We are in the canteen and I am staring at a photograph that my friend Soraya has cut out from a magazine. The girl in it is wearing these massive pants that are a different colour on each leg.
“Aren’t these the coolest?!” she asks me. And I know the question is a test.
There is only one correct answer here which will prevent social suicide, and it involves embracing that which has been indeterminably stamped and declared acceptably hip.
For most of us, our teenage years are for trying desperately to wear all the skins the world tells you are cool because you are so uncomfortable in your own. And the coolest skin you can find in Singapore in 1996 is, apparently, a pair of Cross Colours jeans.
“We need to go to Far East Plaza to get them,” Soraya tells me with all the authority that comes with inside information from a friend who is in the top tier cool girl clique. “They’re sold in this shop called Lips.”
Ah, the cool kids. These are the teenagers who always have the right shoes (North Stars – with the red and blue stripes near the sole). The ones who always know the lyrics to the No. 1 song on the Rick Dees Top 40 countdown. The ones with parents who let them go to concerts on their own. The girls whose pinafore pleats are always perfect, who somehow exude an effortless air of floating through life never worrying about being seen.
And then there are the rest of us, who peak later in life in our 30s. The kids marinating in a deep need for acceptance, desperately trying to be “cool”. And “cool” is an intricately complex language of its own. It’s about what you wear and, more importantly, what you don’t wear. It’s about what you listen to, what you tell people you listen to, and how many rules you care to break.
The quest to Lips takes a couple of weeks of planning. First we have to convince our parents to allow us to go out together for a whole day on a school holiday. Then there are outfits to be planned. And the profound knowledge that nothing I own will ever be fashionable enough to wear to Far East Plaza, which everyone knows is the mecca of cool.
We talk about this pilgrimage non-stop. There are plans to be made about where we are going to meet (the platform at Bedok MRT station at 10.45am). If someone is late, all we can do is make sure we have a phone card with enough money in it to use the public phone to call their home number and ask their mothers what time they left.
Then we will take the train to City Hall. If we’re lucky, there will be some cute boys to unsubtly giggle about in our carriage. At City Hall, we’ll take another train to Orchard MRT. We’ll walk to Tower Records at Pacific Plaza, buy the new Green Day or No Doubt album if we’ve managed to save up enough for it, then stop at the Quicksilver store, and finally cross the overhead bridge that leads us to Far East Plaza.
It’s like we know that the journey has to gradually ease us into a world of terrifying coolness. And when you’re a 15-year-old drama nerd with hair that is cut like a mushroom and a 10pm phone curfew, Far East Plaza feels like the most dangerous of subterranean lairs.
Walking through those doors is like entering our own teenage Narnia, where parental supervision disappears. This is a landscape of tattooed store keepers; of 77th Street which is the birthplace of all Singaporean 90s teenage trends like plastic chokers and little guitar string bits to keep your piercings open when you need to dodge the sharp eyes of your discipline mistress.
This is where you hyperventilate with friends before going through with that pierced belly, nose or septum; where you can buy three-for-S$10 friendship bracelets at a store called Rastafari that plays Bob Marley on repeat and has, what I am now certain, marijuana paraphernalia on display. Far East Plaza is stuffed with everything a 90s teenager wanting to break free can dream of. From second-hand bookstores with yellowed, strategically dog-eared romance novels, to stores selling various teenage subculture paraphernalia, band T-shirts and action figures. From LAN shops to the chicken rice on level five, to the bootleg S$1 naan you can get from the back door of an Indian restaurant.
This is the home of those stone benches outside Wendy’s, that will become a McDonald’s, that will become a Burger King; of studded belts, ear studs shaped like fluorescent silicone sea urchins and transparent bra straps. Of first kisses, making out in stairwells, drinking cheap alcohol bought from Jelita mart on the bridge linking to the car park.
For anyone growing up in Singapore in the 80s or 90s, this is less a mall and more a rite of passage. Far East Plaza’s smells and corners have imprinted themselves on the consciousness of an entire generation.
And this is where Soraya and I enter a dingy shop called Lips, stuffed from floor to ceiling with merchandise that might finally make us cool. Maybe the baby tee with the Playboy logo, maybe that velvet choker, and, yes, definitely those Cross Colours. We slip into this skin to feel for a few hours like we exist in a different body, hoping that our imposter coolness might just pass for the real thing.
The skinny, pierced dude who works there doesn’t hide his boredom having to deal with two nervous teen girls, filled with adrenaline, ready to try on our chosen Cross Colours in the makeshift dressing room with a curtain that smells faintly like cigarette smoke and two-week-old puke.
Soraya comes out in her chosen pair. Forest green and maroon. She looks great. Like an Indian or Middle-Eastern Alanis Morissette, her hair impossibly shiny. Those pants seal her place in the cool crowd.
I try on my pair, black and red. I look at myself in the mirror and then at Soraya. “You look great, babe!” she says. With that over-emphasis girlfriends use when they are determined to drag you down a path with them.
I look at myself again in the mirror. And then back at Soraya. I am struck by how much she looks like she could be a character in Reality Bites, and I look like … Well, like someone wearing clown pants. But there is really only one acceptable thing to do here. It involves uncrumpling the S$40 that I have taken three weeks to save to pay for these jeans, and walking out of the store with them.
“I’m so glad you got them, babe! They are super cool!” says Soraya, who will later stride into a party wearing her Cross Colours with the confidence her new skin bestows her.
I go home and put on my Cross Colours, staring at myself in the mirror. I tell myself I love them. It doesn’t matter if I really do or not.
Pooja Nansi is Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador and the Festival Director for the 2019 Singapore Writers Festival.