By Lydia Kwa
Millie exited from the vegetarian restaurant on Jalan Tokong, to a cul-de-sac thronging with people and food stalls. The contrast was jarring — going from a soothing, serene atmosphere, to crowds and noise. Enamel plates heaped high with raw cockles, mussels or periwinkles were lined up on two long tables. A man heckled passers by as if they were fools to pass up on the offer — shellfish served with satay sauce, black bean sauce or with chilies.
Prawns and cuttlefish atop fast-melting crushed ice were displayed at a side aluminum counter. Millie grimaced. Nothing she could eat. She wondered where everything came from; all she could think of was the toxic residue in these apparently delectable creatures. Sometimes the tastiest things are the deadliest, she mused.
Customers with elbows propped up on tables shamelessly sucked and slurped, then licked fingers with unrestrained enjoyment. Their pleasure was painful to behold, causing Millie to look away quickly.
Off to her right, a crowd watched as the red-faced hawker fried up an enormous amount of egg laced with oysters. Wielding two large metal spatulas, she stirred and flipped the mixture in the gigantic, flat pan. At times she would reach for one of an array of plastic bottles to her right, bottles that either dispensed cooking oil or soy sauce from the perforated top. Or she would dip a spatula into the porcelain bowl filled with crushed garlic, or from the other bowl, scoop a generous portion of chili sauce to toss into the pan. The smell of garlic wafted up, mixed in with the smoke. Millie covered her nose and coughed several times into her hand.
Flames shot out from under the pan, sending waves of killer heat at the onlookers. The hawker wiped sweat from her face and neck with the off-white Good Morning towel draped around her neck. Yes, Millie recalled, this was a familiar memory — almost all of the hawkers then had towels wrapped around their necks, to wipe their flushed, oily faces.
She couldn't recall the last time she had eaten oh-chien. She associated oyster omelettes with her childhood. Oh-chien had been a popular late night snack, picked up from the hawker with his cart parked in the alley closest to Telok Kurau Road. This was when she and her parents lived in the Siglap area, before they moved into their HDB flat in Marine Parade.
For years, Millie had believed that oysters were only served in oh-chien omelettes. It would take her going to school in Canada, to experience raw oysters on the half-shell; and later, oyster motoyaki. And of course, she had seen Oyster Po'Boy featured on menus, but the notion of a huge oyster trapped between buns has never appealed.
She coughed again, the pungent smoke bringing her back to the present. The scene in Melaka reminded Millie how it used to be in Singapore 40 years ago. She could picture it in her mind still — a string of naked light bulbs suspended between poles of the cart, the charcoal-fuelled fire; later, a roughly-cut square of palm leaf that the oyster omelette would be scooped onto; then the leaf expertly folded, with a page from the previous day's newspapers covering the outside, then the twine binding each packet. Finally, this packet would be slipped into a clear plastic bag.
She had loved oh-chien. In the last eight years, though, she stopped being able to eat oysters in any form. Nausea, upset stomach, followed by an intense feeling of malaise and achiness throughout her body. It was not worth it.
She thought of that article in the summer issue of Saveur that she had read on the flight from Vancouver to Singapore — oysters groomed in cages at Murder Point, Carolina. Cages that provided protection from predators, and were occasionally lifted out into the air, so that the sun could burn off any vegetation coating the oyster shells. She wondered if this special method would make a difference, whether she would be able to eat those particular oysters, and escape all the nasty effects. A phrase in the article startled her: "a depth of oceanic flavour that belied the dainty size of their meat."
She loved reading Saveur — even if she couldn't eat some of the food they wrote about, there was a deliciousness to the language that satiated her. Their sumptuous descriptions bore no risk of poisoning her — it was a pristine kind of love.
The gritty textures of heat and noise brought her back to the present. Melaka town on a Friday night was hopping. At one end of Jalan Hang Jebat, middle-aged women dressed in pink crinoline outfits performed line dancing on a makeshift stage. Millie suddenly thought of that time she and her mother came to Melaka. It was probably about five or six years after Dad had passed away, maybe 1995. They loved the trishaw tour around town. It was a different Melaka — a visitor could feel relaxed and carefree, not constantly cajoled into spending money.
