Singapore

It’s 8 a.m. here in Singapore.

I’m sitting outside on a balcony on the 16th floor of the Espada condominium in the Somerset neighborhood. From here I can look ahead and into other people’s property – that is, other homes in other luxury abodes surrounding me. There are at least a dozen within a two mile radius of where I sit of similar high-rise buildings exuding the same posh status akin to the one I’m staying in also represents.

According to my friend Ryan, with whom my wife and I are staying, many of his building’s residents are expats – and this particular neighborhood is well-populated with Westerners from around the world. Ryan is American, as are my wife and I, though we are all also Asian, which we all agreed, makes for many less-than-ideal introductory conversations surrounding “where we’re from”.

Ryan is placed here temporarily for work and he’s been put up handsomely. From his bedroom he has a panoramic view of the Somerset neighborhood at his daily disposal. Each room of his “modest” apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows, as if peering into other people’s places is one of the many understood perks of living in such residences at all.

If I had actually lived in this unit, I would likely be engaging in unhealthy amounts of people-watching and would probably indulge in my fair share of voyeurism (My wife acknowledged that she would probably do the same, and so I feel a little less alone in my admission).

Because it is still quite early in the morning, Singapore at its most bustling and buzzy is less apparent. It feels more like a quiet jungle interspersed with high-rise concrete structures darting up from the ground (Which appropriately, beckons the the “concrete jungle” saying).

To the left of the balcony is another development, the only blight to an otherwise, stunning view from above. It looks to be the beginnings of another residential building, still in the stage of exposed beams and rusted metal. According to Ryan, next to the development is a tiny residential building, which apparently, houses the migrant workers that have been hired to work on the development next door.

It is Sunday, today, and early, but I can already tell, these workers won’t be having today off.

Besides the rumored worker housing and the eyesore of early construction, there is little about this neighborhood that feels any less manicured into a self-contained sort of perfection. It looks like the neighborhood was built especially for their own residents to walk around in, to bask and delight in the magnificence of where they live.

I write this knowing full well that this temporary fantasy world of luxury will cease in the next 24 hours, as my wife and I will return to our humble abode on Penang Island, where we must downgrade to the 15th floor balcony view instead.

Where we live in Penang is far from shabby, as well. What we earn, however, is absolutely modest which requires us, in turn, to actually live modestly, as well. Still, we both value living simply and with unwavering commitment we hope to actually do so (Which makes having a partial ocean view from the 15th floor of our rented apartment already a slight compromise).

I told my wife last night, that I didn’t want, to want all of this.

What I mean is, I don’t want to have this festering desire to accumulate more than what my family and I need, simply because the kind of lifestyle around me seems to demand it. As if luxury, begets more luxury – which I believe, it would.

And to be clear, I mean this not as an indictment of my friend Ryan’s lifestyle. He was gifted with an opportunity to come to live in Singapore temporarily for work, and he’s genuinely taken to this little, powerful cosmopolitan city-state. He didn’t choose this way of living for himself – it was given. And if I were in his position, offered a chance to live in a safe, exclusive neighborhood, high above the rapid living below, there’s a good chance I’d take it in a heartbeat too.

But I’d want to be able to leave it all behind, just as easily, if I could.

I want to live with enough conviction to walk away the moment I felt a borrowed lifestyle consumed me more than my own integrity did. I’d much rather, still, the latter.

I can imagine the comfortable living here to feel, almost contagious. Like a kind of good-feeling disease people wouldn’t mind having, or sharing, for that matter.

I’m allowing myself a little room for judgment here, so I’m just going to say this: in Singapore, to have things, just seems so utterly, Singaporean. As if there isn’t another desirable way to live, than to accumulate wealth and establish comfort. That said, I want any Singaporean friends to show me something else. I invite any passionate sort of retort to my judging, American ways.

Had I had loads of cash at my disposal, I’m afraid I may have burned it all quickly on this short trip, as if I needed to purchase things I didn’t really need because purchasing things is exactly what people did here. Even those without much money, I imagine, still found things they could afford to purchase.

Perhaps I’m not saying anything particularly egregious when I say that this country reeks of rampant materialism (Though, I suppose, by saying it that way, I’m not exactly saying it, nicely either, even if it were true). I can’t help but imagine some thoughtful Singaporean citizens having already made this sort of a self-condemnation long ago, and often. I don’t imagine everyone is swept up by an uncontrollable desire to accumulate things, or to literally “rise up” into a luxury home. But I do get the sense that the pressure to want this for oneself, in a place like this, that beams with material success, is more than just palpable. The pressure might be boiling over, for many…

Though, maybe not for everybody.

When I see women sweeping the balconies of the apartments across from where I sit, I wonder what it is that they really want, living here. Or the men hired to build an apartment complex they likely could never afford living in in their lifetime – what do they desire? Or perhaps the maid pushing around the stroller behind the family with a newborn – what would she like to have for herself?

I’d hate to start assuming everyone wants the same things.

As I said earlier, for me, I wouldn’t want, to want any of this, really. Perhaps luckily for me, I actually get to leave it.

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Chicken, In Chapters

I grew up calling it “Singaporean white chicken”.

My dad must have picked up the recipe during his travels with my mom around Southeast Asia in their heyday.

