Commentary: Singlish, food, chats with Toa Payoh Hokkien mee owners - things Singaporeans miss when stuck overseas
With COVID-19, lockdowns and global travel bans this year, many Singaporeans have been unable to make trips home to see friends and family. This overseas Singaporean has come to appreciate the small things that make up his identity, shares sociologist Terence Heng.
LIVERPOOL: Over the last 20 years or so, I have played a kind of migration ping-pong between the United Kingdom and Singapore.
In between undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the UK, I returned to Singapore to work, marry, and build an academic career.
In my initial years of back and forth, I had not yet learnt how to code-switch (i.e. change my way of speaking depending on where I am). For example, in early 2000s Singapore, one would rarely use the word "please" when ordering something, yet that was commonplace in the UK.
Staff in Singapore would thus always expect a direct request in the form of the thing you wanted. My conversations with the Polar Café aunty went as such:
“Hi Aunty, may I have one curry puff please?”
“One curry puff please?”
“Aunty, one curry puff.”
“Orrhhh, say so lah.”
Regardless of curry puff ordering shenanigans, it is always comforting to make a trip home to see family, eat local food and banter in Singlish.
That sense of home begins with the blast of tropical heat when one steps off the plane, and continues with the use of automated passport gates (sorry tourists!).
But with the onset of COVID-19, lockdowns and travel bans, Singaporeans located overseas for work, study or otherwise have found it difficult, if not impossible to make their somewhat annual pilgrimages back to the city-state.
Instead, such journeys are replaced with online Zoom and Whatsapp sessions, emails and for those still in lockdown, significant bouts of envy reading friends’ Instagram and Facebook stories about meeting up and eating out in Singapore.
Such travel restrictions have accentuated the feelings of disconnectedness that migrants tend to feel when away from their homes. With the varying ways that governments around the world have engaged with COVID-19, the pandemic has also come to shape my identity as an individual who belongs to more than one “place” at the same time.
Being away for longer than normal has meant I have come increasingly aware of what I miss and why.
THE SINGAPORE DIASPORA
The term diaspora commonly refers to groups of individuals scattered from a common point of departure. Major diasporic communities include Jewish, Indian and Chinese individuals who have migrated from one geographical area to many other places around the world.
In some cases, individuals and groups migrate with the decision never to return. Others hope to sojourn, moving in between locations, but with the intention of “coming home” eventually.
At the same time, circumstances outside of one’s control can mean that initial intentions are not always fulfilled. A change in global political situations, for example, was one reason why some Chinese migrants in Singapore chose to stay on and settle.
In Liverpool, my research is leading me to discover the stories of Chinese sailors who served Britain during World War II, but were deported en masse after the war, with some forced to start again in Hong Kong and Singapore.
These complicated patterns of movements of individuals and groups around the world has meant that there are multitudes of different ways we consider an individual as diasporic, and how their identities are formed and continuously shaped.
For example, in Singapore a significant proportion of the population have a migratory past, with ancestors travelling from various parts of the world to come here. Yet Singaporeans have also travelled onwards, settling elsewhere.
To that extent, one could very well belong to multiple diasporas, of which one is the Singaporean diaspora.
FOOD, LANGUAGE AND COMMON CORRIDORS OF MEMORIES
Being away from Singapore seems to accentuate one’s awareness of what it means to be Singaporean - not least our love of local food. I would not be surprised if the majority of overseas Singaporeans leave most of their luggage space for foodstuff and cooking ingredients.
It happens so often that I have seen customs officials in other countries correctly guess the contents of a Singaporean’s suitcase before they even inspect it.
That love of food is also manifest in how we map Singapore through food experiences. My wife and I enjoy reminiscing about all our favourite Singaporean haunts and meals, whether that was Tian Tian Hokkien Mee in Toa Payoh (where the owners affectionately call me “Teacher” but that’s a long story for another time), the beef hor fun at Ghim Moh, and even A-Roy Thai restaurant at Novena Square.
Then we realise that we’re nowhere near a hawker centre, and feel sad. That sadness is now amplified because there’s no clear date to when we will next be back.
Other times, it is the language – a distinct regional accent that stops me in my tracks every time I hear it in university corridors. When our students from the University of Liverpool in Singapore visit Liverpool in past years, it pleased me to no end hearing the room echo with Singlish.
But most of all, I have found what links Singaporeans together are shared memories, often about particular locations in Singapore (and again, sometimes food).
Being away from Singapore, especially thanks to COVID-19, gives us a bit of a rose-tinted view of these places. When we do collide into each other, however serendipitously, there is always a good chance we will talk about these places.
Case in point, I recently discovered that a colleague of mine grew up in Singapore in the 1980s before emigrating to Northwest England. Despite our age difference, there was still a common denominator in the things that we remember and have experienced in Singapore, whether that was a particular school, or hawker centre, or shopping mall.
So yes, even the most generic shopping mall can be a meaningful place.
WHAT MAKES ONE A SINGAPORE DIASPORA?
Traditional conceptions of diasporas often relate to one’s ethnicity, often because the point of departure and point of arrival for migrants means they become a minority ethnic group in a majority host society.
But with “political” diasporas created through the formation of nation-states like Singapore, it is not necessarily ethnicity that characterises the Singaporean diaspora but shared experiences of material objects, institutions, hybrid cultures and environments that goes a long way in connecting Singaporeans to Singapore and to each other.
Hence, why we have Singapore Day outside of Singapore in previous years – lovely one-day festivals organised in major cities around the world showcasing Singaporean culture and food.
But at the same time, there are only so many times one can bring hawkers to London to make Singaporeans feel, well, Singaporean.
There needs to remain a variant of what the sociologist Paul Gilory calls the “changing same”: Things and places that though alter over time, retain a familiarity which we find solace, assurance and identity in.
Which is why I am glad that there are increasing efforts to conserve and update buildings, like Golden Mile complex and places in the Singapore I have known, rather than bluntly destroying and rebuilding on the basis of technical efficiency or pragmatism.
Not everything needs to be conserved under the banner of heritage or national identity, because it is often in the most everyday and mundane things that we find ourselves in.
For that reason, for my next and every other return journey from Singapore, I will continue to keep my luggage empty for Prima Taste kits and Nescafe 3-in-1 (the green colour packet one ah).
Terence Heng is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. He is the author of two new books on Singaporean Chinese identity – Of Gods, Gifts and Ghosts: Spiritual Places in Urban Spaces and Diasporas, Weddings and the Trajectories of Ethnicity, both published by Routledge.