attention to marketing, having printed up business cards that she readily offers to me.

At the corner of Orchard and Scott roads lies Tangs department store, with a Chinese facade complete with two huge lion statues. Inside, though, you'll find racks hung with the latest fashions, a maze of cosmetic counters, and a basement packed with Western-style household gadgets. I wandered into the basement in search of a shortcut through mall-land. I ended up staying hours, sucked into the frenzy of a two-day "Great Singapore Sale." When in Rome....

The smell of fried garlic led me to the kitchenware section where cooking demonstrations helped congest the narrow aisles. I tasted a papaya smoothie from a nifty blender. When I asked about the ingredients, the man told me papaya and fresh milk were all I would need. Still, there was a vaguely familiar yet unidentifiable taste to the pink frothy mix. He finally admitted, "If you want better flavor, though, use soy milk."

The perfect pancake.

Another man was demonstrating the versatility of nonstick woks produced by a European company. The women gathered seemed skeptical. He showed how to fry an egg over-easy, how to swirl a paper-thin poh pia skin, even how to cook up some Chinese broccoli. The climax, though, was a pan-cake. Pronounced with a Western accent amidst his blur of Mandarin, it seemed to create some excitement in the growing circle of observers. He mixed the batter for each pancake in a little, plastic bowl. He showed how to wipe a glimmer of oil on the pan with a paper towel. He pointed out the holes to look for at the edge before turning. No tastes were offered, but we all got to pinch the edge of the pancake when it was passed around.

A palm cockatoo is heavier than it looks. Sadly, the species has been severely thinned by a thriving black market trade in live birds.

Early on Tuesday, I headed to the Jurong Bird Park for breakfast with the songbirds. You can eat your fill at the brunch buffet, where roti prata, nasi lemak, croissants, and congee all have their place. Beneath the terrace, hundreds of flamingoes pose at the edge of their own lake, while all above tiny songbirds trill from beautiful, old cages. As the only one eating, I thought I'd enjoy a quiet meal. (I later learned that hundreds of people were at the show pavilion listening to parrots sing Japanese folk songs and "Happy Birthday".) But a young man with a huge green macaw on his arm informed me they were going to offer a private show. Against all protests, another three bird handlers approached my table. A giant dalmatian pelican, a palm cockatoo, and a sulphur-crested cockatoo followed not far behind. 

Birds and humans entertained me for almost half an hour, even insisting that I pull out my camera, take photos, and finally, pose in them myself. Latif, the head bird man, told me all about his feathered friends: that the waist-high pelican was only six months old but could already hold 15 kg of fish in its generous mouth, that the bare patch on the palm cockatoo's breast stemmed from the poor bachelor bird's stressing over being single, and that macaws make smart, playful, mischievous, loving pets. I asked Latif if he had studied ornithology. "Oh no," he said, "Marketing. I'm going to go back, though. More money." He then left me to my cold breakfast.

Fortunately, the rest of the park offers more subdued observation of their spectacular birds. The natural settings of the huge aviaries allow you to wander beneath trees, listening for calls and looking for flashes of color. In the Southeast Asian Aviary, I was caught in the thunderstorm scheduled at noon every day. Highlights for me included the specially lit building where nocturnal birds are visible and my chance encounter with a diminutive Gallus gallus murghi, more commonly known as the Indian jungle fowl and less commonly known as the ancestor of our modern-day chicken.

More Singapore >

May 2001