SINGAPORE – As National Day rolls around on Sunday (Aug 9), read local over this long weekend. In this monthly feature, the The Straits Times lines up 10 hot-off-the-press home-grown books for readers to dive into.
Edited by Ann Ang, Daryl Lim Wei Jie and Tse Hao Guang
Landmark Books/Paperback/216 pages/$32.10/Available at bit.ly/FoodRepublic_ALT
“When the world ends, you will be eating Hokkien mee,” writes Singaporean poet Stephanie Chan in this smorgasbord of prose and poetry about local food.
From the apocalyptic to the everyday, it collects 88 pieces by 59 authors, ranging from veterans such as Cultural Medallion recipients Edwin Thumboo and Lee Tzu Pheng to fresh faces such as Valen Lim and Wahid Al Mamun.
The anthology was born when editors Lim, 29, and Tse, 31, were discussing the restaurant formerly known as Sushiro, now Omote, which had gone viral for the grandiloquent language used to describe its dishes (“caviar composition is evermore the kosher desideratum to the epicurean soul”).
“I suddenly came to the realisation that Singapore, despite being a food-obsessed nation, did not have an anthology of literary food writing,” says Lim.
The anthology is divided into five sections – “a kind of food court, with five stalls”, says Lim – with each section representing a different theme. For instance, Come Daily Chicken Rice chronicles the mundane, while Dr M. Selvaraj’s Mock Meat Deli features strange and destabilising experiences.
The anthology is a multigenerational one, ranging from the late Arthur Yap’s seminal poem, the correctness of flavour, in which a sherbet shop becomes a farcical battleground for English versus Singlish, to “Besok sunrise egg still put” by Hamid Roslan, who is shortlisted for this year’s Singapore Literature Prize.
Some works, like Brandon Chew’s non-fiction pieces Brunch At Berseh and A Map Of Seletar, document endangered or lost food experiences. Others move in more fantastical realms, like Ng Yi-Sheng’s short story Hawker, in which a bak chor mee seller reveals her mythical secret ingredient.
The line between consumer and products for consumption is blurred in bizarre ways, as in Anurak Saelaow’s poem Self-Portrait As Sheng Shiong Outlet.
The editors say they wanted to look beyond the notion of “food heritage” in their selections.
Ang, 35, says: “It is not only the past that is worth saving, but also the way in which these food-memories get lived out today. How, what and when we eat structures our day, and in turn the years, and becomes part of our psychic geography.”
She contributed the anthology’s final piece Makan Again, which is based on her own experience of serving a Stay-Home Notice (SHN) at a government-designated hotel after returning from Britain, where she is doing a PhD in English at Oxford University.
She observes that the Covid-19 circuit breaker made people relook what they previously took for granted, like the freedom and convenience of “going downstairs to makan” or even having food in the refrigerator.
“The precarity and fear of those days was balanced by everyone’s intense interest in what and how they would eat, and the people on SHN received a large amount of media interest in their food.
“I see it as a way of holding on to something familiar and easy to digest at a time when the world was upside down. If you can still cook instant noodles, that means something – it means you got to NTUC in time to buy the packet.”
A FICKLE AND RESTLESS WEAPON
By Jason Erik Lundberg
Epigram Books/Paperback/456 pages/$26.64/Available at bit.ly/FRWeapon_EL
Lundberg returns in his debut novel to the island nation of Tinhau, where his 2019 novella Diary Of One Who Disappeared was also set.
Quek Zhou Ma, a performer who goes by the stage name Zed, visits Tinhau after a long absence to attend his sister’s funeral and decides to put on a lavish production with the Ministry of Culture, only to have the show’s opening night disrupted by a bombing attributed to a local resistance group, Red Dhole.
Zed finds himself drawn to Tara, a graphic designer with connections to Red Dhole, while his creative partner, puppeteer Vahid Nabizadeh, gets caught up in political and financial intrigue. The Range, a mysterious, destructive cloud formation, attacks Tinhau.
