London day 5

Monday, 14 December 2009:

Strolling past a few Chinese restaurants in London’s Chinatown, I looked at their menus. Indeed, a few of them had something called Singapore Fried Rice and/or Singapore Fried Noodles. I have been warned about these beasts by Chris Hansen, with whom I am staying. “It’s ordinary fried rice with curry flavour. Something you’d never find in Singapore.”

Gerrard Street is the heart of London's Chinatown

Although I’m not the sort that hankers for Chinese or Singapore food wherever I go, today I decided I had to pop into a Chinese restaurant to try this exotic dish.

I chose the Singapore Noodle, which the Chinese translation on the menu named Xin Zhou Chao Mi (literally: Singapore Fried Beehoon). It was almost exactly as Hansen had described it: dry-fried (i.e. gravyless) beehoon with slivers of chashao (char siew), shrimp and shredded lettuce. The whole thing had been stir fried in curry-flavoured stock, mildly spicy. The surprise was the powder dusted on top of the dish. I thought it was curry powder, but on hindsight, it was probably chilli powder. I didn’t pay much attention at the time because I was seized by a coughing fit from the first mouthful.

The curry flavour was really strange to me. If such a dish appeared in Singapore, we’d probably call it Bombay Fried Beehoon or something like that, and tourists from India would be trying it in our eating places and blogging about how wierd it was.

* * * * *

Dinner was miles better. Andy’s Tavern at 81 Bayham Street, Camden Town, is a Greek Cypriot restaurant. Between John Malathronas – whose published books include Singapore Swing, a quirky personal travelogue – and me, we ordered three appetisers and two uniquely Greek Cypriot main courses, accompanied by a lovely white wine from the volcanic island of Santorini.

The three starters were Melizanes (baked aubergines), Halloumi Saganaki (fried squares of curd cheese) and Spanacopitta (thin pastry packets of spinach and cheese, lightly fried).

The main courses were a lamb and a beef dish. The lamb dish (Kleftico) was baked till the fat had mostly all melted. The meat was extremely tender and came with a light, fragrant sauce. I’m no food writer, alas, and am unable to tell you what likely went into the sauce. The beef was slow-cooked with onions, resulting in a texture very like what we see in good Beef Rendang, only that here it had a cooked-onion gravy.

* * * * *

With Hansen and his partner the night before, at another (Belgian) restaurant, I asked him, “Where do you think the waitress comes from?” I had noticed an unfamiliar accent.

“Oh, Eastern Europe, probably. They’re all from abroad,” he said. Indeed, that seems to be the norm in London. Very much like in Singapore, the locals don’t want to do such jobs anymore.

“There was a time, around 2005 or 2006,” said Malathronas, “when suddenly, all these East Europeans came over, and service in restaurants took a nosedive.”

“How exactly?” I asked.

“Oh, your dish would arrive at your table with a thud, and the wine bottle would be plonked down. They brought with them service standards from their own countries behind the iron curtain.”

In 2004, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and six other countries joined the European Union (Romania and Bulgaria also joined in 2007). By August 2006, it was estimated that nearly 600,000 new migrants had entered the UK from these countries, 447,000 alone from Poland  (BBC, 22 Aug 2006, Link). About 37 percent took factory jobs, but the catering, cleaning, warehouse and packing sectors each attracted about 10 percent of the new migrants.

“Things are much better now,” Malathronas was quick to put the matter into perspective. Restaurant service “was only bad for about two years.” Evidently, migrants have learnt and perhaps management cared enough to insist that they do. They’ve also acquired English rapidly, though, unsurprisingly, accents have endured.

Yet, new migrants don’t only come from the newest members of the EU. The Italians from poorer parts of ther country are still coming to look for work in the UK, even though Italy was a founder member of the EU.

“Let’s go get some ice-cream,” I said to Zhengxi of The Online Citizen.

“What, in this weather?” he protested. The sky was overcast, the wind acting up and we were in overcoats and scarfs.

“But it’s real Italian gelato,” I said, managing to persuade him. “That’s the beauty of immigration; we get the real thing even though we’re in London.”

