Singaporean Enough delves into the captivating tales of immigrants weaving their identities and lives into the vibrant fabric of Singapore. We shed light on their journey of assimilation, bridging cultures and finding a shared sense of belonging in a new country they call home.
We recently heard from Zhao Hui, a Chinese-born minimart owner in Woodlands. Now, we bring you the story of Mark Zubovskky, a Ukrainian-born local who’s delaying his college studies to help out at his family’s Slavic restaurant.
All images by Stephanie Lee for RICE Media
In another life, Mark Zubovskyy would have been roaming the corridors of Nanyang Technological University’s South spine between tutorials, shuffling from one lecture hall to the next, and clearing assignments.
Instead, the 22-year-old finds himself roaming the singular walkway of a narrow kitchen, shuffling between different tables of customers, and clearing empty plates and wine glasses at Kapitan, a restaurant bar owned by his family.
The Ukraine-born Singapore Permanent Resident originally planned to delay the start of his university education by a year from 2022 to 2023. He was slated to embark on a degree in Maritime Business, but that plan has changed considerably since.
Situated along Maxwell Road, Kapitan specialises in Slavic food—and it needed an extra pair of hands. And Mark couldn’t bear to leave his parents to operate it alone.
A slight detour from university is now Mark’s path for the foreseeable future: Running his family’s nautical-themed restaurant bar, which first opened in late 2019.
All Hands on Deck For Slavic Food
Russian pop music blares over the speakers in the restaurant—Mark hails from Eastern Ukraine, near Russia’s borders, where the Russian language is mainly used. The music plays to vacant tables, except two Singaporeans perched unsteadily on bar stools in the corner, enjoying a midday drinking session.
Occasionally, workers from the nearby office buildings stream past outside with talks of expense reports and “organisational restructuring”. Inside, the two customers drink in silence, as if the restaurant’s walls were partitions between different realms.
Pictures of ships navigating the seas, placed in circular frames made to look like the portholes of a ship, round off the restaurant’s nautical theme. The theme pays homage to a life Mark’s father left behind: As the chief officer of an oil tanker—a position he left in 2002 to be a ship manager.
Mark, dressed in a black-and-white striped T-shirt with a bandana around his neck, looks like a caricature of a pirate’s crew orderly. In some ways, considering his job at the restaurant, he is.
He manages the cash register, markets the restaurant on social media, attends to customers, and helps his kitchen staff with his knowledge of Slavic food six days a week from 11 in the morning to 11 at night—all for a monthly salary of $2,000.
“Just enough to cover my fixed expenses and a bit of spending money. If months are bad, I take less.”
Mark leans against a bartop near the restaurant entrance, occasionally shifting attention away from lunch to check on his two customers.
When he converses, he switches from his natural Russian accent to one with undertones of Singlish. 19 years in Singapore have rewarded him with the ability to hone in on Singlish and play up the Singaporean accent.
Sometimes, the Singlish accent is played up for great comedic effect. It’s an accent he picked up in his six years in the local education system—from Siglap Secondary School to Meridian Junior College.
If blindfolded, Singaporeans would have difficulty telling that the person speaking to them descends from Eastern Europe. They’d be surprised to hear it from Mark, a broad-chested ang moh with sharp facial features and blue eyes—Mark models as a side hustle.
Singaporean accent aside, Mark was quickly inducted into Singapore’s academic pressure cooker. He enjoys it, though.
“The education system here is really good. People complain because it’s difficult, but that’s the beauty of it. People in secondary school were friendly. I was too shy to talk to anyone in my first few days, but I connected quite well with local people over time. They’re all friendly and accepting,” Mark reminisces.
“I went to an international school for kindergarten and primary school. I had to get a tutor when I was going to transfer to a local secondary school. Primary five in a local and international primary school are at different levels.”
The environment in international schools could not be more different than local schools. For one, Mark took some time to get used to the fact that holidays for local students were breaks to catch up with their studies rather than actual holidays.
He counts himself lucky that the academic pressure was his largest culture shock. His eventual induction into the Singaporean rat race spelt anxiety when he decided to take a gap year from school.
“I definitely felt like I wasted some education at the start. I discussed this with my parents, and the plan was for me to go back to school.
“As the year passed, I realised I’m learning so much more on the job than I could have learned in university. My parents eventually accepted my decision to drop out of university.”
In Choppy Waters
Answers from Mark are delivered in a composed, almost stoic manner. His laid-back composure makes it seem that nothing fazes him. He comes across as how people stereotype Eastern Europeans: serious and sombre. But it’s easy to detect an understated sincerity when he speaks about his love for Singapore.
When he settles in a bar stool across from us and apologises for the delay, he exudes an urgency typical of Singaporeans, always looking to clear the next item on his internal to-do list. Right now, for Mark, it’s an interview with RICE Media. He assures us that he’ll get to the interview as soon as he completes his work tasks.
The lunch rush subsided an hour ago. The restaurant’s remaining two customers, now scanning the menu for more food and drinks, are reminders of the frenzy.
We catch Mark on a good day for his family restaurant—some days are much better than others for business. On other days, office workers stream past the Kapitan without any consideration to make their way to more familiar cuisine at Maxwell Hawker Centre nearby.
Once in a while, passers-by pause to look at the menu, held in the arms of a mannequin dressed like a sailor. Intrigue from potential customers sparks traces of excitement in Mark, but that hope dissipates as quickly as it rises when the passers-by walk away.
Uncertain foot traffic affects the restaurant’s operation, so hiring extra staff is a gamble. The additional help is needed on good days but only adds to operational costs when foot traffic is low. It’s why Mark decided to help in the first place.
