PM Lee queuing for fried chicken wings

From ‘PM Lee spotted queuing 30min for chicken wings at Redhill Food Centre’, 13 June 2014, article in Asiaone.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was spotted at Redhill Food Centre, queueing for 30 minutes to buy fried chicken on Thursday night. A passerby took a photo and uploaded it on Facebook with the tongue-in-cheek caption: “Just your regular 50-60 plus uncle queueing half an hr for famous fried chicken wings. Albeit swarmed with guards. Lots of em.”

According to Lianhe Wanbao, the photo of him started circulating this morning, with many excited to see the PM dining at the hawker centre located at Blk 85 Redhill Lane. Netizens have praised the prime minister’s willingness to do queue for food himself just like any other member of the public, as well as immerse himself in the public community.

The Chinese daily learnt that the stall is the popular chicken wings and fried bee hoon stall Yan (#01-19). Online reviews recommended its two eponymous items, and cited reasonable prices and large portions as other plus points besides taste. Bee hoon costs 60 cents, while a chicken wing costs $1.20.

The minister also posted a picture of a dessert stall at the same hawker centre on his Facebook page, mentioning that the ‘Lucky Cat’ in front of it seemed to bring it popularity and business indeed. He also thanked an anonymous person for giving him a bowl of green bean soup.

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Wing Commander

Imagine the field day that ‘netizens’ would have if PM Lee had queued up for pork soup instead. It’s not a common sight to see a leader of his position actually queuing for stuff. Even less so for half an hour, enough time to make some key decisions of national importance. PM Lee looks solemn and pensive in the pose above, probably meditating on the fate of the nation, or plotting  to get Roy Ngerng to shut the hell up once and for all. I wonder what dessert he ordered after chicken wings though. I’m sure more people are interested in what he had than his musings on ‘Lucky Cat’. Ice Loong-an Jelly, perhaps?

‘Wayang’ or not, the person who snapped PM Lee has inadvertently promoted this humble breakfast bee hoon stall in Redhill, which blogger Hungry Bunny says is actually known as ‘Eng Kee’. I trust our PM has great taste in hawker fare. He’s known to be a fan of Tiong Bahru Tau Huay and Zion Road Char Kuay Teow too. Spotting him  at these stalls is like catching a rare migratory bird. You’d hit the jackpot if you catch him queuing at a Malay stall for Mee Siam (Just plain Mee Siam, thank you very much).

Here are some queuing PM Lee ‘memes’, sans bodyguards, of our leader simply blending in with ordinary Singaporeans in everyday situations other than buying hawker food, like the ‘People’s PM’ that adoring fans know him to be.

PM Lee in a Hello Kitty queue

PM Lee buying Lim Chee Guan

The lucky cat follows him EVERYWHERE.

PM Lee at Krispy Kreme

PM Lee taking peak hour MRT

And a World Cup bonus image.

Viva PM Lee

Viva PM Lee

 

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Tourists charged $707 for Alaskan king chilli crab

From ‘One meal equals to one meal’, 11 May 2014, article by Melody Ng, TNP

Seafood meals can be expensive. But a Filipino family on a trip here were stunned when they were hit with a bill for $1,186.20. Just the crab alone cost them $707.

Their meal on April 26 at Forum Seafood Village Restaurant at Boat Quay also included prawns, a fish and a plate of vegetables. Mr Santiago Caaway, 54, said the total bill was more than what the family paid for their flight here and back. The restaurant had been in the news previously after tourists accused it of over-charging. But Forum Seafood spokesman Thomas Tham said the restaurant clearly states its prices and patrons know how much the dishes cost.

And it was no ordinary crab that the Caaway family ordered. They had chilli Alaskan king crab, which other restaurants and seafood suppliers say is expensive. Was Mr Caaway aware that he was getting the Alaskan king crab instead of the more common and cheaper mud crab?

Mr Caaway claimed his family did not know there were different types of crab on the menu but said they wanted it cooked in chilli gravy. “We heard that Singapore is known for its chilli crab, so we thought we must have this,” said Mr Caaway, who has since returned to the Philippines.

The Alaskan king crab rip off aside, Caaway paid a remainder of almost $480 for ‘prawns, fish and vegetables’. They may not have heard of the Newton Tiger Prawn saga back in 2009, when a group of Americans were charged $239 for EIGHT tiger prawns at the iconic hawker centre. NEA ordered Tanglin Best BBQ Seafood to shut down for 3 months after STB relayed the complaint. Not sure if the prawns the Caaways ordered were of the tiger variety, but it was fortunate that they didn’t order the lobster, which was priced at $348 for 1.6kg in 2011, incidentally the target of an expat’s complaint. For the price of 1 Alaskan king crab, the Caaways could have had 6 servings of Sin Huat Crab Bee Hoon instead.

A case of following bad advice dished out by their hotel concierge, the Caaways could have avoided getting fleeced by Forum if they had read TripAdvisor’s reviews of the place, where hopping mad patrons reported the following prices and called the place a blatant tourist trap, with little being said about the actual quality of the food. Wonder if anyone told them about this other thing we have called ‘zi char’. Not in STB’s brochures or website, I suppose.

