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Chapter X, in honor of Tony

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals of one’s life”  – Anthony Bourdain

 

How much do we learn about a place when we travel there?  How truly do we know and understand it’s culture, society, and people? These are questions I struggle with.  I have been to Singapore multiple times, and from the twitter accounts I follow, I’m still completely baffled.  I feel like in my failing Western eyes, that they will never comprehend this place, never understand what they have seen over the years, but yet, they compel me to return in my attempts.

 

So much has changed.  I am not the same person I was, nor is Singapore the same place.  We have both aged, grown, moved on in our existence.  Will this still be the same place I fell in love with.  Will its food still steal my desires with its allure?  I wonder if I’m struggling to recreate experiences which cannot be duplicated.

 

A large part of this trip is owed, and in honor of, my muse; Anthony Bourdain.  His passing was not just a loss to the food world, nor a loss to the TV world, but a loss to those that are interested in opening the eyes of our perception to the world.  Anthony’s death has affected me personally.  I very much modeled my travel approach after his:  Get lost, drink a lot, and immerse yourself in the experience.  Tell stories through the medium of food.  Someone who did what I long to do for life, how could he be unhappy?  And yet, I can see how the demons attack.  I have my own, as I’m sure he had his.

 

So how do I bereave that, how do I honor it?  I’d like to think…..go.  Do what you love, go where you love, experience things you love with those that are important to you.  I don’t have a specific agenda for this trip, nor do I want one.  But I want to go and experience a place that I love with a child-like vision.  Renewed in the fact that I’m on a trip to live life.  And that is what is most important, and what I think Anthony tried to communicate most.  Regardless of your wealth, status, or background, you should go.  Experience the unfamiliar, travel, share experiences, and connect with those around you in the world.  Because in doing so, you tell the story of others.

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Portrait of a Picture

“…sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”  Graham Greene, Ways of Escape

 

My friend Wade is a photographer.  When he told me he was coming to Singapore, I was intrigued because I would be learning more about someone whom I knew very little about.  Sure, Wade and I had worked together in a previous life, but knowing someone at work is like drinking a fine wine but knowing nothing about the vintner or the region from which the wine comes.  You can appreciate what is put in front of you, but what goes on from the time the first grapeseed is planted until the wine is placed in front of you at the table?

 

At heart, whether he likes to admit it or not, Wade is an artist.  I enjoy writing about artists.  As I have blogged about before, whether you are a chef, a writer, a photographer, or a painter, you have passion for your craft.  Wade has this passion.  Chefs carefully source, cook, and arrange ingredients to make a fine dish.  Wade does this with his photography.  He moves through a scene as if a well-trained martial artist.  Never out of position, always moving, pivoting, jockeying for the right shot.  He wields his camera as if it were a finely honed weapon.  The end product is envisioned in the blink in an instant, and then the weapon swings into action.  Shutter speed, aperture, snap.  ISO, white balance, snap snap.  Focal point, foreground, background, snap snap snap.

The photographic medium is an empty plate.  It takes a master to cull together the ingredients of a scene, to craft and cook each element to a certain temperature and texture.  Warmth, coolness, palate feel, taste, smoothness.  Each pillar of the final product is there for a reason, everything has a place, and nothing is there that doesn’t belong.

 

Of course this doesn’t happen by accident.  Countless shots are taken, evaluated, and discarded.  Only the choicest images are put forth for display.  Wade has a show after the trip, and maybe only 2 out of what must have been 1000 shots meet the exacting standards.

 

It is said that art is a way of speaking, a way of communicating the artist’s biases and beliefs to the audience.  I wonder if it isn’t to captivate the audience for as long as they’ve been willing to give us their attention.  A meal is consumed, a piece of music is listened to, a literary work is read, and a photograph is viewed for a fleeting instance; each of these captivates us for as long as we immerse ourselves in these works.  Whatever feelings or byproducts result of that is completely by accident, and totally of our own volition, and maybe just maybe, lend some meaning to the chaos of the universe.

