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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 27, Sunday evening

Before I left San Francisco, I almost had my hair chopped off. With muggy weather ahead and a 1-quart Ziplock bag dedicated to toiletries, I figured long hair would be far too much trouble. Fortunately, the hair appointment was never made.

This weekend, I was an honorary bibik, courtesy of the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Association of Singapore. (Bibik is actually the traditional title given to older Peranakan women, but we were all called bibiks for the day.) On both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I served as an obedient model for Mr. Peter Wee and his Baba friends, Richard Wee and GT Lye. They dressed me in antique clothing and decorated my hair with gold hair pins, as any proper Peranakan woman would have been in decades past.

In the old days, a woman performed this daily ritual herself or else enlisted the aid of one of her daughters or maids.
For me, two men who have studied the art of the complex bun, known as a sanggul, worked together to knot my hair. I sat as still as I could while they tamed my hair with a special curved, fine-toothed comb and then tightly wrapped it. They inserted two long, thick, gilt pins to hold the bun in place. A third, decorative pin added sparkle. Then they finished with a fringe of flowers woven into a narrow, curved comb.

Mr. Wee’s beautiful mother. She told me she was jealous of my bibik outfit, but then she gave me a kiss on my cheek and reminded me that I need to get married. Mrs. Wee also taught me some good tips on chewing betel nut.

A batik sarong from Java, an embroidered organza robe from Europe, gold pins in place of buttons, brightly beaded slippers, and a silk handkerchief arranged over my shoulder helped transformed me into a lovely Peranakan lady. To top it all off, I chewed sireh, or betel nut, for red teeth and a head buzz.  Bibik Kim, Bibik Irene and I wandered among the crowd gathered at Bugis Junction for the Museum Fest.  People were very curious.
Many asked me how the outfit felt, and some even wanted to know how much they needed to pay to get dressed up, too. My favorite moments were when older folks would identify themselves as Peranakans, sharing memories about watching their grandmothers tie up their hair or telling me what kinds of dishes their family ate.


May 28, Monday evening

Feeling homesick yesterday, I strolled through Jason's Marketplace. The little candy bars, the plastic-wrapped wedges of cheese, the neon colors of the cereal aisle—I felt like I was back at Safeway. It actually ended up being pretty upscale, with Parma ham at the deli counter and Penfold's in the wine cellar (as in a glass-encased, climate-controlled room at the back of the store.) I just planned to browse, since I'm on My Big Asian Food Trip. But it didn't take long to convinced myself that everyone needs a day of rest.

I bought a completely random armful of Mezzetta's pickled vegetables, caperberries, prosciutto, Manchego cheese, plain yogurt, and a baguette. Unfortunately, Jason's did not have instant ramen. With comfort food galore, I headed home (no laksa for me today) and ate in bed. Considering all the new and abundant food I've enjoyed these past two weeks, this strange feast felt immensely decadent.

I finally tried a durian puff. It looked like a scrumptious profiterole, but it didn't taste like one. A small bite was enough. Its intense flavor and fragrance immediately overwhelmed me. My Singaporean friend was amazed, since the little treat is considered a mild form of durian. "People buy these by the dozens, twenty-four, thirty-six at a time." I wrapped the puff back up and tucked it into my bag to finish later. I've definitely enjoyed durian before and have even made ice cream with it, so it must be that I just needed to ease back in. As it were, I learned that the smell of durian can penetrate paper, plastic, cloth, and fake leather. Everything in my bag took on the fragrance of the innocent looking puff, from my journal to my money to my extra set of clothing.

I was told not to worry about finishing the rest of the durian puff. Singaporeans can relate, since blue cheese has the exact same effect on their palates and noses.

At least I can say that I've learned the art of spooning noodles. In most of Southeast Asia (Vietnam insists on being the exception to everything), you only bring a spoon or your fingertips to your mouth. A fork is used only to push food onto the spoon, like the left-handed knives of Europe. The setting for noodle soups will include chopsticks, but here in Singapore, even they are not to touch your lips. Except for catching the occasional stray fish ball, you should only use your chopsticks to arrange noodles and garnishes on your spoon. Even burly guys at hawker stalls don't slurp. As a veteran of noisy pho, I had a tough adjustment period. But it's so obviously out of place here that it didn't take long. Of course, you can still pile your gnawed bones on the table.


May 29, Tuesday morning

All the fixings are ready to go for the lunch crowd.

For the second time, I trekked out to Outram Park Block 27 (they were closed on Monday) for bak ku teh, a pork rib soup that some in Singapore really like. Others seem lukewarm about the peppery broth and little pork nibbles. But since I love the pepper-infused soups of Burma, I figured I'd like this one, yet another classic Singaporean treat. Near the entrance of Ah Hua restaurant, low shelves hold over 70 containers of tea. A tiny pot on each table can be refilled with hot water from tea kettles, kept on metal stands throughout the restaurant. Flyers everywhere announced to their loyal customers that they'll be moving down the road a bit. From all the autographed photos of politicians and Hong Kong movie stars, I could see the soup shop was a popular Singapore stopover for the rich and famous.

As I sipped the broth and spooned it over my rice, my bowl of bak ku teh was topped off with more hot, peppery broth. It didn't have the spicy bite of chile heat. Rather, it was the low warmth of peppercorns. The pork wasn't that tender. I was expecting fall-off-the-sparerib kind of meat, but the broth was so good that I just kept spooning that. For me, their sliced fish soup and their mustard greens soup were both better flavored and better cooked. Of course, they were trying to convince me that three bowls was much to much for one woman. Little did they know!

More Singapore >

May 2001