In December of 2011, my sister, Andrea, moved to Singapore to start her new job as a teacher. My parents made plans to join her over the Christmas holidays to help her settle in before the start of the school year, and, as we hadn’t had a Christmas together as a family since 2007, I took the short flight over from Hong Kong to complete the family reunion. I have fond memories of Singapore, especially the food, so that was an additional, tasty incentive.
One of my dad’s older brothers had moved to Singapore decades ago, marrying a Singaporean and settling down in the rapidly growing city-state. For both of my previous two trips to Singapore, in 2008 and 2010, I stayed with his family, enjoying their hospitality – my aunt makes an amazing Hainan chicken rice! My family stayed with him again on this trip, though I was relegated to the sofa this time around. I can’t remember the last time we had a proper family vacation, just the four of us, and it did feel foreign at times. We used to travel more together when my sister and I were young, but the vast majority of our family holidays in recent years or so had actually been in the company of friends or extended family. With just the four of us, the trip felt a bit unmoored at first, like we needed the structure of somebody else’s itinerary. There was likely an element of sadness on my parents’ part too, as this trip also meant leaving both their children in Asia. Without the safety net of plans, however, I found that we could just walk around together, taking in the sights without rushing on to the next one, and popping our heads into restaurants and grabbing a quick meal. One night, I took them to Orchard Road, remembering how vibrant it was back in Christmas of 2008, and, though my thoughts and feelings weren’t quite at the same place as they were back then, it was still an enjoyable evening.
Nicole and Nadine, the twin sisters who showed me such hospitality on my first trip to Singapore, and again when I returned in 2010, took my family out for a meal at a hawker centre one night, and the food was amazing. I can always go back and just eat in Singapore – if I were to rank a city’s cuisine, it would be in the Top 3 with Tokyo and Hanoi. It hits my tastebuds in all the right places, with a devastating variety of flavour and texture – I’m sure that I learned to tolerate spicy food in Singapore in order to force myself to dig deeper for the flavours beneath. There’s an element of familiarity as many of their dishes come from various parts of China, except it seems like the flavours are dialed up to 11. Then there are the influences from Malaysia, India, and Indonesia – mix them all together and out comes a spread that includes skewers, stingray, chicken rice, laksa, savoury offal, saucy rice noodles, and all manner of tropical fruit. Of their desserts, the creamy cendol reigns supreme in my mind – a delightful blend of cool coconut milk, jelly noodles, grass jelly, shaved ice, palm sugar, and red beans.
I also had a few friends from Hong Kong visiting Singapore at the same time, and we got together one night for bak kut teh, a sneaky good dish involving succulent pork ribs in a garlic and pepper soup. Xian, originally from Singapore, Phoebe, his Hong Konger wife, Joe and Carmen, Chinese-Canadian siblings, and Gretl, Joe’s Hong Kong-born Canadian wife, all attended the same church as myself, and it was good to see such familiar faces outside of their usual context. Xian and Phoebe would eventually move to Singapore for good in early 2016, while I still see Carmen, Joe, and Gretl regularly in our church community in Hong Kong. My sister ended up teaching in Singapore for two long years, before moving back to Canada and eventually settling down in Vancouver. My parents and I, along with my wife, Ashley, would come back to Singapore together in the summer of 2014 for my cousin’s wedding. As for myself, I flew back to Hong Kong after Christmas knowing that I’d be flying out again the very next weekend.