You can see Wade’s images from our trip and more at http://www.wadecourtneyphotography.com

Thank you

Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for. – Epicurus

A lazy humidity hangs in the air.  Upstairs I can hear a fellow traveler conversing in German with loved ones back home, while the whir of the ceiling fans lulls me almost to sleep with its white noise.  We fly out in a few hours, end capping another amazing journey to Singapore.

I cannot begin to express my gratitude to those who cared for us while we were here.  Everywhere we went, we were met with smiles, open arms, and generosity beyond measure.  My deepest thanks goes out to Derrick Tan, Dr. Leslie Tay, Paul and Wayne, Erich, CB, Michelle, and the entire staff at Wink Hostel, Li Theng and her team, and our friends David and Kevin.  The other side of the globe feels like home thanks to you.

We came to Singapore on a mission to capture stories of people sharing their passion for their craft and humanity through the medium of food.  The footage we captured is amazing, I don’t envy Alison’s job as our editor in putting the shots together.  How do you pick your favorite diamond, when each one sparkles and shimmers under the light, and is nuanced with its own inclusions.

As I’ve kept up with the news back home, there is more violence, more unrest, and increasing malevolence in the world.  Instead I choose to focus on the stories of love, passion, and attention to detail that recur in our filming.  The rest fades as if they were a chalk drawing on a sidewalk in a thunderstorm.  There are those among us who find beauty and passion in their craft.  The consistency of a batter, the precise thickness of a cucumber slice, the perfect roll of shrimp and mincemeat, or the precise fry of a flat noodle in a wok.  Those individuals should be celebrated.

As Singapore marks its 50th anniversary, we cheer along side of it for its contribution to food, food culture, and society at large.  There are passionate people here; chefs, hawkers, community organizers, and home cooks.  They have a passion to share their culture and background with the world, and they do it little by little, one dish at a time.

The final slate cracks like a whip and snaps be back to the present.  We look not behind, but forward into the future and what is to come.  Though uncertain, we can be reassured there is much good in the world, individuals and organizations that hope to bring togetherness and understanding to their communities.  I long that the values, hard work, and passion that have brought this tiny little country so far in 50 years will be shared, copied, and carried forward in the world.

Thank you for capturing our hearts and attention, even for a brief time.

Majulah Singapura.

Masters of their Craft

The happiness of a man in this life does not consist of the absence but in the mastery of his passions – Alfred Lord Tennyson

We arrive in a quiet HDB complex.  Dark clouds gather overhead and the plump, heavy raindrops begin to fall.  Inside the square is the Keng Eng Kee Seafood Restaurant.  The din of the lunch rush is beginning to die down.  The tables and chairs appear orange under the heavy glow of the fluorescent lights overhead.

We are here to meet Derrick Tan; a popular Singaporean food blogger.  Derrick runs the extremely popular sgfootonfoot.com.  He has consistently been named one of the top food bloggers in Singapore, and we are delighted to get to meet with him, and I’m not afraid to say a little bit nervous.  He has selected this restaurant for many reasons.  For one, the salted egg yolk crab is arguably the best in Singapore.

Derrick started his food blog a few years ago as he and his wife were exploring places to eat in Singapore.  His blog circles around dining establishments that can be found within walking distance of the MRT, a highly popular transportation option in Singapore given the very high cost of owning a car.

Derrick introduces us to Paul; the director of operations for KEK Seafood, and Wayne the head chef.  We are immediately welcomed into the restaurant.  Paul’s jovial laughter and warm spirit puts us at ease as we begin to setup our gear.  We are welcomed just as if we were old friends, returning from a long journey.  Paul’s brother, Wayne, is the head chef of KEK Seafood.  Wayne, in his thirties, is the third generation chef for this family owned restaurant that has been around since the 1960’s.

Wayne ushers us into his kitchen where dinner prep begins for the evening.  The heat is blisteringly intense in an area no bigger than an average bedroom.  It’s like being in an attic of a 2 story house on a hot summer day.  One of the six or so sous chefs is chopping the forty cucumbers that will be used as garnish for each dish.  In the back, fresh fish is being skinned and prepped.  Wayne personally sources all of his ingredients once a week from the local wet markets.  Over in the corner another sous chefs fries the bean curd in hot oil.  The soft and spongy bean curd seizes in the fryer as it gets put in, the angry boil of the oil ignites as a 3 foot wall of flame that licks the ceiling like a dragon’s tongue.  Alison gets some quick B-roll before we move on to the interview.

