This might sound like the most first-world of all first-world problems, but I assure you, the struggle is real. It’s not the heat, the rain or the dense crowds of people making movement impossible. It’s the struggle to say something articulate when every market resembles every other market to such a large degree you don’t know where one festival ends and another begins—like that Jorge Luis Borges short story about the Garden of Endless Mentaiko.
Take for example, Sofnade, the company which specialises in putting sustenance in a bucket—i.e. Bubble tea bucket, meatball bucket, nacho bucket.
I bumped into their stall at the Shilin Night Market, but can’t remember if it was the third or fifth time I’d seen them this past year. They were definitely present at the Ramadan bazaar, yes … but did I buy a bucket from them at the Marina Bay Prudential Carnival? Was it also them at Ultra Music Festival?
Given my memory loss, let’s not call this a serious review of Kranji’s Shilin Night Market. What follows may instead be considered some ramblings of a man suffering from severe market-fatigue.
For once, I am not hunched over next to the trash cans, or squatting on the grass like a Vietcong Sentry.
When was the last time you visited one of these events where the organiser had the sense to provide enough seating? Never in my experience. And for this alone, Shilin deserves a special medal.
If you want food or drink, you will have to squeeze and shove and say ‘excuse me’ until your throat grows hoarse—because the main refreshment area is a nightmare. Clogged with people buying their food, trying to eat their food, waiting for their food to cook, or trying to photograph their food before consumption, movement slows to a snail-like shuffle.
Hold on to your loved ones lest they get swept away in a tsunami of hungry humanity. Hold your children close and cover their eyes so they don’t have to see all manner of phallic-looking sweat stains.
Thank god we are finally over the rainbow-unicorn craze. Thank god there is no more LSD-inspired Cotton Candy or neon-coloured ‘beverages’ served in lightbulbs for reasons of #aethesetic. The influencer fever dream has broken, and no one is posing with edible lava lamps.
Shilin Night Market’s food is, for the most part, sensible. Which is to say, the bubble teas don’t look radioactive, and most of the carbs/proteins are deep-fried for your pleasure—as they should be. I don’t know when pop-up markets stopped serving meat on a stick and started fellating the Instagram addicts, but I’m glad they stopped. I am glad they stopped because the food looks like food and is priced accordingly.
You might not consider $5 Oyster Mee Sua to be a miracle worthy of Easter Sunday, but it’s certainly an improvement over $10 flaming unicorn sundaes of yesteryear. #Godbless.
A good number, let’s say 40%, are local brands. I have no problem with this, but it is apparently a source of distress for many visitors who want Taiwan and nothing besides. A group of kids behind me evaporated after learning—from their phones—that a stall was locally-owned.
“I am not going to line up for something Singaporean,” one of them declared, before running off to join a more authentically Taiwanese queue …
If you’re a tourist who wandered into Shilin by chance, you would probably think the queues are for an audience with the Pope.
I tried queuing for Hot-star chicken, which was probably the third or fourth most popular stall at the market. Big mistake. I started at 6:02 and I did not get my chicken until approximately 2 hours later, at 8:07. By that time, my left leg was cramping, my back needed physio, and I was so hungry they could have handed me a deep-fried Adidas insole, and I would have finished it and licked my fingers.
Along the way, I also finished William Faulkner’s Light In August (audiobook version), and witnessed true despair in the faces of my fellow queuers. The couple in front of me started optimistic but grew increasingly despondent as they passed the 1-hour mark.
For the family behind me, there was nothing but remorse. They began complaining about 45 minutes in and didn’t stop. When they finally ordered the chicken, the mother turned to me and shook her head in genuine sadness, despairing at the state of, I don’t know—Singapore? Humanity? The world as we found it?
Of course, the most ridiculous thing—it’s for Hotstar Large Chicken. An authentic Taiwanese product readily available at any one of their three Singapore franchises. One of which was only 15 minutes away at Jurong Point.
So why is everyone doing this to ourselves?
Why I am doing this? I shudder when I walk past the even longer line for Devil XXL Fried Chicken, and its 4-hour wait.
The real question is, why do Singaporeans exhibit such a great willingness to queue for food? 10 to 15 years ago, food did not occupy such a central position in our national psyche. There was shopping, the Mercedes Benz, and any amount of luxury handbags to tempt the Singaporean consumer.
Yet at some point in time, retail died, bubble tea came back, and food’s importance grew and grew until there were more poached eggs on Instagram than there are people.
Is there some hole inside us we are trying to fill with food? Is it a quiet lament for some kind of unfulfilled longing? Should we replace the moon on our national flag with a chicken cutlet and the five stars with a queue of people?
I honestly don’t know, but this is the kind of question you ask yourself when you are feeling light-headed after 1 hour 20 minutes of queueing, when your photographer has gone missing with the bubble tea money and the end seems nowhere in sight.
Well. At least the chicken was good. #Worthit