“If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes … it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.” ― Arthur Conan Doyle
Hawker food in Singapore can be genuinely breathtaking. It may not always feel like it: a hawker centre meal can be one of the most unremarkable Singaporean experiences ever. Sometimes it is the crowds, the heat, and that newfound menace – the haze – that take your breath away, and not in a metaphorical way.
But occasionally, nestled inconspicuously in vast hawker centres, you find the most astonishing stalls, serving mind-blowingly good fishball noodle soup, or chwee kueh, or laksa. It’s the kind of food that makes overseas Singaporeans “culinarily … the most homesick people I have ever met,” as Calvin Trillin writes (in The New Yorker, 2007). No frills, no pizzazz – just nondescript, understated brilliance.
Only at lunchtime are these undiscovered gems given away, by the queues that form in front of them. People line up at these stalls like devotees at a shrine, patient supplicants waiting meekly in the heat for heavenly blessing. ‘Divine’ is, after all, how the esteemed Makansutra guide describes Singapore’s best hawker food.
In Singapore, the abstract, ethereal realm of stories is much like the hot, delicious, commonplace world of hawker food.
We tell a few stories in Singapore. We tell the story of the gleaming metropolis – this is the one we learn in history lessons. We tell it alongside the stories of the great, visionary men: Raffles in 1819, Lee Kuan Yew in 1965. We also tell the story of the everyman: gritty pioneers who toiled alongside the great men to build the metropolis. And, of course, close to our hearts lies the story of our cultural rojak: the story of communities, cultures, and cuisines converging onto this country from lands near and far, creating a wonderful, irreplaceable whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
To be sure, these stories are incredibly important: they are central to and inseparable from the Singapore narrative. But sometimes we can’t help but feel that they are incomplete. Some of them are tersely, uneasily contested. Others are complicated and disrupted as the country changes with the times. And, like the hidden gems in hawker centres, many more lie undiscovered.
The Undiscovered Country celebrates these untold stories. And there are so many of them – so many undiscovered countries to set sail to. Consider the stories that our speakers are bringing with them:
In the 1991 Star Trek film of the same name, the undiscovered country is the future, a land of both abundant opportunity and lurking danger. Speakers like biologist-cum-technologist Dr Tan Tin Wee, and urban planning visionary Cheong Koon Hean bring with them thrilling prospects for Singapore’s future, while twelve-year-old Dylan Soh brings his hopes for the future of Singapore, already published in a heartfelt book.
If one undiscovered country is the future, another is the past. Co-founder of Lonely Planet Tony Wheeler, for instance, brings with him his fascinating experience in Singapore circa 1972, when men with long hair, frowned upon as ‘suspected hippies,’ were served last at government offices. It was in a bewildering and (to some of us) unrecognisable Singapore that the Lonely Planet series was born.
And then there are undiscovered countries in the here and now – wonderful, untold stories about Singapore that scuttle out into the open when we ‘gently remove the roofs’ concealing them. In and around an otherwise bustling, urban landscape, an astonishingly rich variety of flora and fauna thrive in Singapore. Lena Chan, an expert on Singapore’s biodiversity, brings incredible passion and vast experience about our natural heritage. Published poets Gwee Li Sui, Marc Nair, and Aaron Maniam – storytellers by profession – tell stories at the intersection of fiction and truth, poetry and politics. And Zakir Hossain Khokon, a construction supervisor and winner of the Migrant Workers’ Poetry Competition in 2014, conveys hauntingly beautiful accounts of the transient worker’s experience, one which is far too easily overlooked in Singapore.
Can these undiscovered stories sit uneasily with each other? Can the idiosyncratic ones exist alongside our mainstream narratives? They certainly can, in the spirit of the poet Walt Whitman, who wrote:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
These stories intertwine – they make us richer, fuller, and more authentic. At the end of the day, the story of Singapore the entrepot resonates with us at TEDxSingapore. For centuries – even before the arrival of Raffles – Singapore has been a hub for trade. Today, Singapore is a hub for ideas and stories – they combine with each other in weird and wonderful ways, and generate unprecedented possibilities.
At TEDxSingapore, every single member of our community contains multitudes, and brings them to The Undiscovered Country. When thousands of stories converge onto the entrepot that is TEDxSingapore, what possibilities can arise? What conversations, connections, and contributions can we create? We will find out in a couple of days’ time – perhaps over a bowl of the best char kway teow in town.