Outside the kitchen, hundreds of little ‘hay-chor’ rolls are prepped in a giant round steamer.  Hay-chor is Wayne’s mother’s personal recipe, rolled mince meat, water chestnut, carrot, and prawns wrapped in beancurd skin.  Each hay-chor is carefully wrapped, steamed, and then deep fried.

I’m saving the details of the interview (and the other wonderful dishes) for our final film, but Derrick was an absolute joy to work with.  He shared about his inspiration for his food blog, what he hopes will continue in Singapore food culture, and how he has a passion for sharing his food adventures with others.

After the interview, we are treated with the tasty dishes we saw being prepped earlier.  Wayne carefully supervises the preparation and serving of each dish brought to our table, like a father carefully watching his children.  The salted egg crab was the best crab dish I’ve had in Singapore, exceeding even the chili and black pepper versions I’ve had elsewhere.  I don’t think I’ve seen that large of a crab portion in any restaurant I’ve been to here.

As we breakdown our gear and leave, the skies open and bathe us with a tropical cloud burst. We walk away from the shoot silently; partially due to all of the delicious food we ate, but in no small way due to the passion, caring, and hospitality we each just witnessed.

What makes two brothers carry their family’s legacy forward to a new generation?  Given the numerous career options available, what drives Wayne and Paul to be masters of their craft, and to share this passion and drive with others?

As I’ve said before, these are recursive themes in our visits to Singapore.  Here are two brothers and a food blogger, each sharing their love of the dishes, all while advancing Singapore food culture into the future for a new generation.

Thank you Derrick, Paul, Wayne, and your families.  We are eternally grateful for all you did for us, and for demonstrating the best that humankind has to offer in this amazing place.

Perspectives on the Journey

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness – Mark Twain

The following is a guest post from our editor and photographer, Alison Luong.

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Once upon a time, Mark Hamilton wanted to honor his beloved Singapore by exploring, filming, and writing about its food culture. As an apostle of Anthony Bourdain, he understood the role of food as a great uniter: it is an entryway into learning a culture and an easy way to share it. It’s a labor of love. He planned to visit during Chinese New Year and the Singapore 50 Jubilee. Naturally, he brought a carefully crafted team: his partner-in-beers who knew and loved the land; his equipment expert who yearned for adventure; and a waitress. I’m the waitress. And a team camera[wo]man. Yet the day that I first touched a DSLR was the day that I met Mark for the first time… and about three weeks before I went with the team on our first trip to Singapore. I still have a lot of gratitude for the fact that the others entrusted an inexperienced, skinny-armed, and devastatingly clumsy young woman with the gear and the mission. To be honest, I left San Diego without ever having truly wanted to visit Asia. I really was just along for the ride (but never ungrateful about the opportunity). My expectations for Singapore (my first real travel venture) were shaped by the moment my mother handed me 50 packets of Kleenex. She informed me that I would be hard pressed to find toilet paper. She was right. At one point, we found what we could only assume were “poo tongs.” There will not be more on that later. But Singapore was not the hyper-clean, über policed (think caning), yet bathroom-comforts-devoid horror that my mother and popular culture made it out to be. I arrived in Singapore again last night after spending a week in Kuala Lumpur and the rainforest/riverside village of Kuala Tahan. That last trip left me a little more confident in my capacity to try new things– though I’m well aware that I’ve never been thrust drastically out of my comfort zone. While in Malaysia, my travel partner tried hot dogs and hamburgers from the village.

“They’re different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to remind me of home. ”

He was talking about their use of sweet chili sauce instead of ketchup, cucumbers instead of pickles. But I think that’s the best metaphor for my experience. In completely new places, I found things that were comforting and familiar. In Singapore and Malaysia, I was reminded that I am not White. I was raised Chinese-American in a family that encouraged me to be a Western-tinted model minority. I speak Cantonese and I eat a lot of rice, but I was born and raised in California and I’m really, really American. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find that the foods were familiar, that I knew how to be polite, and that people speak my language. And it meant a lot to me. Apart from allowing me to realize my identity as a cultural mutt, I found the familiar in other people and their structures. The train in Kuala Lumpur was like BART. Farts are universally funny. Cabbies road rage. People often surprise you with their altruism. And, of course, I keep witnessing (and cringing at) rude and demanding customers. So… what this boils down to is that I’m excited for this week in Singapore. I’m ready to relate to more people and eat really good food.