Fish – $115
Broccoli – $27
Asparagus – $20
Fried rice – $18
BBQ King prawn – $23. Each.
A ‘tofu dish’ – $30
Plain rice – $1.50

Philippine media also reported that a STB director had apologised personally to Caaway and made sure that they were ‘properly remunerated’ since this arose from a case of miscommunication between patron and staff. Despite the online flak, calls for boycott, and demands for closure, this place is still in business, just like how tourist traps remain viable in any other country. Rival Boat Quay restaurant Fuqing Marina Bay Seafood also has a reputation for charging ridiculous prices, with STB having to deal with a similar PR fallout after an American complained about his $210 crab a few years back. No wonder expats have rated us the most expensive city in the world.

It takes a savvy or experienced traveler to avoid such scams, and I’m not sure if we’re spoiling visitors by giving them partial refunds if they aren’t very streetwise when it comes to identifying potential daylight robbery. You can imagine other ‘crabby’ tourists exploiting STB’s niceness by claiming that they were ripped off by a seafood restaurant and expect compensation. In 1986, an exasperated Briton called it the ‘Singapore Rip’, after having to pay $30 for chilli crab at Punggol Point. These days, that’s the price you pay for a BBQ Prawnzilla. Buyer beware, especially if the menu reads ‘Seasonal prices’ and the staff spotted you entering the premises with your DSLR hung conspicuously around your neck. Not all foreigner complaints are valid of course. In 2001, one K. Will whined about paying TWO DOLLARS for one prawn at a East Coast seafood restaurant. Pretty average in those days if you ask me, unless he was talking about belacan-sized prawns instead.

A holiday gone terribly wrong for the Caaways, and such a shame and irony that it takes a national dish sampled in a wrong place to put all the efforts spent on a recent STB promo ad to utter waste.  Singapore always has a surprise for you indeed.

Crystal Jade bought over by LVMH

From ‘LVMH adds Crystal Jade to Singapore Jewel Box’, 30 April 2014, article by Cai Haoxiang, Business  Times

After three years of courtship, L Capital Asia, the private-equity arm of French luxury goods giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, has bought home-grown Chinese restaurant group Crystal Jade in a deal that market sources place at around US$100 million.

As L Capital adds yet another Singapore name to its growing collection of brands, Crystal Jade is set to soar in coming years. The restaurant group will tap LVMH’s expertise in branding and marketing, as well as its relationships with landlords worldwide to place outlets in strategic locations.

It plans to expand to Europe and the Middle East in addition to other parts of the world. An initial public offering (IPO) could eventually also be on the cards.

“The business has come to a size that is quite big, and my age is not suitable to carry the business to another level,” Crystal Jade group chairman and CEO Ip Yiu Tung, 65, told The Business Times over dinner at Paragon’s Crystal Jade Golden Palace restaurant, confirming market talk in the past month that the company had been sold.

“The new owner … is good in planning, promoting, marketing, know-how that we lack,” he added.

The Crystal Jade Empire first started out in 1991 at the now demolished Cairnhill Hotel, and it took one customer (Hongkonger, now Singapore PR) to pump in 2 million dollars to revive what was then a flagging business. That same customer would take the ‘home-grown’ brand international, become chairman and CEO, and later sell it to a luxury conglomerate which also owns Sincere watches and Charles and Keith. Interestingly, the founder of fierce rival Imperial Treasure is Alfred Leung, brother-in-law and ex-partner of Ip Yiu Tung, Leung being the one who founded the original Crystal Jade in the first place, later splitting from Ip over ‘differences in philosophy’.   As far as I’m aware, Imperial Treasure hasn’t ventured into Vietnamese yet. Maybe with LVMH taking over, you’d see baguettes on their menu too. Seriously, if I craved for Viet food, I’d go to a Viet place, not C-Jade Viet Cafe (formerly C-Jade HK Cafe) at Bugis Plus (formerly Iluma).

The group was doing rather well in the mid-nineties. One of the owners Tan Ban Cheong was staying in a bungalow in Holland Road in 1996, with a ST report revealing that he owns a total of 3 Mercedes Benzes. Unfortunately, in the same article, it was reported that his wife was caught parking one of them in a disabled lot at Ngee Ann City, of which a ST photographer on assignment happily snapped away. This was a PR disaster which tarnished the chain’s reputation, accounting for their media ‘reticence’ from then on. And this was before the existence of STOMP, when it was ST journalists, not CITIZEN journalists, exposing people at their most vulnerable.

If you wanted Chinese banquet-lite or yum cha in the past, Crystal Jade was the place to be, but the chain developed some interesting ‘culinary concepts’ over the years. From its flagship high-end Cantonese diner in Ngee Ann City, management decided to diversify to insane Hydra levels. Today, Crystal Jade boasts an array of fine, family and casual dining for the discerning and, in this case, confused, Asian gastronome, from Seafood Steamboat to Korean Ginseng Chicken, even a Korean BBQ buffet at Nex. What next, Crystal Jade Tom Yum Hotpot?

FnB is a cutthroat business of course, with younger upstarts like our homegrown Paradise Group, Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung (Lim Swee Say’s favourite for dumplings and toothpicks) and HK’s Tim Ho Wan all making strides in the Chinese dining scene. Crystal Jade hasn’t been immune to bad business decisions either. Here’s a list of faux pas in their bid to trump the competition and become the creme de la creme of all things yum cha.

  • Crystal Jade CAKERY, which I suspect later evolved into Crystal Jade My Bread, to catch the bakery wave. I’m amazed that ‘cakery’ is even a word.