Not only was the ice-cream made by Italians,  the front of house was also manned by Italians. The girl behind the counter was probably fresh off the boat; she didn’t understand when I asked for decaf to go with my triple scoop of ice-cream. It took three tries saying ‘decaffeinated’ slowly before she understood. “Oh, cafe decaffeinato,” she said, beaming a victorious smile when she finally got my meaning.

Another Italian incident took place at Foyle’s, a reputed bookshop on Charing Cross. A customer noticed that the guy manning the information and payment counter on the top floor spoke with a thick accent and asked him, “Is Italian your first language?”

“No, it’s my second language,” he said.

There was a pause. The customer seemed unsure whether he should ask if English was his first language. Surely, that could not be.

Helpfully, the counter clerk added, “My first language is Sardinian, and English is my third language.”

That was an interesting reply, I thought. When is a dialect a language?

Meanwhile, near the Elephant and Castle tube station, the Chinese restaurant uses students from mainland China for wait staff. It also uses MSG, though at least it offers a “no MSG’ option when you order.

Even more considerate is this stall (picture below) near Camden Locks, selling Thai take-out. It is proud that it doesn’t resort to MSG at all. But “why is the sign that says no monosodium glutamate only in Italian?” I asked the young man at the stall.

Thai food stall near Camden Locks has a sign that says "No senza sodio e glutammato"

“We have plenty of Italian customers,” he said. “They want to know.”

Left unsaid perhaps is how his Asian customers don’t care to know and don’t care if they gradually poison themselves with MSG.

* * * * *

“They are all foreigners!” exclaimed Zhengxi, when he told me about what he noticed at Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. Yes, more foreign invasion. “Even the imam was an American.” Here’s a picture of the imam (mounting the fence) addressing his audience of four.

American Muslim at Hyde Park Speakers' Corner

Another speaker was going on about the Jewish festival of Hanukkah while a third was having an argument with his audience (of about 10) over some Christian stuff. At least he had ten people to harangue. This guy (below), well prepared with his Jesus signs, had just one.

Black cowboy with Jesus signs, Hyde Park Speakers' Corner

It’s all about religion – that was the other thing that struck both Zhengxi and myself. Speaker’s Corner, like so many things in political traditions, has seen a descent into farce. The thing about farce is that most people know it when they see it, and so they stay away. They won’t waste their time over it. There is however one class of people who cannot see when they themselves have become the prime actors of farce – the religious nuts. They are the ones who stand on soapboxes at Hyde Park or who brandish a book saying “I am on page 73!”

Meanwhile, serious protests take place elsewhere, such as in Trafalgar Square, which I wrote about in a previous post, and this one that is just a stone’s throw from 10 Downing Street.

Protest on Whitehall, opposite entrance to Downing Street

It’s about Iraq closing a refugee camp and possibly deporting the refugees back to Iran. Apparently, the refugees face severe persecution when sent back. Exactly what Britain’s role in all this is, I can’t figure out; maybe the protestors want the British prime minister to put pressure on the Iraqi government to keep the camp open.

But my point is this: When we say Singapore is gradually opening up and allowing demonstrations, why do we copy the farce (and boast about it), but not the real freedom to protest where it has impact?

14 Responses to “London day 5”


  1. 1 Chris 17 December 2009 at 06:06

    “There was a time, around 2005 or 2006,” said Malathronas, “when suddenly, all these East Europeans came over, and service in restaurants took a nosedive.”

    I can second that sentiment. We were in a restaurant once (I forget which one) and our waitress was Eastern European. I ordered a pork dish. When I was done, the waitress began to collect the plates, and when she got to mine she asked me to put the plate on her stack as “she wasn’t able to touch pork as it was against her religion.” I am presuming she was a Bosniak Muslim.

    While I would not deny her the right to work, why would someone who is an observant Muslim work in a restaurant that served pork in the first place?

    Glad to see that you arrived home safe and sound.

  2. 2 Anonymous 17 December 2009 at 09:09

    “That was an interesting reply, I thought. When is a dialect a language?”

    A dialect becomes a language when it is NOT mutually intelligble to the mainstream lingua franca of the country. Back to Spore context, I thought this dialect-language issue was debated in TOC when SM Lee proclaimed thru his press secretary this year that speaking Chinese dialects was “Stupid”. That was the adjective used if I am not wrong.

