Singapore food – and sociopolitical climate – star in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series debut

The acclaimed chef turned documentary filmmaker returns to Singapore for char kway teow and some serious talk over hearty local meals.

Anthony Bourdain enjoys a beer and Singapore's rooftop views. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/PARTS UNKNOWN

Singapore’s food scene has always been a fascination for foodies the world over – and Anthony Bourdain took it one step further last week (1 October), when he returned once again to its shores and took a hard look at what makes it tick.

Bourdain has long been the bad boy of high end cooking, and his no holds barred CNN series Parts Unknown is famed for being a hardcore yet affectionate exploration of diverse cultures as well as their food. In the first episode of the tenth series, he again takes his irreverent foodie tour literally on the road – kicking off his Singapore trip in a blue taxi and chatting up his local Indian cabbie about favourite local eats along the way.

Referring to Singapore as the utopian city-state run like a multinational company, Bourdain remarks upon how the island nation has shot up from third- to first-world in a single generation – his narration interspersed with shots of Singapore’s city skyline and ultra-modern buildings.

”Welcome to Singapore Incorporated.”

– Anthony Bourdain

Crediting the one-party system with creating an environment of racial harmony and orderliness not found in the Western world, he makes the trip to 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles to meet his Singaporean godfather KF Seetoh, who shares his take on hawker food culture with his long-time friend “Tony” over bowls of both wet and dry prawn noodles. They exchange ideas on how to preserve and progress the heritage food that Singapore is famous for, how the ageing population’s issues are painfully apparent in the hawker world and why hawker food needs to go back to immigrant roots to stay alive.

True to his word that he comes here mostly to eat, Bourdain continues on to Arab Street for lunch with local Malay producer/director Najip Ali. They discuss free speech over mee siam and lontong in Sabar Menanti; how it is restricted, and how those in arts and media work around the boundaries. Najip also speaks about how creative Singaporeans have nowhere to go to exercise free speech and expression, unlike even Malaysians who can leave the city and spend time away.

Bourdain then moves on to commenting on the unseen pressure from the government, and how relief from this is provided in the form of legalised prostitution and other vices. He chats to some young Singaporeans, over Tiger beer and hawker food in Geylang Lorong 29, about their sheltered lives and the price they pay for peace and prosperity.

While appreciating Singapore’s status as a land of opportunity for Asian immigrants, and how the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, socially engineered prosperity as well as capitalism – he takes time out for beers on a rooftop with nightlife king Michael Ma of IndoChine Group.

Bourdain stops for another drink at Manhattan Bar in the Regent Hotel Singapore – which just moved up to number 4 on the 2017 list of the World’s 50 Best Bars. Of course he’s not there just to drink, but to have a serious discourse over cocktails with economist Donald Low. Low, who’s an Associate Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, expresses concern over the world’s nations now rejecting globalisation – and how that will impact Singapore’s thriving economy in the near future.

The two also muse over also how debate can only serve to enrich Singapore’s democratic freedom without hurting the current level of prosperity and happiness – with livelier (and better) exchange of ideas. Low suggests that such discourse might even allow for locals to decide that the current state of affairs produces the best possible society for Singapore.

Bourdain returns to food thereafter – a traditional Peranakan meal with chef Damien D’Silva. They lament over how there are no takers to carry on the fine tradition of Peranakan cuisine, and propose how local food needs to be elevated by the “hipster” generation to become more valuable for everyone. At the same time they acknowledge it can be a thankless task; better made for those who are not passionate, but a little bit mad.

Next is a homecooked meal with the family that runs Keng Eng Kee Seafood in the Alexandra Village Food Centre. Again Bourdain explores why pricing isn’t reflective of the love locals have for food – learning through the family patriarch that a “special relationship” with customers has meant that a plate of fried rice only costs $1 more after 20 years. He gets distracted though by the pig trotters in black vinegar and Hainan mixed vegetables served under the family’s humble HDB roof.

The just under 43-minute jaunt ends with something else that always attracts his attention – the char kway teow he enjoys every time he visits.

Bourdain’s ode to Singapore ends with a frenetic montage of the many different people that make up its population, as well as the elements that keep them safe and obedient – the omnipresent police and security cameras on every corner. The entire episode does justice to the diversity of both culture and food in Singapore – reminding us of things we hold dear, but might also take for granted.

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