The green East West line takes you to Tiong Bahru, quite the hippest hipster hangout with its art deco architecture and frothy coffees. A gem of a find for me is Books Actually, one of those rare independent book stores that gets one all enpassioned, stroking the covers and sniffing the ink. It also has its own imprint, producing intriguing and beautiful little books that may or may not be of Great Literary Merit, but it doesn’t matter because publishing books is Important and it happens rarely enough in this day and age, especially if the material is esoteric and the market is small.
So I was pretty excited to find, first, the Urban Sketchers art books: drawing and doodles that capture the spirit of Singapore’s neighbourhoods. But also this diminutive, hand-sized collection of essays by Stephen Black.
His physical and imaginative wanderings in the urban landscape of Tiong Bahru merge anecdote, historical research and his loving exploration of food (as the title suggests), into fascinating morsels of local insight. He plays on his insider/outsider status to build a paean to his adopted home. His repeated references to his choice of coffee - the local kopi c kosong brew - suggests that he sees himself as more insider than latte-drinking expat outsider.
The book itself, like the gentrified estates he describes, is a bit of a contradiction. His writing feels modern - even post-modern - a meandering whimsy of observations and reflections, often on the process of writing itself. The tone is like a quality blog, which is frustrating when he mentions photos that we can't see - why didn't you just blog this, I thought?
But I do admire the tenacity to produce an actual book - a thing of beauty that will last after a blog post disappears into the archive.
The contradiction, though, lies in the fact that the book is sold through Books Actually, a hipster hangout of the kind he bemoans inside the pages for driving up rents and driving out the old TBers who can't afford to live and work there any more. It's a knotty problem that besets other gentrified corners of major cities, but I'm left wondering where he stands...
This is a super little book that's both fascinating and inspiring. Snippets of information, snapshots of daily life - and a tip on where to find the best pineapple tarts, of which I am especially fond. They should give it to newly-arriving expats as they get off the plane.