But tonight, Jalan Hang Jebat had transformed into a tourists' Jonker Walk, free of cars and trishaws, packed with vendors selling goods made in PRC. Only a handful sold Nonya goods — pineapple tarts, durian puffs and packets of blended curry powders. Millie bought three packets of curry powder for friends back in Vancouver; at less than two Canadian dollars per packet, she was hardly making a dent in her account.
Halfway down the street, she noticed the face reader doing brisk business — there was a queue of five waiting for a turn. Toward the other end of Jonker Walk, a woman was offering henna for hands.
Her T-shirt was soaked through with sweat by the time she walked from one end of the street to the other. Despite the stifling humidity, she enjoyed disappearing in a crowd. No one noticed that she was any different from the hundreds of other tourists. She, on the other hand, became ravenously observant of legs, how much skin was exposed.
She was burdened with a secret. Her gaze was fuelled not by desire but by an intense envy. She coveted others' skin. Even if not flawless, then at least considered passable within the realm of human acceptability.
But she was a monster. Her legs were covered in large red rashes. She wore long pants that reached down to her ankles. The rashes were uncomfortable, flaring up either because of the heat, or due to an allergic reaction to the wrong kind of food. No way she would wear skirts or shorts or even Capri pants, despite the humidity.
She sat with a group of four friends at the new Swee Kee restaurant on Seah Street a few days after returning to Singapore. It was cooler because of rains earlier that day.
Grace, sitting to her right, had remained quiet, while the others chatted. Millie would have liked to remain just as quiet, but she couldn't. Since she was the occasional visitor from out of town, the others had questions for her, about what it was like to live in Vancouver these days.
Of course everyone wanted chicken rice. Cheng Huat at the other end of the table had suggested also ordering oh-chien; the other three expressed wholehearted agreement.
The waitresses brought food within 15 minutes, flinging the plates down on the table as if they were weapons.
There were two large platters of Hainanese chicken, and two of water convolvulus fried with garlic. Each person had a plate of rice. The oh-chien was placed slightly out of Millie's reach, as if the server operated with a sixth sense and knew she wasn't supposed to eat oysters.
The three servers had an edge, as if they didn't like their customers and could hurt them at any moment if it suited them. Millie took pleasure in imagining they were assassins for hire in the early morning hours — after they threw off their restaurant aprons, they slipped into sleek killer hot pants and stiletto heels.
Millie's friends went at the oyster omelette. When they noticed her lack of enthusiasm, they asked why she refrained. She smiled politely and replied that she was allergic to shellfish.
"So you had to avoid all the Nonya food in Melaka?" asked Cheng Huat.
"Aiyah, also means no Hokkien mee, no belachan, so much more!" exclaimed Daniel, with apparent dismay.
"Wow. Hard, what," chimed Peter.
She didn't say anything in response. After all, did she need to say that she preferred to stay well? She was bored by this too-predictable exchange about her limitations. She distracted herself by thinking of ninjas.
She tried to recall the Japanese ninja films she had seen on TV as a child. For one thing, ninjas were always out of harm's way, often perched in the rafters of wooden houses. Ninjas weren't simply good at concealing their presence and slaying enemies swiftly with those poison wheel-darts; they also had radar sense and didn't miss much. That's what she'd like to possess — a radar sense.
Even from a distance, the fragrance of the steaming-hot oh-chien was intoxicating. Millie closed her eyes, overcome. At first she felt an acute ache from feeling deprived. The ache spread through her chest, reaching into her throat. If only, she said in her mind. If only.
The ocean arrived in her mouth. Or was it that she became immersed? The soft, mushiness of egg was given a slight chewy texture from a hint of potato starch; the bursts of brine were tiny explosions, as the elusive oysters ignited in her imagination; flavours of garlic, cilantro, chili sauce and lime juice floated to the surface.
She sighed with gratitude. She had never told anyone about this capacity of hers. It was a kind of radar sense, a hidden one. A good kind of secret.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017