Sunday, 9 November 2014

Singapore: Festival and Feast

Restaurant scene: Toh Hsieng Min, Alvin Pang, Eddin Khoo; Clarissa, myself and Pauline Fan

I pick up this blog from Singapore almost a month after my last entry, writing from the Grand Park Central in downtown Singapore about fifteen minutes walk from the various Writers Festival venues where, today, we hope to hear Barry Lopez, Paul Theroux, and Geoff Dyer. All my three events were yesterday - a panel on translation, a conversation-cum-reading with Alvin Pang, and another panel on globalisation and literature, finally attending an editors' panel on the idea of poetry anthologies. Everything has been surprisingly well attended and mostly by the young. Although the Singaporean educational system can hardly be said to favour the arts the young seem to have gone into reaction and are lapping it up.They are keen, intelligent, and books - of poetry too - outsell the UK by a factor of two or three without much press or media coverage - that's with a national population a little more than half the size of London. I even get to sign a few books, including the big New and Collected of 2008. That seems unduly charitable of the young readers.

What to make of Singapore? Too early for proper impressions - a hotel room and a few adjacent venues are no guide. The city itself is more or less what we expect a modern Asian city to look like, a mixture of the grandly modern and post-modern and the old colonial, the latter mostly sparkling white, leisurely and imperial in feel - colonnades, wide arches, classical proportions. The festival takes place mostly in a couple of large marquees in the grounds of the Singapore Management University, one of three universities on the island, the others being the general one (NUS) and the technological one (NTU) where I am to be writer in residence over the next three weeks.  The roads are wide and mostly straight, the cars moving in packed ranks up and down them. Traffic is mannerly. People wait at lights rather than crossing at a clear moment. No great natural disasters here, someone said, except the occasional flash flood. When? During monsoon season.

It is monsoon season now, so not quite as hot as it might be the rest of the year but hot enough and muggy. The monsoon is a matter of intermittent fury, the rain released as if by a great fist that hurls it down to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning that clears the air for a while before it all begins again. Interiors are, inevitably, air conditioned to the extent that I am wearing my jacket as I type since it is positively cool in the room.

Our great friend Alvin Pang lives here and has been very willing to show us around - though most of that is to come. We have been extra fortunate that our other dear friends, from Malaysia, Eddin Khoo and Pauline Fan took time to see us, not just for the event. but also for dinner. They are both in their normal throes of furious activity, Eddin dashing round the world meeting people, lecturing, addressing audiences, and Pauline running most of Pusaka herself while this is going on, as well as writing beautiful articles for the press. What is Pusaka? I wrote about it last year while we were in Malaysia but more of that later.

Alvin arranged the dinner. Eating here is not just a matter of assuaging hunger but a cultural, emotional, nostalgic art form involving a great many local and regional styles of cooking. The five of us in the photograph above drove down and enjoyed a marvellous meal made up of the following - details kindly supplied by Alvin.

Teochew Cold Crab
Teochew Braised Goose
Teochew-style Steamed Pomfret
Ngoh Hiang (Five Spice) Roll
"Eight Treasures" - abalone, mushroom, sea cucumber, fish maw bamboo shoot, broccoli etc.
King Prawn with Chives and dried salted fish
Teochew fried Mee Sua (noodles)
Yam Paste and Pumpkin pudding
Tao Suan (soya bean sweet) with Gingko Nut

Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) tea

All consumed here.
There was also a very fine Muscadet brought by Hsien Min for the occasion. Hsien Min was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society some years ago and he had invited me to read there. Now he is both poet and banker. It is a small world. I hope to learn more about Singapore cuisine as rtime passes - I might ask Alvin to write a paragraph about it at some point. What I can say without any question is that the meal was delicious - subtle, light, fresh, everything you could possibly want - especially so since I was not a great lover of fish in my youth but have come round to it. This was complete conversion.

I'll leave the blog here for today. I hope to continue on a daily basis. Jetlag left me with very irregular brief bouts of sleep which did however leave me plenty of time for dead hours writing. More of that later too. Here is a picture in the black box of Centre 42 where two of my own events took place. In the picture my very sweet and efficient liaison, Jamie, Clarissa (a touch jet lagged as were we both), and Amanda and Emily, both former winners of the Foyles Young Poets award that I was judging that year, some dozen years ago or more, with Colette Bryce. Now here they both are. And Hsien Min. How marvellous!

Jamie, Clarissa, Amanda, Emily

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