By Brian Spencer
It was a Monday afternoon lunch in passing at the hawker centre, like the yawning flip of a calendar with no dates.
Office workers in business-casual uniforms chit-chatted about nothing at orange, numbered plastic tables littered with plastic soup bowls and plastic plates and glass mugs filled with coffee the color of skimmed chocolate milk. A pudgy thirtysomething Chinese man, garish bleach-blond hair and a Red Bull tank top, nursed a second tall bottle of Carlsberg, his companions two older women picking with chopsticks at half-empty plates of egg noodles, their shoulders slumped, stringy black hair unkept, mouths ringed by smoker wrinkles, clothes that say who the fuck cares anymore. Old Chinese men, in the same neutral-tone slacks and flat-knit polos worn since their youth, huddled like football players and spoke in conspiratorial, skeptical tones. They know how a few things should be done differently; if only somebody would listen.
There are well over 100 hawker centres in Singapore, and the one here at West Coast Market Square is not one you’ll find in any guidebook or top-10 list of must-visit hawkers. Oh, just don’t bother with it, for you won’t find it to be a pretty place. Red Chinese lanterns swing in a warm and wet and humid breeze, like sticking your head in a clothes dryer just after its cycle has been completed. Empty glass display cases covered in fine layers of soot (with your index finger, “Wash Me”) are left haphazard near a dishes drop-off station with metal shelving and large plastic garbage bins. Massive industrial vents, painted yellow, cascade down from the high ceilings of this open-air, warehouse-like space, the dinning drone of the ventilation system, like the buzz of a deserted back alley in Blade Runner, cut by the therapeutic chirping of swallows and hushed roar of conversation, immutable. Oscillating ceiling fans, mounted on support columns and above the food stands, are caked black with grime and dust and dirt.
Don’t come here, for the food you will find can be found anywhere in Singapore. There are no famous hawker stalls or hawker chefs at West Coast Square Market, only an undistinguished array of foods. A walk along one row, for example, yields precious few options beyond sing-song platters like mee rebus, mee goreng, and char siew; nasi ayam, gado gado, and nasi lemak; laksa, prata, and thosai. Along another row, foods with names that roll off your tongue with a blunt thud: pork chop and lamb chop. Fish balls. Chicken rice. Hot dog with egg. Pig trotters.
Oh, yes, there are choices at my local hawker centre, but they are not unique. That’s fine, as I was only there for a quick lunch on a random Monday afternoon, one created to be forgotten.
I joined a queue 10 people deep at stall #01-148, where a two-person staff offers a two-dish menu of fish ball noodle (dry) and fish ball noodle (soup). A thin, older man with graying hair, wearing rubber flip-flops, silver medal-toned polo, and knee-length shorts tightly cinched with a belt, had three responsibilities: taking orders, collecting money, and preparing one of two bowls that accompanied each order. He did the latter by tossing a pinch of greens into a lavender-colored plastic bowl, which he then filled with hot water and a mixture of fish balls and pork balls that bobbed in a large vat like apples ready for blindfolded kids with baby-teeth chompers at a Halloween party.
His partner, his wife, the stall’s chef, wore a baggy pink t-shirt with a floral print running down one side. She was a flurry of metal ladles and noodle tongs and water strainers and soup bowls; she didn’t look up from her work, not even once, and she didn’t utter a word, not even one. Swept away by the catharsis of process, her head softly jerked from side to side, as if conducting the final movement of a silent symphony, as she flipped slices of gelatinous fish into a bowl that she next covered with a half-ladle of water.
In the same motion, she scooped a pasty red sauce into another bowl and tossed a bunch of noodles into the strainer and stirred the sauce and raised the strainer above her shoulders and watched the water drip, drip, drip back into the vat before dumping the noodles into the second bowl. She dipped her ladle into the vat for a split second, then quickly stirred the noodles and sauce and topped it with the fish slices and slammed the bowl onto the tray and began repeating the process again, and then again, and then again. The line stayed at least 10 people deep, but then it’s just fish ball noodle (dry) and fish ball noodle (soup). This is not a famous hawker stall that Singaporeans and writers rave about.
The chef’s husband placed a pair of chopsticks on top of the bowl, smiled, and handed me the tray. I’d just watched them prepare eight or nine orders; I felt like I should say something, but wasn’t sure what, so I just said exactly what I was thinking:
“Thank you, thank you. That’s great; that’s beautiful.”
West Coast Market Square is located at Block 726, Clementi West Street 2.