Mee siam. Sayur lodeh. Udang assam pedas. What these dishes have in common is that they use a secret ingredient that you can’t see, but you can definitely taste – belacan. Made from fermented shrimp that has been dried and salted, frying belacan may get you the stink eye from your neighbours, but there’s a reason why versions of this flavouring ingredient are found throughout Southeast Asia – it adds a savoury punch that makes food delicious. Toffa Abdul Wahed’s tour through an olfactory history of Southeast Asia is one that will undoubtedly tickle your taste buds.
From a tour of Southeast Asia, we turn to a part of Singapore few people have ventured to: Lim Chu Kang. Today, all manner of farms exist in the area. That agricultural legacy is thanks in large part to one man: Neo Tiew. In the early 20th century, he began clearing the land, which led to farming villages springing up in area. Neo Tiew’s life story is all the more amazing given that it was marked by unimaginable personal tragedy that he was nonetheless able to overcome. Alvin Tan’s story is a great read with fascinating pictures about a colourful character in Singapore’s history.
While life in prewar Singapore was hard, residents here managed to find time to unwind. Then, as now, one of the key forms of entertainment was sports. One sport that was popular before the war was tennis. Back then, two titans stood astride the Malayan tennis scene – Khoo Hooi Hye and Lim Bong Soo. Khoo actually played at Wimbledon (he lost in the second round, sadly), while Lim had a tennis racket named after him, the Lim Bong Soo Special. Abhishek Mehrotra serves up a wonderful story about two forgotten sporting heroes.
We take plenty of things for granted today but back in the 1880s, even something as basic as having a bath was a problem. If you lived in the city before water was delivered by pipes from the reservoir, taking a bath might mean washing oneself in a river or canal, in full view of anyone passing by. Jesse O’Neill’s history of public bathhouses in late 19th-century Singapore is an unsanitised look at how the Municipality attempted to solve a very human problem.
In addition, don’t miss the story on Portugal’s linguistic legacy in Southeast Asia, an interesting hunt for Singapore’s earliest courthouses, a jaunt through offices of old to see how typewriters liberated women and a trip to a unique housing estate that was set up by the Singapore Teachers’ Union.
Singapore may be a small country, but as you can see, its history is nothing to sniff at.
National Library, Singapore