Only time will tell if the hip ‘C-Jade’ branding, seemingly aimed at the younger crowd, would catch on. It’s already confusing telling the following apart: Crystal Jade Restaurant, Crystal Jade Dining Place and Crystal Jade Kitchen, when all I want is to eat char siew bao. There’s even a C-Jade Express ‘fast-food concept’, which sounds like the lovechild of Bakery and Kitchen. Hopefully LVMH would sort these names out once and for all, without touching the actual menus too much. Admittedly I’m a fan of the La Mian Xiao Long Bao restaurants, and the last thing I want to see is my favourite dishes Frenching out on me. Tiger Beer, after acquisition by Dutch Heineken, still tastes like Tiger Beer (save for the much misunderstood Tiger Radler). Let’s hope their Har Gaos and Siew Mais, the ‘piece de resistance’ couplet of all Dim Sum,  stay the same too.

Crystal Jade menu Google Translated

Crystal Jade menu Google Translated

Erratum: Steamed chicken feet with Black Bean Sauce should be translated as ‘pieds de poulet cuits à la vapeur’. The Chinese character for ‘melon’ and ‘talon’ differs by two tiny strokes. Yes, chicken feet is literally ‘phoenix talons’.

Han’s cafe sueing Japanese restaurant Han

From ‘Han’s Cafe sues Japanese restaurant over name’, 9 April 2014, article by Selina Lum, ST

HAN’S, the well-known local cafe chain, is trying to stop a Japanese restaurant from calling itself Han, saying it might confuse the public. Han’s Cafe, which has 21 outlets in Singapore selling Hainanese and Western food, has accused Gusttimo World, which owns Han, of infringing on its trademark. It is seeking a court order to restrain Gusttimo World from using the name “Han” and its Internet domain name www.han.com.sg.

…Han, which opened in 2012, specialises in kushikatsu, or skewers of deep-fried food. In its lawsuit, Han’s, represented by Mr Mark Goh, contends that the use of the word “Han” is likely to confuse the public.

…But Gusttimo, represented by Mr Suresh Damodara, argues that its Han brand is dissimilar to the Han’s trademark and the public is not likely to mix up the two.

…Gusttimo contends that patrons of Han’s are able to distinguish between the service provided by the cafe chain and its restaurant which serves old Osaka cuisine in a kaiseki – or traditional multi-course Japanese dinner – style.

Both companies are relatively big names in the FnB business, Han’s growing into a Superbrand empire from its humble origins as a bakery in Upper Thomson Road, while Gusttimo World owns high-end diners like Sarang and Gusto. The history of Han’s reads like a typical household name success story, specialising in Western food prepared the ‘inimitable Hainanese way’, while Gusttimo sounds like a company run by wine glass-chinking expats. At first glance, this appears to be a no-brainer as to who’s getting their way.

Or perhaps not. In 2012, sandwich giant Subway tried to sue a small-time nonya kueh stall called ‘Subway Niche’, but failed as the judge ruled that there’s no evidence of any risk of confusion between the two brand names, even if both companies were selling common items, namely sandwiches. The food at Han is, of course, nothing like Han’s fare. You have Terrapin Stew at Han instead of Mushroom Soup of the Day at Han’s, and although you have beef on both menus, Han’s’ $16.80 NZ Sirloin Steak is a far cry from the Ohmi Beef Steak Alacarte at Han worth a whopping $120. Han’s is a place for the lunch crowd, Han is one for very special occasions, where homely food items like ‘Pork Chop’ and ‘Fish Congee’ don’t exist and the waiter is likely to give you a funny look if you ever asked for ‘Ice Lemon Tea’.

Speaking of Fish congee, why didn’t Han’s turn their attention to this stall specialising in fish soup called HAN KEE? Or this Korean BBQ place called Han Geun Doo Geun? In 2011, Australian namesake Han’s Cafe actually tried to sue a SHAN Cafe. This ‘Han’s’ was established only in 1995, about 15 years after our own Han’s set up shop. Not sure if naming rights extends across continents, because both Han’s appear to sell Pork Chop Rice and Vegetarian Fried Rice.

On the basis of risk of cuisine ‘confusion’, I doubt the Chinese Han has a strong case against the Korean/Japanese one. If a precedent is set for this suit, Jack’s Place may start going after Mad Jack.  There may be a problem, however, if you want to arrange for dinner at either restaurant, that you need to be extra careful not to omit the ‘s if you wish to dine at the cheaper Han’s. Or if you’re a food writer describing the menu items as ‘Han’s delicious Kushikatsu’ which may have readers asking for deep fried skewers at HAN’S instead, though this can be readily prevented by adding the standard disclaimer ‘Not to be confused with Han’s the cafe’.

Still, I doubt the risk of communicating the brand name inaccurately is sufficient grounds to force the newer Han to change its name. Like saying Mac’s (cafe at Fusionopolis) when I mean McDonald’s because only ‘McDonald’s’ is registered and not its short form. If anything is to come out of this accusation of brand theft, it’s publicity for the victim, just like what litigation did for Subway Niche.

Now, how about some terrapin stew for a change?

Having a ‘fat tax’ to combat obesity

From ‘Combat obesity with fat tax’, 1 April 2014, ST Forum

(Dr Edmund Lam):…The obesity epidemic has become a worldwide phenomenon. Singapore has not been spared – our adult obesity rate increased from 6.9 per cent in 2004 to 10.8 per cent in 2010.

