Terra Cognita: On Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s Civic Life: Tiong Bahru

In my father’s head is a map of Singapore quite different from the ever-dancing web of abstract colours that we have come to know from the official records, the bus and train stations or the increasingly unreliable street directory. His chart of the city is marked by stories and street legends, not signposts or landmarks. Like the key characters in tales, who do not often stay in one place, the settings shuffle about – without causing anxiety, as long as one has been following the plot.

Food is frequently the main protagonist in these narratives; the human characters are props to keep things moving along and interesting. The Hill Street Char Kway Teow is the one in Bedok as long as the same uncle – but not his wife – is cooking that day, but the Katong Laksa in Katong isn’t actually the real deal, because the one who inherited the secret recipe – the surviving partner, or second child, or favourite disciple – has branched out under a different brand. Ditto Fat Girl’s Fishball Mee (the noodles are still right but the soup is wrong; Fat Girl took it with her), the Crabmeat Fried Rice (one of the twin sisters died and the other sold out to a franchise), the Famous Nasi Padang (in a fit of professional envy a rival bought out the original stall and all its assistants, forcing the popular chef two doors down to a grubbier unit, unbeknownst to most customers). Nothing really dies out so much as changes hands, addresses or signboards.

So one locates Jalan Kayu by where the original roti prata stalls are, and Satay Club is wherever the real satay is still being made. It is the sort of dynamic, grapevine-positioned sense of locality that has evolved from the days when roving street hawkers had to elude the authorities but still keep the regulars coming back. The prime rib bak-kut-teh, the crayfish horfun, the dimsum that defined a district are gone, but gone where exactly?

Chances are, Dad knows where. Drive around downtown with him, and he will identify the location where hokkien prawn mee was first fried up by a hainanese ship’s cook in the Rochor area. The dish became popularly known as Rochor Mee, and eventually he had to abdicate his legacy to his hokkien assistants and clientele who dominated the area, but one of his descendants still serves up the much-acclaimed original recipe, reinserting “Hainanese” into the stall name for good measure (look in a Beach Road basement for the queue, the thin, greying uncle and the rave reviews by Japanese foodie magazines). He will show you Damenlou hotel, where fishhead beehoon was conceived in the 1920s. Joo Chiat, where they still make fresh popiah skins by hand, beside the dusty old tea merchants and wok peddlars. He will take you to Geylang to see the legalised red light district: an education, but also one of the best places, like in many cities, for late night suppers. Order teochew muair near Cambridge market; Dad will reel off the names of the dishes, the many varieties of steamed fish and ask for a separate bowl of geng – plain starchy rice water – in his native tongue. The towkay neo, scowling but satisfied, will give him extra portions.

He will point out where the street vendors and shophouses used to be around Bugis Street, Bras Basah Road, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Victoria Street, along the broad avenues and alleyways he used to walk on his way to school at the old Raffles Institution. Tussling with clubbers for parking on Liang Seah Street where he used to live, he will tell you how he caught rats to earn spare pocket money for wonton mee; how he would lower a basket jingling with coins from a dark third storey apartment window and lift it full of piping hot dinner and spare change. He will nod knowingly at the former gangster boss who now serves the best kopi in Kallang, whose brother used to go swimming with him in the deep waters off the harbour. As boys they would dive next to passing ships, and once one of them failed to surface from the giant wake; his friends went down and down again to look for him in vain, finally had to tell his mother. There’s the corner (now a Starbucks) where my grandfather used to squat to take his dinner of plain rice and salted vegetables along with the river coolies in between lorry shifts. Changi beach, where Ah Kong was taken to be shot by the Japanese; he fell in before the rifles went off, clawed his way out from under the bodies at night, ran all the way back to town, and survived. Near where the seafood restaurants are now, Dad says, that’s how you remember the spot.
Of course this gourmand’s tour, this storytelling, is Dad’s way of encoding his memories of the city, and what it has meant in his life, to family, to us. Tiong Bahru market, where Joe and Christine have located their remarkable film, was one of these nexuses of memory; it was always a favourite of Dad’s, for freshly steamed pau and raw fish congee. Much like one of Dad’s vivid narratives, the camera sweeps lovingly over the hawker stalls and occupied tables at a poignant pace, taking in the colours, contours and conversations of a place that surely one day shall also pass, but in that cinematic moment remembered as an oasis of nourishment, pleasure and human warmth.

It is not for nothing that that well-worn metaphor for a multicultural, cosmopolitan city – the melting pot – borrows its import from communal feasting, and the profound sense of belonging and conviviality it suggests. It seems to me that Joe and Christine have crafted for us a love story – in the sense that my father’s food tales too are love stories about the city of our belonging. Like all good dishes and affairs to remember, the filmic Tiong Bahru is sumptuous in detail and richly layered in resonances, with a lingering, evocative finish. The film is brimming with flavours and textures: a dizzying array of dishes, voices, tongues and tones. It all matters. When it comes to Love, Joe and Christine remind us, there is always too much to keep track of, and only a brief time in which to show it; yet we renew its geographies every time we revisit its paths and gardens, sit down for a good meal together, and leave crumbs with which to find our way back home.