May You Always Be Sanitised
I remember Saigon. Notre Dame squat like a toad in the wan morning sun, traffic roaring around. More traffic – traffic everywhere, noisily; literally, noise like you wouldn’t believe – walking down Le Loi to Ben Thanh market, waylaid en route by an old man burned by napalm when young. Ben Thanh itself noisome, thick with heavy heat and the heavy smell of fermented shrimp and salted crab and – occasionally – the top notes of fresh herbs, durian, wetmarket meltwater. I remember food poisoning – gut physically wrenched, arms leaden, body bent double.
The fun thing about visiting Vietnam – aside from the Things They Carried voiceover running constantly through my head – was the perspective it gave me on Singapore, and on one element of Singapore in particular: the Hawker centre. To bastardise Brillat-Savarin: if you show me where you eat, I’ll tell you a whole bunch of stuff, the first of which, when you’re talking about Singapore, is that where you eat is sanitised. Check the Lonely Planet: it suggests newbies to the region might want to make a start here. Check popular conceptions of this weird city-state: it’s clean, it’s safe, it’s soulless. This sort of heuristic irritates me so much for so many reasons. One: Singapore is not actually that sanitised. Not notably more so than many Western cities, anyway. The floor of the Tekka Centre wetmarket; the kitchen of the Muslim-Indian place near my apartment; the overflowing trashcans at MacRitchie Reservoir that the macaques treat like their personal lucky dip – these are not places I would want to linger on, live near, leave with hands unwashed (the same could almost certainly be said for the city’s infamous Four Floors of Whores – it is an odd definition of sanitisation that includes state-sanctioned prostitution). Two: what Singapore is is clean where it counts: malls, public transport, hospitals. Three: to suggest otherwise – or rather, to hold Singapore’s cleanliness up as a point of differentiation and yet disadvantage to other countries in the region – is to imply something profoundly odd (and, maybe, a little racist, a little Orientalist) about how countries in this particular region are expected to configure themselves for the gratification of the visiting Westerner.
It was Singapore’s 50th birthday last year: 50 years since they threw off the yoke of white people telling them what to do. And yet with every guidebook sighing at just how damn clean this boring, faceless, safe city is, we heap insult upon implied insult upon a great, vibrant, piebald place. There is an absurd attribution of cultural capital to travellers – spurred, I am distressed to say, by shows like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, which I otherwise love – that rewards them for going dirty, going local, going to places that you and I would not. But this ties into a weird cultural blindspot that we have developed: that non-Western food should always be weird, exotic, Other – that the sole role it plays is to confront us with its foreignness, and to be cheap while it’s at it.
Well I have done it all. Duck offal soup under a pounding Skytrain stop in Bangkok; roadside Banh Mi in Vietnam; Assam Laksa of extraordinary pungency a few hundred metres from the sea in Penang. Some of it has been incredible, transcendent; some of it has not. But for consistency and quality, Singapore knocks everywhere else I’ve been in this part of the world into the Peranakan Straits. The Hawker centres here emerged out of perceived necessity – the sheer volume of street vendors clogging even the city’s narrowest arteries – and have evolved into a bizarre, Orwellian product of social engineering, with semi-rigid constraints on the number and nature of specific stalls in a given centre (sorry, Brillat-Savarin, again: show me who you eat near, and I’ll show you who you’re happy to live near). And yet I love them. They exist for the more leery expats and tourists (the lovingly restored Lau Pa Sat near Chinatown); the flashier, more cosmopolitan youth (the murderer’s row of stalls handpicked for Makansutra’s Gluttons Bay); the zero-fucks-given locals (try the peanut pancakes with a morning cup of kopi at Tanglin Halt), and at pretty much every social strata in between. And the food is delicious! And you won’t get food poisoning! What more could you want? Why on earth would you possibly want less?