…The Health Promotion Board has done its utmost to encourage healthy eating through public education and collaboration with the food and beverage industry to provide healthier options. But gorging is still common in food centres, fast-food outlets and eat-all-you-can buffets.

In tandem with existing efforts, a “sugar” and “fat” tax of at least 20 per cent to 30 per cent ought to “shock” Singaporeans into changing their eating habits. Taxes on vices are not new – we already have high tobacco and alcohol taxes. Taxing unhealthy food, such as sugary drinks and junk food, will hopefully induce people to opt for healthier food, which needs to be cheaper than unhealthy food.

…In short, take the scourge of obesity seriously – now.

Singaporeans are getting fatter, just like people from most developed countries. In 1992, the rate of obesity was half  of where we are now, yet we’re throwing away more food, 796,000 tonnes of it in fact, just in 2013 alone. Can you imagine how much fatter we’d be if everyone actually finished all their food?

In 2011, the Danish government decided to impose a fat tax of 16 kroner or $3.76 per kg of saturated fat in products. Before the tax was implemented, the Danes behaved like how most Singaporeans would: HOARD all the fatty stuff they could get their hands on. Within a year, the controversial tax was scrapped because it was detrimental to the economy and led to loss of jobs. Moreover, Danes who had a lust for fat were crossing the border to do their grocery shopping in next door Germany. You can imagine the same situation here with Malaysia. Lesson learnt: You can’t change our eating behaviour overnight. We’ve been nursed on fats since birth through our mother’s milk, we’ll die without it, and we’ll die for it.

Dr Amy Khor stressed that there’s no scientific evidence that increasing the cost of guilty pleasure foods ever reduced the rate of obesity. Not only would it affect lower income Singaporeans, but those who consciously refrain from eating fatty stuff may overcompensate by gorging on CARBS, which add to the flab but with half the flavour and enjoyment. The slapping of monetary disincentives also undermines the ability of consumers to exercise willpower (that includes the willingness to EXERCISE). It also doesn’t help matters when it comes to preserving our hawker culture, which is centred around high-calorie, high fat (hence delicious) food.

Fast food giants are not going to take fat taxes lying down either. Even if you raise the price of a Happy Meal to exorbitant levels, all you need is a Hello Kitty promotion to get people biting the bait again. Raise Krispy Kreme doughnuts by 30%? No problem! Just run a promo 1 for 1 and all your revenue problems are solved. Gong Cha pearl topping up by 20%? Borrow a friend’s Watsons discount card! Restrict menus to serving wholemeal buns only? Well, introduce a double bacon with cheese McMuffin, dammit!

It’s easy to point a finger at food as the primary reason for our ballooning weight, and they make easy targets to tax while there are in fact other factors that may contribute to weight gain. Maybe we should have a cable TV tax because people who’re glued to the googlebox tend to put on weight. Or tax people for using the lifts and escalators instead of climbing the stairs. How about a fat tax on driving less than 1km to any destination? Conversely, in order to encourage people to lead active lifestyles, marathons should be FOC and the Government should sponsor a Brompton bike for every commuting Singaporean. From all that fat tax revenue of course.

We need to work on empowering consumers through nutritional information, not introducing artificial scarcity on fat food like how a diet is supposed to work (It doesn’t). Businesses will do anything to survive at the expense of our waistlines, like it has been for the longest time. You can’t overcome human psychology with taxation. It’s like putting bloody disgusting pictures on cigarette boxes; people still smoke that shit anyway. Even if you manage to cut down obesity levels through severe psychic starvation, you’ll probably see a corresponding increase in people getting warded in IMH for depression because every morsel of lard they chow down has become as unappetising and unfulfilling as swallowing a stack of 1 dollar coins.

If you’re going to charge $1 more for Char Kuay Teow, I’d still eat it as per normal anyway, except that instead of a Coke to go with it I’d order the other version with the artificial sweetener aspartame, which has been linked to cancer (unproven) in some studies. So, instead of getting thinner, I stay just as fat, but expose myself to unnaturally occurring chemicals because I refuse to pay extra for sugar. If I’m unsatisfied by that combination, I’d refuel during tea break by mindlessly chewing on ‘organic’ assorted nuts, misled into thinking it’s the ‘healthier choice’ when I’ve already far exceeded my daily calorie requirements compared to having my original Char Kuay Teow with normal Coke without a nut snack in the first place. I can’t possibly eat a stick of raw carrot in my workplace without being oestracised by everyone on a normal diet.

Why stop at taxing just sugar and fat then, how about going the whole hog and tax SALT too, too much of which is bad for your blood pressure and kidneys? Or caffeine? I’d might as well eat tree bark for the rest of my life.

 

 

Lavender food heaven closing for development

From ‘Losing our food heritage in the name of development’, 31 March 2014, St Forum

(Edwin Lim): I READ with disappointment the article “Clock is ticking for Lavender’s ‘food heaven’” (last Friday). This marks the demise of yet another popular food haunt.

A few weeks ago, Singapore’s largest McDonald’s outlet, at King Albert Park – a place that many Singaporeans remember fondly as one where they “mugged” for exams and had their first date – also made headline news when it closed down to make way for redevelopment.

