Walk along a short stretch of Neil Road and you’ll be met with the gleaming facades of some of the nicest shophouses in Singapore. But the queen standing among this lot is undoubtedly No. 157, otherwise known as Baba House.
Constructed around 1895, it is one of the last remaining residential Straits Chinese townhouses in Singapore. The townhouse was once the ancestral home of the Wee’s, a family of traders. Today, the house has been restored to its former glory: cross its courtyard and you’d be stepping back in time.
Baba House is more than just a pretty face, says Poonam Lalwani with a chuckle, the soft-spoken manager who guides heritage tours as part of her duties. “When you walk down Neil Road, you can see that all the shophouses are very ornate from the front. But inside, they are very modern.”
Food for thought
But Going Places Singapore hasn’t just come to Baba House for a private tour: something unique is happening at the House tonight. As part of Singapore Art Week, the House hosted the inaugural instalment of CultureHackSG 1.0. Much like ‘hackathon’ events, where people with different backgrounds assemble to mash out a creative solution to a problem, CultureHackSG aims to act as a forum for discussions about hybridity and food.
At the event’s heart, or should we say, tummy, lies two titles. Tonight’s speakers will all be riffing off two colonial cookbooks written for Europeans in Malaya in the early 20th century. Using The International Cookbook of Malaya and The Mem’s Own Cookery Book: 420 Tried & Economical Recipes for Malaya, the speakers will delve into their practices and research on food.
Janice Loo, a research librarian at the National Library, was instantly captivated by the books when she came across them. They are, she says, far more than quirky recipes from the past: they can tell us about the lives of women then, too. “I see cookbooks as embodying a form of very intimate knowledge. These writings can share wider politics about gender, race and class.”
Much like a hackathon, the event riffed off the original material to cover a smorgasbord of topics, with a spread of strong opinions presented.
Kuala Lumpur has a less sophisticated food heritage than Singapore, argued one speaker, and used geography to back it up: “I mean, just think. KL was a tin mining town, but Singapore was a port and a centre for Hajj pilgrimage.” When thousands of Indonesian pilgrims passed through, they left behind their own indelible recipes and gastronomic footsteps.
In an evening with many highlights, the cherry-on-the-cake speaker may just have been Lee Engsu.
Moonlight bouncing off his bald pate, the trained chef peppered his talk with self-deprecating jokes, mountains of research, and more than a few cheery swear words.
He opened his talk with a bombshell: “My belief is that Singaporean food has gotten worse lately; more stagnant. I don’t think I’m the only one.” His question was, “Why?” As the audience drank up his words and ate his pre-prepared dishes (“This is Burmese Tea Leaf salad. Burmese food is really raw, fresh. It’s probably what our cuisine tasted like before we got prosperous”), he laid out his theories. The problem was a lack of pride in Singaporean dishes, paying a maximum of five bucks while we pay 20 bucks for a plate of pasta.
Other issues were slightly more insidious, such as the declining pride in Singlish and other dialects. As we continue to Speak Good English, we also subtly erase a part of our food culture, argues Engsu: “Without language, we lose a lot of our food. In the dialects, we have a lot of ways to describe food that are really important. When you talk about food in a hawker centre now, we just say, ‘Very good.’ If you lose the local language connected to dishes, you lose all the vocabulary connected to food, and lose the nuances to describe it. That’s terrible.”
Needless to say, the night left listeners with a lot to chew on. But if innovative events held in hotspots such as Baba House continue, it’s safe to say we can keep the local culinary arts alive and kicking.
Cool seats, hungry eyes
Having sated our hunger, it’s time to tour Baba House itself, and learn why it was such a perfect setting for CultureHackSG. Enter the façade, and you’re greeted by a reception hall that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a period drama. You’re greeted by Guang Gong, a Chinese warlord-turned-deity, who glares at visitors from his altar. It’s ringed by stiff wooden seats on which Poonam invites us to cool our bottoms.
“These chairs are inlaid with marble and mother of pearl. Modern people may find it stiff, but what’s fantastic is that, back in the ’20s, you didn’t have air-conditioning. So when you sit on the marble, it cools you down,” she says.
The chairs also carry a pointed message, she says, noting the patterns of melon or squash on them. “Melons have lots of seeds — a constant reminder to have lots of children and carry on your legacy,” she reveals. It’s a policy that continues in Singapore today, she winks.
Speaking of romance, Poonam directs our attention to a screen hugging the back of Guang Gong’s altar. Back in the day, many a matchmaking session would occur in this very hall, and one might just see a young girl with her nose pressed against the screen, “hoping to catch a glimpse of her suitor.”
Feeding the kitchen chatterbox
Every feature tells a story in this house.
Moving further back into the deep shophouse, past the central courtyard open to the rain — which would be used to water plants, and kept water flowing in as a symbol of continual wealth — we enter the kitchen.
Occupying pride of place above the stove is a tablet to the kitchen god, something you see in many hawker centres to this day. Why does he have to be placed so close to the stove? “So he can eavesdrop on what the ladies are gossiping about,” says Poonam. Just before the arrival of Chinese New Year, this deity will flit up to heaven to report what he has learnt. That’s why the family will strategically leave him offerings of cake to sweeten his tongue, so that he only has nice things to say about the family. “The cake is also sticky enough to glue his mouth shut if he has mean things to say,” Poonam says.