It is a simple dish – a whole chicken, first boiled and then dunked in ice and served at room temperature. The broth from the chicken serves as the soup for the meal later, infused with extra flavor from its own innards, pandan leaves and green onion. Some of the broth it set aside to make the “chicken rice”, also flavored with pandan and chicken skin.

It is a most economical meal – every thing is used: the chicken, the innards, the broth, the skin. The most laborious part of the preparation is in the chopping of ginger and garlic which will serve as the foundation for the sauce used to top the white meat. Add soy sauce and sesame oil, and the sauce is ready to be served.

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This was my favorite meal as a child. I loved lifting up the cover of the rice bowl and letting the steam fill my nostrils – the slightest hint of chicken flavor permeating the air and entering my system.

It was the only time I really enjoyed eating ginger. I would top off the piece of chicken leg on my plate with the diced up bits of ginger swimming in sesame oil. Soon my plate would be brimming with broth, each and every morsel of rice flooded with flavor, every grain immersed in the salty soup. And I would consume my meal, or in my words, “clean up my plate”, all the way to the very last morsel, indeed.

And I always had a bigger share than everyone else. My brother’s palate, somehow, strangely, not finding the same pleasurable sensation as did mine. And so, I just ate up his share, with no regard for leaving leftovers. The meal had become my meal. It was a treat reserved, solely, for me.

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I hardly knew where I was or where I was headed.

I hardly remember anything from my little adventure. Only that I got on the train, and then I walked for what felt like hours around what appeared to beĀ  a deserted town in Singapore, searching desperately for chicken.

It was the summer of 2007 (or was it 2006?) and I joined my parents for a week-long trip to Singapore for reunion concert the were having with their former bandmates. Apparently, they still had a loyal fan-base in this little country, decades after they had performed now-classic 70’s tunes for Singapore’s yuppie audience hungry for any kind of western pop music.

Still somewhat fresh off a trip back to Manila wherein I spent my summer literally ‘slumming’ with young teens trying to turn their lives around and get skills and education, suffice it to say, I wasn’t particularly interested in experiencing anything glitzy or glamorous in this highly cosmopolitan, Southeast Asian neighbor of the Philippines.

There were few things I had explicitly wanted on the trip. But I knew the one thing I needed – an authentic taste of my favorite childhood meal.

So, there was a train ride. A lot of walking. A lot of nothing, to be frank. Shops were closed due to a national holiday. It might’ve been Hari Raya Puasa. No one, with the exception of a few other tourists like myself, was roaming the streets.

I tried distracting myself by shooting photographs. But it didn’t take long before having no people around to picture, eroded my picture-taking interest. I was getting bored, and I was getting hungry. It was overcast, but it was hot.

As if divinely-appointed, I found an open restaurant. There may have been roasted ducks hanging by the window. I may have been their only customer. But I was exhausted and lacking in options. This would be the place.

I opened up the menu and made sure that it was available. True enough, my adventure had reached its climax. It had come to its final stage. This would be the highlight I’d come back telling my parents about.

To simply say, that I had “Singaporean white chicken”, in Singapore.

I would learn that it was actually, Hainanese.

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Every time I have it, it tastes exactly the same. The mixture of the ginger and the garlic. The oiliness of the sauce. The fresh, though nearly bland taste of chicken breast meat. The subtle nuances of flavor in the rice.

It was the same as a child. The same in Singapore. And the same now.

The comfort I receive is consistent. There are no surprises with this meal, and I like it, that this is so. I want nothing about it to be different. I want it just as I’ve always had it, and it fails to disappoint.

It is second-nature to her – the making of this meal, and I am lucky. It is a recipe written in her roots, a staple meal in Malaysia so easy to make, and yet so satisfying.

She commands the kitchen, calm and fully in control. Only the faintest signs of stress are visible to me, and they come only from a cook who knows her craft. Who knows the nuances of her recipe too well to ignore the slightest, imperfect details.

A slight and passing comment about the mixture of ginger and garlic in the sauce. And only because I ask. A bit miffed at the redness of the exposed marrow from the chicken bones – the slightest traces of blood still leaking. A bit bothered by the chicken skin coming undone, a small tear from the tongs I used to pick up the whole chicken and dump it haphazardly in the bucket of ice water. I apologize.

She says it isn’t my fault.

She is still in control.

Watching her swiftly move about in her kitchen is like watching an artist fixated at creating the perfect piece, embellishing accordingly, complaining to herself quietly, as she knows she is being watched.

She remains her biggest critic, and rightfully so. For this meal, this creation, I expect no less.

I frustratedly peel a cucumber, internally incensed by how ugly it looks when I’m through with it. Gently she takes the cucumber and slices it into small pieces, and shows me how the design I had attempted to make still turned out beautiful in the end. She has a way of doing these things.

Everything is presented in a gourmet-fashion. The simple meal turned into a classier affair for a handful of our friends to enjoy. The cucumber and cherry tomato platter is absolutely vibrant – the plump red spheres surrounded by the faint green and white of the cucumber slices. Even the chicken I witnessed her ferociously hack into pieces just minutes before, with a little help from some cilantro leaves, transformed into an appetizing platter garnished minimally, but delicately.

Before we serve the meal to our friends, I remind her once again, “Shuli, did you know that this was my favorite meal as a kid?”

She retorts, “I thought it was Sinigang?”

“Well, they’re like one and two. They’re both my favorites.”

“See, this is why we’re meant to be together.”

She’s right.