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Local Spin (Singapore Writers Festival 2011)



“Latte or Teh-Si?” I asked Chien Yee. I finally decided on good ol’ Teh-Si

It was an unexpected afternoon at the Singapore Writers Festival 2011. Its been a full month of late nights and burnt weekends. Wasn’t too sure I wanted to use any of my brains or any of my energy.

Upon Chien Yee’s suggestion, I decided to at least look at the line-up. I found 3 sessions I wanted to go.

Excitedly I went about hunting for Steven Levitt of Freakonomics tickets. In a bid to save money, I wanted to buy through a public officer who gets 30% off. BUT, by the time I confirmed I could buy through her, the tix were sold out. Bleh.

Oh well, there’s still two more sessions. It was 2 panel sessions. One on travel writing and the other, on food. I carried my Teh-Si from City Hall and made our way to SMU.

It was full house at the “Transaction Pavilion”, the venue for the first panel “Getting Lost: The Sly Art of Travel Writing” featuring Brian Thacker, Rahul Bhattacharya and Tan Wee Cheng. I had a feeling that it may just be good.

It was.

Within a few minutes, the crowd was roaring in laughter. It was a joy listening to all the travel stories ranging from rancid shark meat in Iceland, to gunpoint situations to CouchSurfing, a novel way to travel by giving and getting free accommodation via family couches. Stephen McCarty, Editor-in-Chief of Asia Literary Review is a good moderator. His wry British humour had many of us giggling, laughing and at times, ROLFing.

My favourite quote of the session? “Travel books used to be about places (referring to National Geographic-type of publications). Now, travel books is about experiences.” — Brian Thacker

I’ve already felt my S$13.00 was worth it (you get S$2 off the festival pass if you’re a PA card holder). What topped the experience, was the next panel – “Drooling over Food Porn: How to write deliciously”.

We all squeezed into Room 2-1 at the School of Information Systems, SMU. Chien Yee and I managed to get the last 2 seats at the back row. The room just got more and more crowded. All in anticipation of the Panel of Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Christopher Tan and Damian D’Silva.

We waited.

Then KF Seetoh, from Makansutra, opened the session.

It was the opening to a very engaging session. Not surprising for the obsession of Singaporeans — food. Through the whole session, the love of local food and the longing of preserving the soul of Singapore rose to the top, just like the frothy foam layer of teh-tariks. We weren’t just talking about food. We were talking about the context of our food — our culture, our heritage, our life stories that were intertwined with the dishes. It was our Ratatouille (Pixar Movie – where the food critic was brought back to his childhood memories with the dish Ratatouille) moments.

What is the definitive Singaporean dish? Is it chicken rice? Is it chilli crab? Christopher Tan answers. Singaporean food is layered by different types of cuisine and culture. Seetoh adds, Singaporean cuisine is not a style, but an attitude. Damian throws in a comment, the real Singaporean food is not limited to hawker fare, but the real food comes from the homes of Singapore.

There were talks about feeling the food. “Agar-agar” cooking? Its not a derogatory term for non-precise cooking. Rather, its the ability to cook with all your senses, the ability to adjust to what’s in the moment… when to crack the egg while frying Char Kway Teow, frying the onions for a longer time if its a little too wet… Sure, we can capture recipes on paper and even on video, but how many of us are able to do that?

It was lively discussion of macro concerns but it was fueled by individual stories. Stories of how each of them ventured into this path. Damian via his grandfather, Christopher surrounded by family heritage and Cheryl, craving for her childhood favourites after being away in the US.

I’m already two chapters in her book “A Tiger in the Kitchen“. It is riveting. Her fashion writing background shows up in how she details the Singaporean food, culture and her family stories. Its rich in detail — I can see the colours, smell the smells and imagine the settings vividly. It brings back memories of my own childhood. I actually feel proud that all this is captured and shared with a wider world and other cultures. With her background and where she is now (New York), she bridges the worlds and I think, her book has and will increase accessibility to what’s it like here on this sunny island. Food, family and fashion are topics more widely accepted and embraced. Brilliant. I think I should have less Americans asking me if Singapore is part of China…

On to Chapter 3!

The BEST holidays

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