    The argument by posters to TOC comments section was that many Chinese dialects are not mutually intelligble, thus, making it a language not a dialect according to linguists definition. Eg, Foochow dialect is not mutually intelligible to Hokkien speakers. That I do know for sure becos I once had a Foochow classmate & did not understand a word she said. Though both dialects originate from Fujian province, Foochow in central Fujian province & Hokkien from southern Fujian province.

  3. 3 Jack Rabbit 17 December 2009 at 10:40

    Hi Alex! We do have Singapore fried meehoon in Singapore! Crystal Jade Kitchen do serve something like that!

  4. 4 Anon 17 December 2009 at 11:47

    Sardinia and Sicily are actually distinct from Italy in the ethno-linguistic sense. The political process of unification in the mid-19th Century was what made them come together. Does that make their speech dialects, or ‘languages’? I suppose it is difficult to match our own understanding of dialects, in the Chinese sense, to that in other parts of the world. Another example might make it clear – Corsican has much in common with Sardinian but it cannot possibly be classified as a dialect of the French language simply because Corsica is under the political rule of France.

  5. 5 Anony 17 December 2009 at 17:33

    Singaporeans can demonstrate at Speakers’ Corner from Sep 1
    By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia | Posted: 25 August 2008 1411 hrs

    SINGAPORE: Banners, placards and effigies will be allowed at the Speakers’ Corner when the site is opened for public demonstrations from September 1.

    For Singapore citizens, there is no longer a need to apply for a police permit.

    ————————————————————-

    However,

    Singapore police put up CCTV cameras at Hong Lim Park aka Speakers’ Corner
    July 24, 2009 by Jacob 69er

    Police put up camera at Speakers’ Corner
    Singapore Democrats, 23 July 2009

    Just when you thought that freedom of expression could not become any more farcical in Singapore, the police install a
    CCTV at Hong Lim Park.

    Already, public speaking is banned in Singapore, a group of 5 or more persons gathered to “support or oppose the views of any person” require a permit (that the police categorically state they will not grant), and even one person conducting a protest can be considered an illegal assembly and ordered to disperse.

    Freedom of expression is strictly confined to Speakers’ Corner. On Tuesday this week, however, workmen were seen installing surveillance cameras at the venue.

    “What are you doing? You cannot take a picture. This belongs to the police,” one of the workers said to our cameraman. Some of his colleagues darted away out of camera range.

    “Well, actually it doesn’t, it belongs to taxpayers and I am a taxpayer,” our SDP reporter shot back. “So what are you guys doing?”

    Seeing that we were not going to be fooled or intimidated, one of them said that they were contractors installing the cameras for the police. Another was busy keying in data on a laptop programming the CCTV.

    Looking around there were two other such cameras installed around the park to cover the entire field.

    If this is not a police state where even a so-called tiny free speech corner is monitored by the state, we don’t know what is.

    ————————————————————–

    Singapore – offending the sensibilities of government
    By Kevin Childs – posted Thursday, 10 December 2009
    From the Online Opinion

    The time must be fast approaching when Australia considers human rights when it gets into cosy deals with places such as the repressive city-state of Singapore. The Singapore government’s reach into our telecommunications is a worry, especially considering the authoritarianism of its government.

    Recently Singapore booted out a British journalist, Ben Bland, who had offended the sensibilities of that most touchy of places. The latest Reporters without Borders press freedom index rates Singapore 133rd out of 175 countries, below the likes of Kenya and Congo.

    Singapore’s law minister, K. Shanmugam, was quick to rubbish the rating as “quite absurd and divorced from reality” , telling a group of visiting American lawyers that his is not “a repressive state” (?????) and does not “unfairly target the press”. (????)

  6. 6 Germs 18 December 2009 at 18:21

    “That was an interesting reply, I thought. When is a dialect a language?”

    Ohh… that is a touchy issue. Sardinian is legally recognised as a langauge of its own right- thanks or no thanks to the independentlist movement or just “national” pride / heritage…whatever.
    Was recently there & some of the folks – young & old alike – can get irritated if one asked if Sardinian is a dialect. Well…at least they have not blasted all the road signs (in the official national language) like their corsican neighbours.