In place of these local favourites will rise yet more mixed-purpose developments of retail outlets, offices and residences.

Singapore is fast losing a generation of hawkers and efforts are being made to train a new generation of hawkers. Yet at the same time, we seem to be speeding up their disappearance by making their future uncertain. Will the future Singapore landscape be filled with just HDB blocks, condominiums and mixed-purpose developments? Of course, there is a need to build more homes for a growing population. But many residential units are also being bought for rental income.

How many patches of forest and popular haunts are making way for buildings that are aimed solely at property investors?

The essential guide to Singapore’s lost (and never found) hawker centres/markets can be found at the Remember Singapore Blog, a must-read for all hawker nerds and gluttons alike. Other than HDB blocks, condos and malls, another major culprit of hawker extermination is our MRT system, with food centres at Farrer Park, Labrador and Lakeview making way for development directly or indirectly related to MRT construction. The other dreaded word is ‘upgrading’, which may affect not just the ‘character’ of the hawker centre, but more importantly the livelihoods of hawkers too.

It’s also interesting how people remember certain McDonalds outlets (King Albert, East Coast) fondly but not other ‘lost’ fast food joints like BK or KFC. People even ‘mourn’ the loss of just ONE out of 120 of McDs to greater tribute fanfare than your neighbourhood coffee shop. Chicken McNuggets will never go away even if the CEO of McD’s dies, and it’ll taste the same for eternity whether it’s at King Albert Park or People’s Park.  Not the case for your favourite Cheng Tng at Bedok Corner hawker centre.

The former Bugis Square was itself a relocation of hawkers originating from Bugis Street, sans the ‘transverstite habitues‘ who were often the ‘centre of attraction’. Lavender Square’s demise comes quickly after news to shut down Longhouse at Upper Thomson Road, a food loft that used to be from the Jalan Besar stadium area, the taste of the famous duck rice still fresh in my mind long after my family brought me there in my teens (The duck rice stall, Soon Lee Kor, is slated to move BACK to Jalan Besar).

It’s sad to see anything make way for development really, whether it’s an open field or a cemetery, but if we can’t save Buona Vista swimming pool from decimation, even with celebrity Pam Oei fronting a petition to Chan Chun Sing for it, what more a hawker centre? How many of us are even willing to stop complaining about hawker extinction and give up our day jobs to pursue the trade in the first place?

Here are 12 facts inspired/extracted from the Remember Singapore piece that you never knew (or at least I never knew) about Singapore’s hawker history.

1. Taman Jurong Market & Food Centre, a merger of a market and 2 food centres, included the very FIRST hawker centre in Singapore: Yung Sheng Food Centre. Prepare your mecca now.

2. Telok Ayer Market was the first ever market in Singapore. It survived a demolition in 1879, was torn down due to MRT construction in 1984, and was refurbished in 1991 as ‘Lau Pa Sat’, which translates to ‘old market’. It wouldn’t exist without the work of  Municipal engineer James Macritchie. So he didn’t just build a reservoir here.

3. The sprawl of watering holes that is Boat Quay used to be Boat Quay Hawker Centre.

4. What used to be Simon Road Market is now string of plush condos, including one named Kovan residences.

5. Seletar Hills Market and Food Centre Centre is now a shopping mall that no one has ever heard of: Greenwich V.

6. The former Neo Tiew Market and Food Centre is now a training site for NSmen and a place to shoot a zombie apocalypse movie.

7. Tekka Market was for a while known as Zhujiao Market, or literally ‘bamboo feet’.

8. The Gateway at Beach Road was once the Clyde Terrace Market, also known in Hokkien as ‘thi pa sat khauor’ or ‘Iron Market’.

9. The Golden Bridge at Shenton Way used to be an overhead bridge CUM HAWKER CENTRE. In 2011, it was reported that there may be signs of a revival, but its fate remains uncertain till this day.

10. Taman Serasi Food Centre, near the Botanic Gardens, used to be famous for roti john. I’m not sure if the revamped Taman Serasi Food Garden is still around. Or has it devolved into ‘Food Canopy’, a glamorised food court?

11. The original ‘Glutton’s Square’ was located at Orchard Road Car park, what’s now become the much under-patronised Orchard Central. (Another Orchard Road favourite Cuppage Centre is now Starhub centre)

12. If you thought Golden Bridge was cool, we used to have a hawker centre UNDER A FLYOVER along Whitley Road. Another unforgettable place for a family outing which my folks referred to affectionately as ‘Under the Bridge’. An empty desolate patch where foreign workers like to hang out drinking remains.

Sumiko Tan believed that Singapore is in the midst of a ‘Golden Age’ in 2012 and that she preferred ‘progress’. If progress meant the loss of our food heritage and our local haunts replaced by bogus 24 hour ‘kopitiams’ if not spanking condos, then many Singaporeans who were born and bred on the foodstuff of our forefathers would rather starve to death than settle for ‘Mixed Economic Rice’.

So yeah, in the vein of a classic Paul Young 80′s song, everytime you close down a hawker centre, you take a piece of Singapore with you.

 

Our Kueh lapis way of tackling poverty woes

From ‘PM: We don’t need poverty line to help the poor’, 17 Nov 2013, article by Rachel Chang, Sunday Times

Singapore is past the point where a poverty line is useful, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong indicated yesterday, as its groups of needy now take shifting and multi-faceted form. Hence, the Government’s “kueh lapis” approach to social assistance, he said, summoning a metaphor that Minister of Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing used to describe the multi-layered help it provides to those in need.

