I had lunch in Samy’s Curry Restaurant in Singapore on March 1st, 1993. I know because I found an old diary that records how I was entertained to a meal in the legendary curry house. A former boss decided to mark a work anniversary with a celebratory meal. He was a serious cheapskate at the best of times but his masterly choice of venue meant I had an unforgettable experience.
I recorded that I ate a share of several courses that included mutton and squid and cuttle and chicken and fish and shrimp, all served in different styles on various banana leaves. From satay skewers to fishheads and char siew style meats, there were large amounts of food. Some might think it too ethnic. Not top class dining, it was seriously good fare, the memory of which persists after three decades.
Not that my host enjoyed it much. He seemed to dislike feeding four for lunch and I guessed that was because the expenses of it would be met by his department in the company. He came not from Singapore but a country with strong feudal instincts.
I don’t recall that there were fruit machines in the room where we ate but my diary assures me that there were. I’m unsurprised at the diary mention of fruit machines because a lot of the Singaporeans I worked with loved a flutter. One guy in particular springs to mind. He was assigned to Burma to work for me and within five minutes of arriving at the office, he was asking where the best dog fighting dens were to be found. We were in Rangoon at the time and as far as I knew, dog fighting wasn’t common. He switched his questioning to cock fights. As far as I knew, cock fighting wasn’t common either. He then dedicated himself to searching for cock fights in Rangoon and was bitterly disappointed to have to restrict his gambling to shell games and cards. Then again, he also was gambling his salary on the stock market each month.
His idea was that being away in Burma for two months in every three, he couldn’t interfere in his bets on the Singaporean stock exchange. So he said that he only bet two of every three paychecks. He told me at the end of his assignment that he’d broken that year. He was a lucky man. This was a few years before Barings was brought down by Nick Leeson also liked a gamble and blew more than a billion in unhedged trades.
‘Please take advantage of our maids’ said an unusual notice in my hotel bedroom in Singapore, so unusual that I wrote it in my diary. It was the same hotel I stayed in once before when I woke to find a traffic cone on the bedside table. It had been raining hard after we’d been to Raffles for a yard of Singapore Sling and we’d seen ads for the soon to be released movie Coneheads (and that’s a whole other story).
I also found a diary entry reminding me of a book found in Rangoon. There were many bookshops in Rangoon that held English language books from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Most were very badly damaged by mould and damp. One such was a collection of poems that included Pippa Passes by Robert Browning. This was bought by a friend who read this among a few other passages one night after dinner:
‘Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!’
My friend had been a school teacher in NZ at some point and said Browning had thought ‘twat’ was something worn by a nun. We laughed and weirdly, he broke into song:
‘Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best
Always look on the bright side of life’
I’m not entirely sure I’d have ever gone to Burma if I hadn’t known Gerry Hanley as I think I’ve mentioned in several other posts. He died on the 7th of September 1992. I was in Rangoon at the time and a few days later, the military junta lifted the nightly curfew. There’s should be no relationship between these events other than they are both memorialised in my diary in the same week.
Today’s hardships due to pandemic prevent us attending funerals as if we were on the other side of the planet. And what is curfew but a milder form of pandemic lockdown. Plus ça change.