  7. 7 LOL and uncontrolled 19 December 2009 at 09:21

    In Singapore, we have “controlled” public gathering, speaking, demonstrations, etc.

    What do you think of “controlled” laughter, screams, cries, farting etc? Can it be done?

    Of course, but at great discomfort and unnaturalness.

    LOL and uncontrolled.

  8. 8 KT 20 December 2009 at 10:11

    A language is a dialect with an army.

  9. 9 JohnM 20 December 2009 at 18:45

    Hi Alex,

    Sardinian (Sardo) is a language with only about 60-70% lexical similarity with modern Italian; it is related to Latin and Catalan, but it contains some very ancient Phoenecian words. Its major difference with similar languages such as Italian, Spanish, French, Catalan etc is that it has kept the consonants ‘hard’ before softening vowels like ‘e’ or ‘i’. For instance 100 which can be cent, cien or cento sounding like ‘s’, ‘ch’ or ‘th’ is pronounced hard (‘kent’) in Sardo.

    The distinguishing feature of a dialect I believe is whether speakers of the dialect and the source language can more or less understand each other. If they can’t, they speak a different language. Sardo has itself several dialects and is one of Europe’s minority languages that face extinction.

  10. 10 Lee Chee Wai 21 December 2009 at 06:08

    Alex,

    I see you have discovered “Xin Zhou Mi Fen” like I did over here🙂. The only thing the dish has that is associated with “Singapore” is probably the curry (over here they use “Singapore Curry” in tin cans manufactured by Yeos imported from Malaysia :P).

    It is always interesting to see these situations with so-called “ethnic” foods. For example, there is a “Chinese” dish in India called “American Chop Suey” which really is neither Chinese (well, to be fair, it is somewhat remotely Chinese) nor American. Indians like it so much, however, that they have started to bring “American Chop Suey” to the USA.

  11. 11 Chris 21 December 2009 at 17:39

    American Chop Suey in America is made with ground beef, onions, peppers, celery all sauteed together, then elbow macaroni and tomatoes and water added. Cook until the macaroni is done.

    It was one of my mother’s favourite ways of stretching ground beef.

  12. 12 Tan Wee Cheng 25 December 2009 at 10:23

    Whether a tongue is a language or dialect, I suppose, depends on its political status, though linguists would look at the number of similar words. Sardinian is an official language in the Autonomous Region of Sardinia within Italy. Road signs in Sardinia are bilingual in both Italian and Sardinian. Officially and politically, Sardinian is a language distinct from Italian.

    • 13 All Mixed-Up 8 January 2010 at 09:12

      Linguists compare “similar words” (informally speaking) when they’re interested in establishing if the speech varieties are phylogenetically related – if they are descended from a common ancestor tongue. Most of the time, when people are concerned about the language/dialect question, they already assume genetic relatedness; this is why no one asks if Basque is a ‘dialect’ of Spanish or whatever (apologies to Basque speakers!).

      Political status, as you note, is key.

  13. 14 All Mixed-Up 8 January 2010 at 08:57

    “When is a dialect a language?”

    This is a topic we address in every introductory linguistics course, but I realize linguistics gets little airtime, so the short answer:

    The question of when a speech variety is considered a ‘language’ and when it is considered a ‘dialect’ (in the everyday uses of these terms) depends more on social and political factors than it does on the linguistic features of those varieties themselves. Technically speaking, every speech variety is a dialect – it’s just that some varieties acquire greater prestige and wider currency than others, due typically to demographic, political or economic circumstances, then become codified and accepted/imposed as standard ‘languages’.

    The most common linguistic metric for deciding if a speech variety is a ‘dialect’ or a different ‘language’ is mutual intelligibility, but mutual intelligibility isn’t all cut and dried. Geographically based speech varieties often form continuua, so neighboring varieties may be mutually intelligible but distal varieties may not. The usual example cited is of the many regional ‘dialects’ of German; many of them spoken within the borders of Germany are considered varieties of the ‘same’ language even though they are not mutually intelligible, while others, like Luxemburgish, are enshrined as separate languages even though they are mutually intelligible with Moselle Franconian varieties just over the border. (Linguists don’t deny the occasional practical necessity of establishing discrete boundaries such as these, but generally advise people to take them with a pinch of salt.)


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