If you have lived in, or visited, Singapore during the past twenty years or so, then you have missed a city-state that, back in the day, was redolent with local color. The term that many people might use today to describe Singapore is “sterile”. It was not always so. Today Singapore is clean, modern and rich. That condition was achieved at the cost of destroying the exotic environment of yesteryear. The novel, CHINA SEA (to be published in July 2015), describes Singapore as it was back then – a city with a lot of soul. Here is an excerpt from the novel which is set in that era:
I walked across the bridge near the mouth of the Singapore River and spotted the statues of the two lions at the river’s entrance that symbolized Singapore – the Lion City. Boat Quay lay at the other end of the bridge. Here were the Chinese shop houses and below them, at the river’s edge, the row of hawker stalls that sold food representing every ethnic group in the city. Chinese noodles, fried rice, sweet and sour fish. Malay rojak and chicken satay. Indian biryani, a flat hot bread called nhan, and spicy curries. And an array of fresh tropical fruit, and hot and cold beverages. A hawker who was native to the cuisine operated each stall. The aroma along Boat Quay was a savory blend of all of these dishes and spices. I found myself inhaling deeply, exhilarated, as I walked along the riverside, breathing the atmosphere.
I took a stool at a beverage stall and ordered a ‘kopi-o’. Here I could look out on the busy river traffic, at the sampans and barges filled with inbound and outbound cargoes. There were the deeply tanned and sinewy crewmen on those passing boats shouting at each other in their various unintelligible Chinese dialects.
The grizzled Cantonese hawker poured the hot, sweet coffee that I’d ordered into a water glass and sloshed it in front of me. A portion of the brew splattered and landed on the saucer. I paid him his twenty-five cents. Now, the trick is to hold the impossibly hot glass and drink from it, without burning your fingers. I don’t know how the locals do it. I waited a minute or two for the coffee to cool down before lifting the hot glass to my lips. There is a local custom, I recall, which says the coffee is not up to par if the hawker doesn’t splatter it over the brim of the glass, making a mess, before he hands it to you.