THE COMMUNITY CAT CHRONICLES
By Lachlan J. Madsen and Eleanor Nilsson
Marshall Cavendish/Paperback/128 pages/$16/Available at bit.ly/CCatC_MN
A short collection of linked stories about the neighbourhood cats that inhabit the Housing Board (HDB) estate of the fictional Avenue 1, based on real cats the authors have met.
By Chiew Moh Yuen, translated by Leong Weng Kam
Focus Publishing/Paperback/333 pages/$42.80/Available at bit.ly/LeongTian_Chiew
This bilingual biography recounts the story of Hakka businessman Leong Tian Nyean, who arrived in British Malaya as a penniless teenager at the turn of the 20th century, fleeing his hometown of Meixian after having fought and injured a member of a rival family.
With six silver dollars that his mother had scrounged by arranging his marriage with the daughter of distant relatives, Leong made his fortune mining tin in Ipoh.
WORDS OF WISDOM
By Hsing Yun, translated by Tham Wai Mun
Focus Publishing/Paperback/188 pages/$26.75/Available at bit.ly/WordsofWisdom_HY
This compilation of essays by Master Hsing Yun of Taiwan’s Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple, first appeared as a daily column in Chinese-language paper Shin Min Daily News and has been translated for the first time into English.
It combines pithy fables with anecdotal advice about diverse topics, from marital infidelity to organ donation.
90 YEARS IN SINGAPORE
By Irene Lim
Paperback/248 pages/$21.40/Available at bit.ly/90YearsSG_Lim
Part memoir, part ethnography, this book covers nine decades of a Straits Chinese woman’s everyday life in Singapore.
Lim, who was born in 1927, began writing down bits and pieces of her memories in 1989 after the death of her husband of 41 years, and was later encouraged by her children to develop it into a book, with a prologue by historian Loh Kah Seng.
Domestic details, from the sewing of clothes to the pounding of spices, sit alongside cameos from well-known personalities, including Singapore’s founding premier Lee Kuan Yew, second president Benjamin Sheares and OCBC banker Tan Chin Tuan.
THE TROUBLE WITH FOREIGN WORKERS
By Alex Au
Epigram Books/Paperback/48 pages/$8.56/Available at bit.ly/TroublewithFT_Au
In the latest instalment of Epigram’s Rational Conversations, a series of essays and speeches, activist Alex Au, who is vice president of migrant worker advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), explores the systemic issues that render Singapore’s migrant worker community vulnerable, as seen in the recent Covid-19 outbreak in worker dormitories.
By Simon Chesterman
Marshall Cavendish/Paperback/248 pages/$18.68 before GST/Available at localbooks.sg
Law dean Chesterman, who concluded his young adult Arcadia trilogy in 2017, returns with another gifted teenage protagonist confronted with a mystery.
Huckleberry Jones is sent away by his parents from New York to a camp for “exceptional teenagers” in Oxford University. With a group of friends from all over the world, he finds himself embroiled in a dangerous mystery involving an 800-year-old parchment – the most famous legal text in history.
By Hwee Goh, illustrated by David Liew
Marshall Cavendish/Hardcover/96 pages/$15/Available at bit.ly/InvisibleEnemies_GL
Goh and Liew, who are part of the team behind the bestselling Plano series, create bite-sized stories about modern pandemics, from the Spanish flu to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), to educate young readers in the light of the Covid-19 outbreak.
SATURDAY’S SURPRISINGLY SUPER-DUPER LESSON
By Jolene Tan, illustrated by Isabella Tong
Epigram Books/Paperback/28 pages/$15.94/Available at bit.ly/SatSSDL_Tan
Tan, the author of the 2014 novel A Certain Exposure, turns to children’s books with this picture book about Aish, whose boring Saturday morning doing maths in a classroom becomes exciting when her doodles come to life.