Speaking to reporters after a Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, Mr Lee weighed in for the first time on recent calls to establish a poverty line in Singapore, after Hong Kong did so in September.

He said that a poverty line like the World Bank’s measure of $1.50 a day was irrelevant in Singapore as there are no “dead poor” here, by which he means those who are starving and unsheltered.

By ‘dead poor’ our PM probably refers to the invisible ‘homeless’ on the streets, a population which was supposedly ‘eradicated’ according to Kishore Mabubhani in 2001. However, he needs to be more explicit on what it means to be ‘unsheltered’. If you define ‘unsheltered’ as not having a roof over your head, which ‘layer’ does a family of 4 who lives in a VAN in East Coast Park fall under? To be fair, it’s hard to fix an income threshold for the needy, given that the sole breadwinner living in his company vehicle earns $2,100 a month, more than some bus drivers. Compare this to celebrity Darren Lim who makes a three-room Lagoon 400S2 catamaran his home. Both have a ‘roof over their heads’ , but clearly one family, due to unforseen circumstances, is at the bottom layer of the kueh lapis model.

Is a family who can’t afford a HDB flat that they have to make do in the back of a van ‘dead poor’? Even if you did have a roof over your head, what if had to put up with 10 kids in a room? Or sleep on a discarded sofa in the corridor? How about wandering about parks and beaches living in tents? Maybe the ‘dead poor’ is an apt definition of the destitute after all, because they’re practically ghosts in the eyes of a government that prides itself in looking after every Singaporean very well. As with every society, they’ll be those who’re bound to fall through the cracks. Just that our ministers are too far off the ground to notice any, or when they do, it’d already be too late. Not having a poverty line because some people claim we have no ‘dead poor’ to speak of, isn’t a very convincing argument, sad to say.

Dead poor, or just Poor?

MG Chan Chun Sing himself, creator of the kueh lapis, has his own interpretation of what ‘poor’ means; the ‘temporary poor’ and the ‘chronic poor’. Then there are the ‘working poor’, defined as those earning less than the national median per capita household income of $1920. The types of poor people alone is enough to form a mini kueh lapis on its own, the kueh lapis of poverty if you will. All this coming from a minister who once justified high government salaries using the analogy of XO sauce Chai Tau Quay.

Bin there, done that

A traditonal kueh lapis cake has 9 layers, but our Government is proposing a fat 18 tier program. If our income structure were like a layered cake it’s an uneven mix, with the prime ingredients like the prunes and rum right at the top, where our 27 and counting billionaires reside. At the bottom of the heap, you have people living in vans, along the corridor, in tents, folks who’re invisible to us just because we don’t see them scrounging garbage or begging for food on the streets. Poverty line or no, it’s troubling if our ministers are unwilling to acknowledge the hidden shame of abject poverty in the first place, just like how we pretend that litter doesn’t exist. Or an emperor denying that he ever fathered a bastard son with a peasant teenager.

The truth is out there, you’d just have to open your eyes and look beyond the Singapore you see in postcards and brochures, the statistics, bar charts, Queens of Instagram, over-hyped success stories; a whitewashed country led by men in white, not so much kueh lapis, but Kueh Tutu.

Singaporeans queuing overnight for Krispy Kreme doughnuts

From ‘Krispy Kreme fans start queuing for doughnuts’, 11 Oct 2013, article by Mohd Azhar Aziz, Today

It seemed a promising start for the American doughnut giant with the queue for Krispy Kreme doughnuts starting from as early as 11.42am today (Oct 11), ahead of the store opening tomorrow. Yet, at about 10.30pm, there were only eight people in the queue at Tangs Orchard – after one person dropped out – with several curious onlookers.

“It is heartwarming to see fans of Krispy Kreme queuing up. We are expecting more to come to the place. But the night is still early,” said a Krispy Kreme spokesperson.

The opening of Krispy Kreme’s first store in Singapore, at Tangs Orchard Basement, has been a widely-anticipated affair with free doughnuts offered to the first three customers and goodie bags for the first 500 customers.

The first customer will win a one-year supply of the Original Glazed Doughnuts — a dozen doughnuts every week for an entire year. The runner up will be awarded with a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts every week for the next six months, while the third in line will get 12 doughnuts every week for the next three months.

MMMMM.. Doughnuts

MMMMM.. Doughnuts

When Singapore’s own Donut factory was established in 2007, thereby kickstarting the doughnut craze, this was how people queued at Raffles City Basement before the shop opened. A familiar sight whether it’s for a new HnM store, Hello Kitty, iPads of Bak Kwa.

D’oh! Nuts

If Donut Factory hadn’t set up shop within the mall premises, you would have had Singaporeans pitching tents overnight like how we do today. A promising start, but foiled by the likes of J Co, Vinco (later Dippin’ Donuts), Munchy Donut, and eventually Dunkin’ Donuts penetrating the market. The ‘donut craze’ of 2007-2008 filled a gaping hole in our appetite for deep-fried confectionery. In its hey-day, carrying a box of dozen around was a status symbol like flashing Lim Chee Guan bak kwa during CNY, and it was only a matter of time before the sugar-high and novelty began to wear off and we glazed over anything ‘Donut’.  Even the cops couldn’t save it from near extinction then.