Singaporean palates have yet to develop cravings for Eastern European cuisine, which explains the low foot traffic.
Slavic food like ‘kotlety’ (a traditional chicken patty fried to a golden crisp) or ‘zharkoe’ (a traditional Eastern European meat stew seasoned with spices and left to simmer until thick—a comforting treat for those cold winter Eastern European months) are not go-to dishes for most Singaporeans.
Mark admits that the restaurant lost about $5,000 to $10,000 monthly in the first half of 2023. If things continued at that rate, it would only have been another few months before their savings ran out, and the restaurant would have to close.
Steady As She Goes
Things started looking up when Mark started posting TikTok videos of his restaurant. Let’s be honest—clips of ang mohs talking about Singapore usually go viral here.
Their perspectives hold a mirror to Singapore to take stock of the country’s pros and cons from a non-traditional slant. Of course, it also helps that Mark is good-looking.
Mark, however, is not resting on his laurels on TikTok for Kapitan. He dreams of a future where Slavic food receives the same enthusiasm among Singaporeans as other foreign cuisines like Japanese, Korean or Italian food.
Whether the uptick in business will continue remains to be seen. Mark and his family have seen it all before—a sudden uptick in sales followed by a long-drawn decline in public interest in their food.
This was evident in February 2022 when Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Shortly after Mark completed his stint in National Service as a driver in Singapore Armed Forces’ Transport Hub East in February last year, missiles and air strikes penetrated Ukrainian air space.
The missiles travelled across the country, reaching Lviv in Western Ukraine. Mark’s extended family, who reside in Ukraine, were inevitably caught in the crossfire of Russian transgressions.
Having discovered that a portion of the Kapitan’s proceeds would aid the war efforts in Ukraine, Singaporeans rallied around the restaurant. “Many Singaporeans stopped by. They ordered Slavic food to support us and our family,” Mark recalls.
The invasion of Ukraine dragged on, and the enthusiasm around support for Kapitan ran thin. As days went on, fewer and fewer Singaporeans showed up. Soon, normalcy returned to the restaurant, which placed Mark and his family in an untenable position.
The initial support in the wake of the invasion perhaps betrays how Singaporeans perceive Mark and his family: Outsiders trying to make a living in Singapore.
Mark shifts uncomfortably in his seat when he confronts the jarring idea.
“If I had to choose between going to the army in Ukraine or Singapore, I’d choose Singapore. Singapore is the country I grew up in; it’s my country by nature.”
Singapore, The Final Port of Call
It initially seems confusing to introduce Slavic food to carve a space for themselves in Singapore. How can someone call themselves Singaporean if they’re importing their cultural heritage into the country?
It’s a common refrain which undergirds xenophobic comments about foreigners stealing local jobs. But it all boils down to what we think assimilation looks like in a country as diverse as Singapore.
Assimilation doesn’t always mean adopting Singaporean traits tit-for-tat to fit into the dominant culture. That dangerously borders and reflects colonial mindsets—that there is one right way to be considered Singaporean.
In a multicultural country, perhaps assimilation refers to an attachment to the land, which Mark nurtured through sharing his food.
In that sense, it seems like answers to ‘What does it actually mean to be Singaporean?’ need to be relooked. Or any other citizenship, for that matter. Sometimes, it’s more than just embarking on your run-of-the-mill Singaporean experiences (which Mark has already done).
“I guess it’s difficult for Singaporeans to accept someone who they don’t know personally as Singaporean. But I think when you get to know us, it’s different. My customers and friends change their perspective when they find out I’ve been here for almost 20 years.”
Being uprooted and moved to a country with a climate and environment different from yours at the tender age of 3 (like Mark did) disorients even the best of us. For him, sharing Slavic food with Singaporeans helps him feel closer to home—both to his country of origin and Singapore.
“I wouldn’t consider myself Singaporean if I lived here for maybe five years. But I spent the majority of my life here, resonating with local people. I guess that’s what makes me Singaporean,” Mark explains.
Occasionally, he turns to the table in the corner, careful not to miss any requests from his remaining customers.
“Living here allowed me to experience unique diversities, different cultures. Back in Ukraine, I didn’t get that chance. It’s what I find interesting and love about this country.”
Perhaps, in a seemingly contradictory way, Mark’s dream of bringing Slavic food to the local scene is a way of repaying what Singapore afforded him in the first place: A chance to experience different cultures.
Mark hopes to enrich Singapore’s diversity in an aspect as important to Singaporeans as food. And that makes him as Singaporean as any other.
Slavic Food Sets Sail
The remaining customers now approach the cashier counter right at the close of our conversation. They give the menu another once-over before settling the bill and leaving. In good spirits, whether from the quick end to a brief workday or the alcohol they consumed, they promise to return with more friends.
Mark’s mother emerges from the kitchen, still in the midst of preparing for the upcoming dinner service. Mark admits that another film crew is waiting outside for an interview with his mother—a signal for us to leave.
When I ask what the future holds for him, he chuckles. “I love Singapore. It’s a good place to live and raise your kids in.”
“My main issue is being stuck in a small country. I grew up here and have nothing much to compare it with—that’s why I wouldn’t want to spend my whole life here. Perhaps travel to the 200 other countries to experience different cultures.”
His immediate answer embodies a quintessential Singaporean gripe with the country. We’ve heard the same complaint from people who’ve been born here. We smirk in acknowledgement.
Mark retreats to the table where his last two customers from the lunch rush once sat. He looks on as his mother is interviewed—finally, a moment of reprieve before the expected frenzy of a dinner service.
Or at least, he hopes dinner service will be as busy as lunch. It has to be. It’s been a good day for Kapitan, after all.