What is a Colloid?
noun: colloid; plural noun: colloids
1. a homogeneous, noncrystalline substance consisting of large molecules or ultramicroscopic particles of one substance dispersed through a second substance. Colloids include gels, sols, and emulsions; the particles do not settle and cannot be separated out by ordinary filtering or centrifuging like those in a suspension. [Thanks Google.]
Cool, so what the hell is that?
Milk is a colloid, and we all love milk. My definition of a colloid: it’s a liquid that’s not unified. Milk is basically a bunch of different types of blobs all chilling together, occasionally literally until Louis Pasteur ruins their day. There’s a bunch of suspended particles in another medium. Fats, proteins and carbs all float around a water-based fluid.
Singapore is very much like milk. There is a medium through which all other substances float. For Singapore, it is the boring institutional structures that serve as the medium: customs, public transportation, government, etc. And the globs of fats, proteins, carbs and all the other stuff that make Singapore colloidal? That would be our Chinese, Tamils, Malays, British and so forth.
Walking around the city-state, you notice this is a physical and spatial phenomenon. Little India and Chinatown are ethnic pockets, and though there are designated areas with the moniker “Little India” or “Chinatown” there are, in fact, numerous Little Indias Chinatowns all throughout Singapore. You will walk through areas that look like Mumbai that abut areas that feel like Shanghai, and you will continue walking to another area that feels like southern India again.
But it’s also a social one. As much as Singapore is portrayed as some great melting pot, the culinary metaphor works better as I’ve described it – like milk. Chinese tend to hang out together. Indians tend to hang out together. Brits tend to hang out together.
Certainly there is mixing of groups, but walk the streets and you will notice little intermingling. This isn’t to say there is deep-seated animosity among the groups; rather, there is indeed widespread acceptance, just not overtly hand-in-hand.
These multiple enclaves floating among the greater area that is the city-state gives rise to this theory – Singapore is a colloid.
Fusion in the food
The founder father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, always touted the multiracial state, where many languages and ethnicities coexisted in harmony. While I think the effect is much more muted than he declares, it still is a relatively happy society, where many cultures exist together. There is no better manifestation of this than its food
The Chinese food is an eclectic mix of all sorts of their cuisine, Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien, and Peranakan, or straits-born Chinese. You can find any and all these forms there, in addition to Malay, Indonesian and Indian food (to which there are countless varieties I simply lack the ability to describe).
But they are fused together, both in core ingredients and spices. You find curry based broths, with Chinese ingredients dropped in. You find basically everything has some form of kick in it, as curry has inched its way into any and all dishes.
Although it appears Singapore is still a colloid (Chinese lumped here, Tamils grouped there, all suspended in the same medium) the food, at least the broths, seem to be somewhat more homogeneous.
This is advice given all over The Google and The YouTubes: often the best food in Singapore isn’t food from restaurants. Often you can save the money and just go to a hawker center, which are big, open food courts essentially. But instead of Arby’s and BK, it’s loaded with the aforementioned fusion cuisine.
You’ll find exquisite broths and layered dishes. The curries and soups and meats and drinks here are all what you’d expect from a Singaporean Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Much less than 7 US dollars usually, creating a hearty, hearty meal. And because the country has quality standards, they aren’t the dirty-ish roadside sort of place you might find in, say…China. No stomach bugs here. (Maybe.)
So I often like to try things I’m familiar with in a new place to see how they take on new life. At one point in my life, it was McDonald’s. I ate a lot of steamed hamburgers in Europe and Asia for some reason, ostensibly to cross reference my hometown’s patty. Comparing transnational Big Mac quality apparently used to give me the heebie-jeebies.
These days, it’s comparative studies in Chinese and American food. So on venturing to Chinatown, I checked out a decent looking place and started to order. Although virtually everyone I met in Singapore spoke English well enough, apparently I wasn’t clear enough for one waitress.
So I said screw it and busted out my Mandarin, to which they didn’t understand either. In Singapore, a lot of the people came from Fujian province or the southeast in general, so the largest dialect is Hokkien, often called Fukkanese. There is also a lot of Cantonese, and the younger folks I guess all speak Mandarin. So basically, every time I try and speak Chinese overseas, they can’t understand my dialect. Why do I study Chinese again?
Further, Singlish is the dialect spoken here, and its unique qualities are well documented. But I still feel that there is never just one language spoken. When my friends spoke Chinese, they still used simple English words that even I know the Chinese translation to. Or if two Chinese were discussing the price of something, they would use English for the operative word, and Mandarin for everything else. I’m not really sure about Tamil and Malay, but I’m guessing they do the same
But because the operative words were generally in English, it hierarchized the languages in a familiar postcolonial feel. English proved most important, with Chinese dialects and Tamil being the everyday tongue. Even languages were colloidal, clumped together for different purposes.
Even more influences.
Beyond Indian, Malay, Chinese and British, there are plenty of other ethnicities and cultures blended in. Singapore is as important to Asia as a global trading hub as Hong Kong. It is a magnet. One of these is for Japanese as well, and where there’s Japanese workers, there’s Japanese food. And thank god for that
There’s an apparently famous Japanese restaurant in Singapore that serves fresh eel, killed in front of you (if you wish to watch) and slowly smoked over coals. It opens promptly at 6pm, and there’s always a line stretching from the door to Tokyo. We got there early and so were some of the first to smell the wonderful smokiness wafting from the back of the kitchen. Awesome setup; problem was I didn’t really know how to eat it.
I like traveling alone sometimes, but definitely knowing people helps. I don’t think my travel entirely knew how to eat it either, as I was squirting viscous sauce onto rice and it felt off. Luckily, it just so happens that we were seated next to a couple that she had gone to college with 4 years earlier. So we struck up conversation, and the guy informed me that basically I’m eating it all wrong. You’re supposed to use a little of the broth, a little rice, a little unagi, a little wasabi and green onion and unagi sauce and mix it together to make a porridge, and then drink it up. What do I know? Nothing….
So, what does it mean to be Singaporean?
This is a massive question that I’m posing rhetorically here, as I am certainly not qualified to answer.
In fact, it’s one that even founder Lee Kuan Yew couldn’t qualitatively answer. He basically said that anyone born here, raised here, or ready to defend the notion of Singapore with all his or her heart was indeed a Singaporean. 75% Han Chinese, 25% Tamil, Malay, and other nationalities – the idea of a “Singaporean” isn’t immediately obvious. It’s definitely been a fluid concept, and one that the leadership has always been keen to cement.
You can pose this question to any nation-state and it’ll prove troublesome. What does it mean to be American, British, Mexican, etc.? It’s a tough question.
As for being Singaporean, there is a harmonious, beneficial relationship each member of the community has, and it appears the status quo is here to stay: Singapore is a colloid.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Is Singapore a melting pot, a stew, a colloid or some other culinary metaphor overstatement?
Like what you’re reading on Singapore? Check out some other related articles in: The Singapore Chronicles!