The Hong Lim Suite: Sweet Coffee & Potted Palms

Hong Lim block wakes bean curd soft

through the steam of morning’s first rice,

the steely beat of pak choi diced

and gossip flavoured Hokkien

sizzling sharp with galangal root

and splintered chicken feet chippings.

As the hawkers call the start of day,

a Singapore dawn spreads gin sling pink

on door glass and twitching curtain backs.

Merchants raise their shop guards, stack out

wads of temple money, sandalwood

sticks and prayer beads. On the first

floor, doctors sniff their herbs,

grocers open up sugared drinks

and unwrap today’s fresh moon cakes. I

wander through the meat market,

the stench of blood as strong as

bleach, shivering ornate flesh stains

adorned on butchers’ aprons.

From the balcony I spot the

Mah Jong players grouped at

plastic tables, withered and torpid

seniors rattling through a slow old age

with symboled tiles and their daughters’

flasks of cha in hand. By ten o’clock

the stalls are heaving, the poor flock here

for three dollar dining, monks

wander, trading braids for coins.

Travelling whites come to break

their breakfast rules: bacon and toast

swapped for dumplings and noodles,

their cereal traditions cornflaked

into bowls of coconut milk, curried

in their foreignness. I order

from Coffee Station and take

a seat by the plant beds, am tutted

by locals five metres away for taking

the smoking table. I watch the tai-tai

pour the coffee jug to jug, add the sugar,

a layer of condensed milk. I had asked

for black. She brings the chipped cup over

through the roar of clucking Hakka,

Malay, Telugu, Cantonese, Tamil, not

a broken word of English. “Xie xie,”

I mumble, endeavouring Mandarin gratitude,

I should have known from the menu

she was Teochew. She rolls her eyes

at my faulty Chinese and leaves. I sit there,

sweating in the Peranakan heat

that steams the emerald leaves

of potted palms and rides on the spitted

flames of vinegared woks. I breathe the fumes

of pungent pans of shrimp broth and

Peking duck ovens, my elbow by a piece of onion,

dropped from some diner’s clumsy chopsticks.

(First published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 2011.)