What you take away
By Kwok Siew Loong
At 40, I was learning new meanings for old words: so this is what a tomato is supposed to taste like, I thought, biting into the warm flesh of a fruit just plucked off its vine, my senses overwhelmed by the sweet, hallucinogenic fruitiness. (The flavourless Singapore equivalent should be ashamed.)
Four years ago, a two-week vacation I took involved a secluded villa in the Tuscan countryside, half an hour from the nearest town. This meant homemade pasta from the kitchen for every meal, as well as fresh produce from local farms.
And yet, as I boarded the train for Venice, the next leg of my holiday, I fell prey to ancestral aches, my Singaporean-Chinese body calling out desperately shamelessly for the vinegary tang of artery-clogging sweet and sour chicken, deep-fried golden wantons that would crackle like a thunderstorm, and, most urgently, the headache-inducing hit of monosodium glutamate. By the time I scrambled onto the No. 1 vaporetto along the waterways of the ancient Italian city, I had already found the top-listed Chinese restaurant on TripAdvisor: Ristorante Giardino di Giada or The Jade Garden. The establishment was only ranked 326 out of 1,214 restaurants in Venice and a daunting 40-minute walk from my hotel.
But I didn't care.
That very evening, Google Maps in hand, I went in search of the holy grail. Dancing around in my head were white puzzle boxes with intricate red lettering and metal handles, ready to be dismantled for the oily, overcooked oriental treasures within. Such boxes are uniquely American, not found in Europe, but that night these little packages were the Chinese lanterns that guided me as I manoeuvred through the back-alleys of Venice.
Long-separated cousins, fire up the wok, for I am on my way!
It has always been thus. In 1996, when I first moved to England to read Literature, I had intentionally picked a university slightly off the beaten track. York had the Minster, the moors and a population of about 100,000. Going to London or Oxbridge presuming I could get in with my less-than-sterling A-level grades in the first place would have meant being surrounded by swarms of Singaporeans. I had decided that if I were going to be making mee siam and curry chicken in crock-pots for the Singapore Society's weekly Saturday night dinners, I might as well just study at home. The whole point of travelling 10,000km as an undergraduate was to live life like a local. This proved easier said than done, however.
At first, like my British dormitory mates, I subsisted on fish and chips, sandwiches from the gas station, No Frills sausages from Kwik Save and, thank goodness, the Indian curries. But by the second week, I was craving Chinese food. Being an incompetent cook, and living far away from the Asian supermarkets in Leeds and Manchester, I quickly became a very familiar face at the few Chinese restaurants and takeaways scattered around the city.
According to the British Museum, the first Chinese restaurant in Britain was set up in 1907 in London. The influx of Hong Kong migrants in the 1960s, especially around Soho and Bayswater, led to a significant expansion of the market, and the opening of the first Chinese takeaway in Queensway. By the 1970s, there were around 300 takeaway outlets in the Tyneside region of Britain alone. In fact, in 1985, a census indicated that 90 percent of Chinese immigrants worked in the restaurant industry.
I was particularly fortunate that, in my third year at university, I was dating someone who lived in a house directly opposite one of the nearly 12,000 Chinese takeaways that had sprung up across Britain by the late 1990s: the squat, white-walled Ocean City on Hull Road. The easy explanation for my frequent visits was the physical and psychological desire for the food I grew up with. To this day, I remember the warm feeling of comfort that spread across my whole body, whether I was feasting on Ocean City's oil-slicked chicken chop suey, or their blood-red barbecued spare ribs, the juice dribbling down my chin, the opium of hoisin sauce thick on my fingers. It could have been the bleakest of winter days, but if I closed my eyes, I would imagine being back home in Singapore as piping hot spring rolls fell apart in my mouth even though the outlet's pastry was desiccated and waxy, the meat paltry and unidentifiable, the beansprouts limp but plump with reused grease.
But food needs to be prepared by someone, and, whether I realised or wanted to admit it at the time, what made the biggest difference was that the someone looked like me, spoke like me and came from the same background. No, it's not as if I had long afternoon teas with the middle-aged Chinese immigrant owners of Ocean City, or that they invited me for their family reunion dinner during Lunar New Year celebrations. In fact, to my shame, I don't even remember the names of the proprietors (let's call them Mr and Mrs Lim). Our relationship was primarily transactional, but the lines did blur. I would occasionally find an extra rectangular aluminum box in my takeaway bag after I had dashed back home across the street. I would uncrimp the soft metal edges and lift the white cardboard lid to find a second helping of chicken (never mind if it was mostly batter) or another serving of egg fried rice with peas and tiny, pink squares of salty ham: a hint that I was a little more special than the Lims' other customers. Sometimes, Mrs Lim, face weathered but kind, would even optimistically sneak in raw vegetables like cai xin that she had bought for me on her latest outing to Leeds. (I couldn't find it in me to tell her that I didn't cook, not even instant noodles.) Once, she passed me an unopened pint of lychee ice cream: Try it, let me know what you think. I was ambivalent about the artificial flavour, the icy crunchiness, and so the insipid dessert never made Ocean City's menu.
I did offer, of course, to pay her back for all the treats, but she always demurred. What were a handful of pennies and pounds between family, her smile seemed to say. I never met her husband he was always busy in the kitchen but Mrs Lim was clearly delighted to be able to speak Mandarin to one of her customers. Her English was limited, and she was confused by the heavy accents of the locals, the rapid-fire orders barked at her. I helped to translate if I could. When she was not overly busy, the two of us would share little jokes about her customers as they stood around waiting for their food: their loud voices, suspect fashion sense, inappropriately large orders.
One day, she said that my parents must be very proud of me, coming to England to study on a scholarship, and still being so well-mannered and respectful. I may have choked up a little, though it could just as easily have been the fog of fat in the poorly ventilated shop.
It was the same in Venice, the serving staff of Ristorante Giardino di Giada happy to greet another customer from the motherland: Where are you from? They were noticeably less enthusiastic though. Venice was a major draw for tourists, unlike the quiet residential suburb which Hull Road ran through, and I was just a passer-by to the Venetians. On the other hand, Mrs Lim saw me with such regularity that she even became privy to the ups and downs of my financial situation. Whenever I was between scholarship cheques, I would dig between sofa cushions for spare change, reduce my usual order to a plain fried rice to save a pound or two. She'd accept my order, nod sympathetically and surreptitiously add a little something extra. One time, I found a styrofoam cup of starchy sweet corn soup when I opened the bag she had given me.
And then I graduated and returned to Singapore. It's strange how we can be so reliant on people, they can be such a big part of our lives, and then suddenly we just don't see them anymore. The hairstylist we no longer go to, the bus driver who has been assigned a new route. I said to Mrs Lim that it was my last day, she said goodbye, and that was that. There were no tears or hugs. She stayed resolutely behind her counter; I stayed on the other side.
And yet over two decades later, I still think about Ocean City, and the sustenance it provided me through long, cold nights over 12 months in my early 20s.
The last time I went back to visit York was a few years ago. The establishment was gone, replaced, funnily enough, by another Chinese takeaway: Fortune House, with bright crimson walls and a large yellow sign. It was the middle of the afternoon, so Fortune House wasn't open for business, but even if it was, I wouldn't have gone in. I still need my fix whenever I am on holiday in Europe or America, but standing there along Hull Road that day, it wasn't the food that I was interested in, but the people no longer there.QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021