By 2011, Donut Factory realised they couldn’t just sell donuts anymore, no matter how ‘artisan’ or exotically flavoured they made them. They experimented with ‘bon-bons’ or mini-donuts for the calorie-conscious. Then burgers, cakes, patisserie before going bust in June this year just after starting an online delivery service.  Enter Krispy Kreme, which until today has been the stuff of gastronomical legend and described by Singaporeans who tried it overseas as if it were manna from heaven or rare 1000 year old honey, a must-eat holy grail and the MOTHER OF ALL DOUGHNUTS , like the Haj for sweet-tooths. It’s also the only doughnut shop around that spells its products as ‘DOUGHNUTS’ and not ‘DONUTS’, though the deliberate misspelling of ‘Crispy Cream’ looks more to me like the name of a circus clown rapper than a donut joint (‘Yo give it up for MC Krispy Kreme!’).

Donut or doughnut, this sickly sweet snack is the comeback kid of food fads. In 1983, Dunkin Donuts landed in Singapore, and Mister Donut was scheduled to follow in June 1984, though I’m not sure if that actually opened shop here. DD disappeared for more than a decade and made a comeback at Ion Orchard in 2009, though even that flagship store has since closed down. With KK making its ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’-style appearance to bring out the greedy kid in all of us, rival DD has its work cut out.  As it is, they’re already diversifying with sandwiches, bagels and wraps, looking more like a Subway ripoff than a donut shop. In August this year, they came up with a bizarre star ‘donut’ to celebrate Ramadan, which will appeal to anyone below the age of 5. Things do not bode well if you make your donuts anything but ROUND.

At $2.60 for an original glazed, KK’s doughnuts are the most expensive to date, though you do get your money’s worth of calories (200), fat (12g) and sodium(95mg) for ONE doughnut.  A Snickers bar, in comparison, has 250 calories, the same amount of fat, and 120mg of sodium, and in my opinion more satisfying and value-for-money than chewing on air wrapped in deep fried dough. A KK doughnut also has SIX TIMES the amount of fat you get from one Goreng Pisang. A ‘Golden Ticket’ thus entitles you to a dozen doughnuts a week, or 144 g of fat, equivalent to 12 bars of snickers, or 72 freakin’ pieces of goreng pisangs. A Golden Ticket to a cardiac arrest, more like it. Does it come with a free bypass surgery, I wonder.

Getting fat isn’t the only thing you need to worry about if you overindulge in KK. An original glazed is made up of more than 50 INGREDIENTS, making it the McNugget of Donuts, including ‘dough conditioners’, corn maltodextrin and locust bean gum. It also has a seemingly innocuous preservative called BHT, or butylated hydroxytoulene, the same chemical we use in cosmetics, jet fuel and EMBALMING FLUID. If you leave a KK doughnut in a closed jar, it would probably remain intact and edible until the craze wears off once more. If this is the food of the Gods, then we must have been praying to very evil gods indeed.

I’m no doughnut market analyst, but I think we were all addicted and fell for Krispy Kreme BECAUSE it was relatively inaccessible and was ‘forbidden fruit (tastes the sweetest)’ prior to its launch here. When it starts popping up all over the island, it’ll be like hearing your favourite song on repeat airplay for at least a few months. They have successfully regressed us all into slobbering babies with their Golden ticket gimmick, and it’s only a matter of time before we wean off it. Does ‘Beard Papa’ (probably the best cream puff in the world) ring a bell? Anyone?

Le Restaurant’s Buddha statue in the wrong place

From ‘Buddha statue in wrong place’, 5 Oct 2013, ST Life!

(Danny Cheong): I refer to the story Chinese Goes Chic (SundayLife!, Sept 29).

In Buddhism, devotees become vegetarian in order to refrain from killing livestock. It is improper and discourteous of Le Restaurant of Paradise Group to place a huge Buddha statue in its meateating outlet.

Even if it is a piece of art, it is certainly in the wrong place

Amita-Bar

Le Restaurant is the brainchild of former Entrepreneur of the Year Eldwin Chua, and has been described as a ‘bar featuring Nordic-style wooden latticed ceiling, sexy pink lighting, and a DJ spinning soulful house music’(Chinese goes chic, 29 Sept 2013, Sunday Lifestyle). It also serves ‘Asian tapas’, which sounds to me like swanky fusion dim sum with toothpicks, where you can pass off mantou as ‘sliders’. Not a place to celebrate Grandma’s 80th birthday I suppose.

A Buddha statue in Le Restaurant or plush ‘Asian bistros’ like Tao in New York seems ‘right’ for the concept, since the idea of Buddha and Buddhism has come to represent everything ‘hip’ and ‘mystical’ about the Orient, but wrong to those who revere the image as how one prostrates before the same statue at an altar. Other than sprucing up the place, a Buddha statue can even double up as a feng shui talisman for prosperity and luck. Westerners may find such themes appealing in a ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ kinda way but to me it’s just tacky decor, like a stuffed antelope in a BBQ diner, or a wax figure of Sly Stallone as Rambo in Planet Hollywood.