The Journey Continues…

“…all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless.  We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” – John Steinbeck
Six months ago, our small group of film makers traveled to Singapore for Chinese New Year.  We went in hopes of making a meaningful film about the food, culture, and people of Singapore, using Chinese New Year as the backdrop for our story.  What we found when we arrived was so much bigger, and so much more impactful than we could have ever imagined.  We dove into a pool with a foggy bottom, not knowing how deep the current ran.
There was one particular day that deeply inspired us all, changed the direction of our film, and indeed changed us.
I wrote in a previous post during the trip about meeting Erich, and briefly sharing his passion for humanity through a humble kiosk in the tumble dryer of sensory overload that is Chinatown.  We all came away from that interview day asking, ‘What inspires someone to do good for humanity through food?’  In the days following, we found that this was a recursive theme throughout our visit.  We came back with more questions, more yearnings, and more desire to find, understand, and share more stories like that.
And so it is, with great pleasure, I’m pleased to tell you that the team will be returning to Singapore in August, to celebrate along with her the 50th Golden Jubilee of the nation’s independence.
We embark on this journey with hopefully a clearer objective than before; to find people, cultivate relationships, and share stories of so many Singaporeans working to create a passion of unity and togetherness, all through the medium of food and cooking, and in the context of this great country’s independence celebration.
Those of you that know me, or the members of our team, we are not chefs, we are not professionally trained, nor are we necessarily what some might describe as ‘foodies’.  What we do possess, is a simple desire to tell stories through sights and sounds in the medium of film and writing.  For us, food and travel is an equalizer.  A means to relate to one another.
I’d like to think that as humans, we all seek to identify with one another, to find commonality, and community with each other.  At the risk of sounding cliché, I’d at least like to think that most of us subscribe to that world view, or at least the idea of it.
Uncertainty can sometimes cripple, but more often it inspires.  I don’t know what these 7 days in August holds in store for us, but I can say, that it will likely taste very good.
Thank you for continuing with us in our journey, I can’t wait to share the next leg.

The Power of Passion

As the cab ride to Changi Airport pitches back and forth, the droning hum of wheels on pavement lulls me into reflectivity.  The final departing sights of Singapore whiz past in the blur of my subconscious.  The Singapore Flyer, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the greenery of the median parade past as if in a final celebration of our departure.

My brain screams for meaning to this trip, to this experience.  What did we accomplish?  What did we learn?  Was it worth the sacrifice of my time, my beloved family, and our effort?  In a tidal force looms the next steps of this process, the editing, the writing of the voice over, and the post production of our film.  Will it be interesting, will we have appropriately captured the story we so desperately set out to tell?

I obviously do not know the answers to these questions, and indeed, I may never know.  But I’m left with one overarching feeling.  I am constantly amazed by the power of passion.

Six months ago, there was an idea to experience something new and tell a story.  We didn’t know the logistics, we didn’t know the end product, we just knew there was importance in the journey.  A rag-tag group wanted to set out on a journey and document an event and a culture.

Through the past six days, passion pervaded and illuminated our filming.  A passion for food, a passion for celebrating humanity, a passion for culture, and a passion for learning and understanding dominated the leading role of our trip.

Sights, sounds, and smells constantly competed for our attention.  Listen to us, taste our flavors, see our colors.  The lens suddenly feels as such an inadequate medium in which to capture the bouquet of sensory experiences that lie within this place.

I cannot begin to express my thanks and gratitude to those that made this journey possible.  The kindness, understanding, and generosity of those we encountered, and even more so, those back home leave an indelible ink that will ever endure in our hearts.

If we learn nothing else from this experience, it’s that the power of passion ignites the human spirit, leading us to remarkable things that never would otherwise have been imagined.

Wheels up.