Working Class Hero
I have a recurring dream. And it usually goes something like this. I would drive from point A to point B, but somewhere along the line, I would take some route that’s off the beaten path, that would lead me to a hawker center. But I could never find that hawker center. Either the bus never comes, or I get lost, or I go straight from point A to point B anyway, or I postpone that detour for another day.
It’s been a little late, but we’ve come to formally recognize our folk heroes. For a fairly long period of time, Singapore has been a fairly elitist society. It wasn’t always that way. After taking over from our colonial masters (we didn’t “overthrow” them – they left Singapore on their own accord) we build a society that seemed to be fairly egalitarian in the beginning. But over the last two decades, Singapore has become more and more elitist, and more and more a place of, by and for the rich.
In 2011, the watershed elections in Singapore elevated opposition opponents from the status of outcasts to be avoided like the plague, into anti-establishment heroes who sacrificed everything to stand up for their fellow Singaporeans. Two of the longest serving opposition politicians in Singapore were feted as heroes. There was a heroic hero in Low Thia Khiang, and a tragic hero in Chiam See Tong. I was watching as Chiam See Tong proclaimed humbly on stage that “I’m not a hero. I just love Singapore and I love Singaporeans.” Well make that “humbly”, since it isn’t really that humble.
Chiam See Tong had crafted speech after speech debunking policies of the PAP he felt were irresponsible and which took away the rights of the common man in Singapore. He was then felled by a stroke and spent the last three of his 27 years in parliament being a virtual patient. He was not re-elected because his gamble of gunning for a GRC failed. But he would always have a place in the hearts of many Singaporeans.
Low Thia Khiang did something even more outrageous, by building a political machine ready to take on the PAP, and in a short span of two years, augmented the number of seats from 1 to 7.
Ironically this has something to do with the propaganda that we’ve been force fed all these years by the PAP. If you remember what the 80s was like in Singapore – well technically we had 2.5 million people back then, now we have more than 5 million, so at the very maximum only half of us will ever remember that.
We had that television series – The Awakening with Xiang Yun and Huang Wenyong (RIP), and the trials and tribulations of our fresh-off-the-boat forefathers. For me, I grew up in the 80s, when a lot of the old Singapore had already disappeared. These days, what we mourn for, perversely, is the disappearance of the Singapore of the 80s. Our national library, our Kallang stadium, our iconic hawker centres. Even the older, shadier shopping malls like Serangoon Shopping Centre, Pearl centre, Beauty World Complex, Far East Plaza, etc.
There were so many period dramas back in those days. I never thought they would end, but they did. Those were the days when you only had Channel 8 or Channel 5, and the Chinese drama series at 9pm was the gold standard. You had drama serials like “Kopi-O” which reached a viewership of 1 million, which is half the population of Singapore – impressive when you consider that at most 70% of people understand Chinese, although the huang kias, the keleng kias and the angmohs can read the subtitles. Yes, they were strange landscapes where everybody was Chinese and the Malays and Indians were just there to serve as a backdrop. And the historical value was questionable and the scripting usually very corny. But they documented a history and recreated a world that had fairly recently ceased to exist.
The world of poor and wretched labourers from Southern China walking the plank off a junk in search of a new life. Every other episode, some poor peasant woman got violated by a rich man's son. Every other episode some poor wretch dropping dead from overwork or tuberculosis. Every other episode The world of Samsui women. The world of kowtowing to colonial masters. The world of gangsters. The world of having to prostitute yourself for a living. The hard life of the Chinese opera troupe. The betrothed lady with bound feet. The hawkers at a coffee shop. The people of the shophouses. The various dialect clans. More recently there was that drama series on the Peranakans. These were real lives, and they all had a deeper meaning to them.
And in a certain sense, we were all taught to hold these salt of the earth types as heroes. The hard working types, the people who were contented with simple pleasures. The sophisticates were usually the villains of the show. And back in the day there was the decency to portray the HDB dwellers – they were your nation builders, your disciplined workforce who day by day eked out Singapore’s unlikely existence in the world. It’s so different from now, after there were the Star Awards and all that jazz. These days you couldn’t show people who lived in HDB flats as anything other than a bunch of retards scripted by condescending screenwriters.
To recap, Gordon Ramsay had a cook off with the hawkers. Singtel launched a publicity stunt where Gordon Ramsay would challenge three cooks, to be voted on by the public. The three chosen were Chicken Rice, laksa and Chili crab. Not entirely surprising because these are iconic dishes, even amongst the more iconic ones. He visited all the three locations. The cook-off took place in Newton hawker centre, even though a few disgruntled hawkers packed up for the night. Final result, Singapore hawkers two (chicken rice and laksa), Gordon Ramsay one (chilli crab).
At first, I was wondering why they did not do a blind voting, when I suddenly realised that it would be impossible. You cannot do it blind because everybody knows what Tian Tian, what Katong Laksa and what Chili crab tastes like. Every mother's son will be able to figure out which one is Gordon Ramsay.
Which brings me to the main point: why did so many people show up at the hawker challenge? Here we had a Michelin chef, who was known mostly to the younger generation who watched him on TV. And he was putting on his humble apprentice persona, going to the hawkers and asking them politely to teach him how they did it. From what I read, can’t remember where, when he was living in Singapore more than 10 years ago, he went to the hawker centres and was amazed at what he came across. It gives you a warm feeling in your hearts that there are people out there who can accurately recognize the great things in Singapore for what they are. After decades of our political leaders pushing down on us what they think are requisites for greatness in a city – the busiest ports, the best airports, skyscrapers, inane National Day songs, vomiting merlions, durian arts centres – it comes down to this, the humble hawker centre. No wonder Singapore is a dream come true for foreign chefs – the streets are not paved with gold (actually, given the price of real estate these days, they most probably are). The streets are paved with hawker centres. Gordon Ramsay is at least the second big name chef making his pilgrimage to Singapore – Anthony Bourdain did it already.
If you want a direct comparison, it is like the white men of America discovering the jazz and blues of the black people and exposing them to the world. And if you wanted to compare them to our MPs – well it’s true, our MPs have to pay court to the wet markets and the hawker centres. No aspiring politician can avoid walking the hawker centres. They are temples of Singapore’s culinary culture.
But I have heard stories that there are other places where the street food culture is equally good - Taiwan, East Africa, Georgia (the former soviet republic, not the US state). Colombia. These places ought to have their street food cultures celebrated as well.
Some people are just working class heroes, a term coined by a man who rose from his working class roots. It is a sarcastic jibe at the notion that a person like him really “made it”. But it’s true that when people celebrate the lives of ordinary people and glorify them, they are revered. The Katong Laksa and the Tian Tian hawker centre heroes are merely walking in the footsteps of Joe Strummer or Paul Weller or even Bob Marley. Not to mention the thousands of people who turned up a Dostoevsky’s funeral.
Some crazy people say that people only care about hawker food when Gordon Ramsay shines a light on it. That is patently not true. Singaporeans celebrate hawker food all the time. ALL THE TIME. You have to be either an idiot or the son of Lee Kuan Yew not to recognize the greatness of our hawkers. Only a son of an emperor completely out of touch with the common man, and who has probably been in them fewer times than the fingers on your hands, could read “mee siam mai hum” straight faced from a script. The irony, of course, is that Lee Kuan Yew built our hawker centres – they could not have existed without his consent. If you think about it – HDB, before the prices all went to hell – is also a sign of greatness in Singapore. Any public housing project in the United States or Britain would be a ghetto, a hellhole of gangland, high unemployment and crime. We’re not realizing that it is to Singapore’s enormous credit (both the people and the government) that our HDBs have not turned out like that.