The liberal use of religious artifacts as a restaurant/bar/lounge theme isn’t new. The Buddha Bar was the pioneer of modern ‘buddhist chic’ back in 1996, with its own range of exotic new age CDs to bring the ‘neo-spiritual’ vibe of the establishment right into your living room.  Nevermind if the tracklisting contains titles like ‘Egyptian Disco’ or ‘Salaam‘, which makes you wonder if the French who came up with the idea thought Buddha resided in the ancient Pyramids or traversed vast Deserts on the back of a magical camel.

In 2010, Indonesian Buddhists in Jakarta protested against Buddha Bar for insulting their faith and tarnishing the ‘good name of Buddha’, not because of the meat they served, but that it came across as a debauched hangout for drunkard party-goers and prostitutes. Here, the Buddha Bar owners already decided in 2000 to change the ‘controversial’ name of their UE Square branch to ‘Siam Supperclub’ (Buddha at the Bar has gone off the Siam, 26 May 2000, ST), where not only can you gawk at Buddha statues but order a lychee martini called ‘Laughing Buddha’. If turning your restaurant/club into a temple alone isn’t New Age enough, why not name an alcoholic beverage after a deity too? Some practitioners believe the Buddha himself would turn a blind eye to the glamorous exploitation of his image. Not sure if you could pull off the same gimmick with Jesus on a crucifix; your menu would have to be restricted to wafers and red wine.

Cocktails aside, there’s even a meat broth named after Buddha, containing sharks’ fin, ham, abalone and scallop. An origin story behind this renown dish describes how monks would leap over temple walls just to have a whiff of this fragrant concoction. Why, it’s the famous ‘BUDDHA jumps over the wall’ of course, a delicacy that I’m sure some Buddhists do enjoy nonetheless without complaining that it’s not vegetarian. Not sure if Le Restaurant has its own version though. Maybe it’s called ‘Bouddha saute par-dessus le mur’ and comes in shot glasses with tiny umbrellas in it.

Dana and Stefan cooking dinner for Singaporeans

From ‘Sweet gesture hits sour note online’, 9 Sept 2013, article by Linette Lai and Walter Sim, ST

WHEN German couple Dana and Stefan invited strangers to their Singapore home for dinner last month, the response was overwhelming. Their online “open invitation” for six guests at an authentic German meal went viral, with 400 sign-ups. Netizens lauded the gesture as being “sweet” and “heartwarming”.

But all was not as it seemed. The dinner was the first of four hosted by expatriates as part of the sixth FairPrice Finest Festival, the supermarket’s annual food celebration.

And the marketing ploy has left a sour taste for some, with sign-up rates plunging after the link with FairPrice was revealed about a week after the first invite.

…Netizens speculated that the hosts were merely “paid actors” in a “staged marketing gimmick”, prompting organisers to clarify that they had “volunteered after hearing about the idea through word of mouth”.

If you see an over-friendly German couple trying their darnedest to convince complete STRANGERS to go over to their house, it calls for a healthy dose of skepticism. Personally, I wouldn’t go to a stranger’s home, expat or Singaporean, for a FREE meal without a professional taster who’s willing to sacrifice his life for me. I would expect at least a chat over coffee as a prelude to something as personal and heartfelt as home-cooking. Even then, my first instinct in a strange abode would be to spot the nearest escape route or piece of furniture to use as self-defence in case this ‘open invitation’ turns out to be a deadly cannibalistic trap. It’s either death by poison, or awkward silence.

The Singapore Kindness Movement were either in cahoots with NTUC or genuinely fooled by the video, saying that Dana and Stefan’s invitation ‘exemplifies the spirit of #bigmakan, bonding and building friendships over food’. Turns out that the couple got a nasty backlash for their hospitality which they didn’t expect coming from food-loving Singaporeans, who felt ‘cheated’ when they realised their act of ‘kindness’ was possibly sponsored by a multi-conglomerate. The follow up videos show Dana and Stefan stocking up from Fairprice Finest before cooking up a storm, though you could get fresher ingredients from the wet market or some other specialty deli. Finest does sell canned sauerkraut though, as if the reception from netizens wasn’t sour enough. I wouldn’t be surprised that some of the noisiest whiners about this ‘con-job’ were the ones who didn’t get selected to sample some Bavarian delights.

In 2011, an insurance firm ran a similar viral marketing gimmick to toy with our emotions, presenting us with a ‘forbidden love story’ between a 20-something guy and a 47 year old woman. Netizens who were fooled into tears were appalled by the dramatic revelations that unfolded, though I believe one reason for the nastiness flung at this disastrous anticlimax was the ridiculous amount of emotional investment in the story. It was like watching a tragic movie finishing with someone waking up saying ‘Phew it was all just a dream!’. You’d probably wouldn’t react like someone ripped you off half your life savings if you just took such online drama with a pinch of salt.

At first glance, Dana and Stefan look like trustworthy folks who are not likely to strangle you with a string of bratwurst sausages. I would have believed them even if they sold their souls to the devil, though NTUC comes close, but not to the extent of falling in love with their amiableness and feeling like I’ve been dealt a slap in the face because they were doing it for Fairprice Finest. I think they had good intentions, just unlucky to face the wrath of people who want a perfect, happy ending to every story they encounter online and hate to be duped and feeling played out. Food for thought, nonetheless; How many of us even cook for our neighbours, not to mention complete strangers?

Now if only there’s a German word for ‘the disappointment of having people accuse you of being sell-outs when you invite strangers to your home for a meal out of the warmth and  goodness of your heart’.

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